In Defense of Engagement Metrics

The digital marketing press seems to be in a contrarian mood lately, especially when it comes to emerging media. In the last month, we’ve seen professional hits carried out against social media, influencer targeting, and now engagement tracking in rich media advertising. Is this some kind of nascent Luddite movement taking shape? Or maybe nostalgia for traditional advertising, prompted by the untimely and unfairly overshadowed death of infomercial pitchman Billy Mays? If this reactionary trend keeps up, we’ll all be buying prime time network broadcast space on B.J. & the Bear by the end of the summer.

In the latest salvo, no less esteemed an observer than Forrester Research has declared that “Marketers Should Ignore Engagement with Rich Media.” (No word on whether we should also ignore this whole “Internet” craze). Seemingly determined to throw the baby out with the bathwater, Forrester declares that the fact that engagement metrics are not yet standardized and not firmly tied to ROI means that the “promise of online measurement is mostly unfulfilled.”

I would argue that the opposite is true: the promise of online measurement is mostly overfulfilled. From our early reliance on the dreaded click-through rate to the current mania for social media ROI, we have lost sight of the fact that advertising is advertising. Its primary function is to drive awareness and engagement, becoming one of many, many myriad factors that drive traffic and produce sales. To the extent that rich media engagement metrics measure something much closer to what advertising is actually meant to do, it is a good thing. To the extent that it prompts marketers to build more interesting ads that do more, say more, and are more pleasing to consumers, it is a very good thing.

The Forrester article argues that ad engagement doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood that the consumer will take a hard-ROI action like buying something. Very true. See The Purpose of Advertising as described above. But thanks to the magic of ad-serving technologies like Mediaplex (full disclosure: a White Horse technology partner), we can indeed determine a correlation. We can determine which high-engagement rich media ads also influenced sales, and we can optimize our campaigns accordingly. This is a vast improvement over the bad old days when click-through alone determined whether an ad drove action, and marketers resorted to ever-more charlatan-esque methods to induce users to click.

To be fair, Forrester’s not suggesting a reversion to CTR. They are suggesting that pre- and post- brand surveys are a more accurate measure of ad effectiveness. Not really. We use these surveys quite a bit at White Horse, and what they tell us is whether the target population was more aware of the brand/message after the campaign than before it and how their impression of the brand/message evolved. That’s only one dimension of an ad’s effectiveness; engagement is another. Engagement tells us down to a creative and placement level whether the ad was worthy of the consumer’s time, and presumably we can all agree that a consumer that interacts with an ad is also aware of the ad.

I relish being a contrarian more than your average marketer, but even I have to call a time-out on this. Let’s give these newer advanced tactics a little room to breathe. And if rich media execution and measurement seems overly daunting, well, then I’ve got your rich media advertising solution right here.

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