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Let’s talk ‘engagement’

Advertising is a jargon-happy industry. No matter how long you’ve been in this space, you’re bound to come across a term or two that you’ve never heard of. And the buzzword for today is ‘audience engagement’. In the first of a three-part series exploring audience engagement, we’re taking a look at why this critical concept has come to the forefront in advertising.

In the complicated vernacular of digital advertising, ‘audience engagement’ has no single definition. At times it’s defined as a measure of a user’s active attention with advertising, triggered by an indication of responsiveness and measured by the amount of time spent with an ad unit. At other times, engagement is defined by advertising’s ability to break through, capture attention and drive attitudinal change.

Either way, ’audience engagement’ is increasingly one of the most important metrics to measure, and a crucial determinant in the success of ad campaigns. It’s time for us to get talking about engagement so that it works for everyone and ultimately results in a better experience for consumers.

As the advertising industry evolves, three key factors have shaped the conversation around engagement.

• Time is a valuable and finite Resource
“This is a great world… but the thing [that] is scarce in all of this abundance is human attention” – Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

Time has become such a precious commodity – and advertisers are competing ferociously for it. Consumers now face an onslaught of options at every turn, from the supermarket aisle to their living rooms and on their mobile phones.

In simple economic terms, supply has raced far ahead of capacity. People can only take in so much advertising, and thus, the cost of attention – according to a recent study from Harvard Business School – is said to have increased by at least 700 per cent in the last two decades.

Marketers are still struggling to work out how they can take full advantage of a consumer’s attention before they move on to another piece of media.

• Big Data is still not enough data
Our industry has become so captivated by the promise of ‘big data’ that we’ve forgotten it is just one component in an overwhelmingly complex process. Even if we had perfect data, our campaigns would still be inexact and unpredictable.

The digital era has afforded us unparalleled efficiency, an abundance of inexpensive media, and countless ways to interact. But while we have all made enormous strides, the number of consumers – and wallets – remains constant.

The big question here is – how do we best apply the data to capture and retain a consumer’s active attention with our advertisements?

• The wrong incentives are leading to the wrong outcomes
Demand for low-cost impressions fueled the rise of ‘clickbait’ – cheap content, designed to support punchy headlines, which lure readers to click yet another page.

Optimising to impressions or clicks encourages behavior that all but abandons the intent of advertising in the first place.

An online strategy should be optimised to the measurable event closest to your goal – and the most important goal is to ensure consumers are engaging with a brand.

So, how do you ensure that all parties are collectively invested in this goal?

With consumers paying less attention than ever to ads, it’s difficult for marketers to cost-effectively capture their active attention. Fragmented media content and more brand choices mean that advertisers have to work that much harder to cut through the ad clutter and stand out enough to build a preference in the consumer’s mind.

This is where engagement comes in and why it’s so critical to advertising.

The key to understanding the link between engagement and advertising lies in understanding how brand awareness and preference develops. Preference in the consumer’s mind is built on a deep unconscious level and the path to the consumers’ unconscious is through conscious, active attention. Active attention is the best way to learn and retain something new.

By prioritising and pursuing higher engagement, marketers can ensure that they are directly addressing the key challenges for any advertising campaign – to cost-effectively capture attention and convert attention into brand value or purchase behaviour.

Studies have shown that once engaged, the average customer is willing to spend 60 seconds actively exploring a brand message. A study by Microsoft in Europe showed that consumers are 25 per cent more likely to engage with an ad than to simply click on it. Increased engagement with a brand has also been shown to drive brand preference. For instance, 57 per cent of consumers who watched a product video said they felt more confident about their purchases.

Clearly, engagement is a driver of the ‘right results’ and if we begin to prioritize it, will have roll-over benefits across the entire advertising ecosystem.

Finally, the other huge advantage of seeking audience interaction or engagement is that it aligns every player in the advertising ecosystem to the best possible outcome. For advertisers, having pricing options that are tied to consumer engagement rather than impressions ensures that only those ads that are seen and engaged with, are paid for. At the same time, technology providers are also more motivated to apply their data and target consumers efficiently, instead of simply shooting for volume.

By the same token, prioritising engagement means that publishers that have fantastic high-quality content can charge more than those who only churn out low-involvement clickbait articles. The positive outcome of this is that the media will become financially incentivised to create better content, benefiting every player in the ecosystem.

The biggest benefit, however, will be to consumers, who will be able to access not only better quality media, but also more engaging and useful advertising, that they’ll actually WANT to watch. And that’s a goal worth aspiring towards.