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Engagement marketing gets destroyed by growth KPIs

Engagement Marketing

Let’s talk a little bit about engagement marketing. I don’t really mean “social engagement,” because to most people, that means counting likes. At a personal level, that might have some therapist-ready context (“How did my photo of Paris get less likes than her photo of Paris? Bitch…”), but for a marketing team, counting likes is useless. Unfortunately, many still do it. Many also breathlessly over-focus on “campaigns,” most of which end up missing the target. Marketing’s ROI has been suspect for a long time, but digital tools might be making it worse at some companies. (Sometimes you feel like maybe it’s too much to keep track of for a marketing team, despite the fact that they’re probably over-staffed.)

At its most utopian, though, engagement marketing directly involves consumers in the evolution of a brand. Seems like a noble goal — most companies treat their customers as wallets with fingers and have no clue how to engage. Since marketing controls the external flow of what gets to those customers, maybe engagement marketing makes some sense. It does! It does! Until, of course, it gets smacked in the mouth by KPIs.

Engagement marketing and Tara-Nicholle Nelson

This is a really good article from First Round Review about clickbait and modern marketing practices. It’s ostensibly an interview with Tara-Nicholle Nelson, who has done content strategy and engagement marketing for brands like Trulia and MyFitnessPal. Lots of good information in this article if marketing interests you, so check it out. Here’s one cool nugget from the top: in 2015, brand published content went up 35%. Engagement with that content, though, was down 17%. What happened in 2015 year-end surveys? 77% of brands said they planned to produce more content in 2016. Seems like that happened. And there’s the dirty little secret of content marketing: the supply-demand problem.

Nelson has a lot of great quotes in this interview, but here’s one of the best:

They prioritize growth over engagement. This is a matter of playing a long versus short game. “There’s the short game of hitting quantity targets. And then there’s the long-game of building quality: engagement, loyalty, love and respect. Given the choice, I’d choose engagement over growth every time,” Nelson says. “Companies often mistake clicks with engagement. But it’s all for nothing if people leave your content disgusted. You want readers to open your messages regularly, share the content, download your app, buy your product and use it over and over again. You can buy growth through big ad spends, but you can’t buy engagement. That requires a steadfast commitment to quality over quantity.”

She also goes on to discuss “fixating on clicks over relationship-building.” Now we’ve reached the real issue with engagement marketing.

Welcome to the Shrine of Big Numbers

Marketing lives at The Shrine of Big Numbers. Most people can figure out why. As you report higher and higher up a chain, those guys want to see big numbers from you. Here’s a good example I saw once at a job. A marketing team did a campaign and got 23 new people into the funnel. They were lambasted for this. Shit on for days. Firings were threatened. A year later, those 23 people were still customers, and still buying things. (Higher “lifetime value.”) In the year since, the team had done tons of campaigns where they got 2,829 “likes.” None of those people bought a single thing. But all those campaigns made the bosses happy, because 2,829 is a higher number than 23. It’s irrational because 23 speaks to the balance sheet, but unfortunately not a lot of work is rational.

One of the last marketing bosses I had cooked the books on every presentation to make the numbers seem bigger for her boss, even though the numbers she was reporting meant nothing and lacked all semblance of context. This stuff happens on the regular — assuming, of course, the marketing team even takes responsibility for their own numbers.

How could we get better at engagement marketing?

Not to use a buzzword here, but think about it in terms of push and pull. A lot of what marketing teams do is push — they push out ads, or content, and hope there’s an audience somewhere. What they need to be doing is “pull.” Interact with your audience. Ask them questions. Draw them in. Let them have a say. Build the relationship. It’s a longer-term play, yes, but these things would be engagement marketing. Stuff like:

  • “Hey, we’re thinking about speakers for this event. Any nominees?”
  • “This is a new logo we’re considering. How would you adjust it?”
  • “Tell us about the best customer service experiences you’ve ever had, as we’re adjusting ours.”
  • “We put the code for our handbags landing page in open source. Can you make it better?”

Some of this rolls together with “the new science of marketing” and some rolls with the new way of business in general — it’s less about “power branding” and “owning assets” and more about business as a platform that other people help out on. 

The KPIs problem

Most businesses are set up to achieve, or at least prove, growth. Plain and simple. The supposed way we do that is through achieving KPIs. Most companies run like this, i.e. “The Spreadsheet Mentality.” At high levels, the KPIs matter more — they’re tied directly to money. In the middle levels, the KPIs are often low-priority and not even remotely tied to money. At the lowest levels, good luck even having a chance understanding what you do all day.

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KPIs are good — it’s good to track progress — but the way most organizations use them, they’re essentially useless. It’s either a way to (a) put people in boxes or (b) run people in circles on meaningless tasks pleasing some suite of “stakeholders.” They very infrequently are tied to customer experience, success, or value-add. It’s largely a lot of box-checking. But if you want to advance in that company, you need to check those boxes (i.e. hit those targets). This box-checking mentality around KPIs destroys most shots at engagement marketing. A marketer can’t engage with customers, because that’s a long-term play — and a long-term play means certain KPIs aren’t getting met now. Since business is all about now now now — or busy busy busy — this doesn’t actually help people rise up. And since a lot of us are selfish, we don’t do it.

Much like “the need for growth” cripples a lot of good-idea startups, so too does the “need for KPIs” cripple engagement marketing.

Anything else you’d add on engagement marketing?

Ted Bauer

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