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Can You Measure Engagement?

January 29, 2014

By Jack Loechner, MediaPost

The IAB, in collaboration with Radar Research, recently released the “Digital Ad Engagement: An Industry Overview and Reconceptualization,” that addresses a longstanding challenge faced by advertisers, publishers, agencies, marketers and other interactive industry participants for whom ad “engagement” is an essential device in digital advertising.

Nearly two decades into the growth of online advertising, “engagement” is still one of the most used, yet least understood terms Even as the industry agrees there is a need for simple, universal definitions, the term remains historically rooted in metrics such as click through rate. Today “engagement” has become a catchall for a variety of interactions, and sellers have begun to use the concept as a basis for pricing.

Publishers, advertisers and agencies all cite engagement as a crucial variable in the success of ad campaigns, yet there is no industry consensus on exactly how to define engagement. Definitions tend to be ambiguous, and too often engagement is used as a catchall for multiple behaviors.

Lacking a single definition, the IAB has attempted to untangle the multiple, competing definitions of engagement. Essentially, digital advertising engagement falls into three major buckets: cognitive, physical, and emotional. Ultimately the ambiguity of the term has rendered it less useful than more concrete, descriptive definitions of types of interaction.

Currently, the term engagement actually describes three distinct phenomena:

And, the whitepaper outlines three major categories of engagement that can be the basis of a new paradigm for defining what interactive ad engagement is and how it works:

Over six years ago, says the report, the Advertising Research Foundation began the hard work of defining engagement. In 2006, ARF revealed its definition: "Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context." ARF, as well as others, has been on a long journey to refine the definition and establish metrics for measuring it.

Radar Research conducted interviews with key stakeholders from a broad range of companies, including publishers, advertisers, agencies, ad networks, measurement vendors and rich media firms. These companies spanned the range of advertising platforms, from display to mobile to rich media, and addressed the following questions:

Even without a universally accepted definition of engagement, there is the widely held belief that engagement is an important component of online advertising. “Leave it out and you miss an important diagnostic tool,” says Scott McDonald, SVP of Market Research at Conde Nast. In general, most industry executives agree that engagement includes an ad’s ability to breakthrough to capture a consumer’s attention, and drive an attitudinal change.

Digital ad sales teams, competing against traditional media, touted the accountability of online advertising as its major advantage. Often, that meant using the lowest common denominator metric of click through rate (CTR) as the arbiter of campaign success. But,“… clicks are the result of engagement,” says ComScore’s SVP, Corporate Development Kirby Winfield, while Sean Bruich, Head of Measurement Research at Facebook syas, “… clicking is a visible indication that someone saw an ad, but it’s not the only measure… “

One of the challenges in trying to define engagement is that the word is used to talk about three different phenomena. There can be engagement with the advertising, the editorial content, or the audience:

ShareThis Vice President, Barry Grant, says “You can’t have effectiveness without engagement, but you can have engagement without effectiveness.”

One of the ironies of engagement is that while the concept is ill defined, there are innumerable interactions that can be tracked and fed into the concept of engagement. While this chart is not comprehensive, we can begin to understand how these interactions can help the industry move beyond its overreliance on click through as a salient measure.


The growth of social media is deeply impacting how audiences discover news, share content, and connect to brands. There is a strong belief in the potential of social media to impact the purchase funnel, lift awareness and create stronger relationships with consumers.

Social media introduces even more metrics to the engagement concept, notes the report:

The report concludes by saying that defining engagement faces myriad challenges:

The lack of clarity on the definition of engagement is not going to be resolved soon, concludes the report, but the lack of definition requires systematic rethinking to give meaning to “engagement” metrics. Engagement is too often a catchall term for a variety of metrics, and even as stakeholders attempt to create currencies around the idea of engagement, the concept of engagement remains nebulous. The industry needs to move beyond the ambiguous terminology of engagement, admonishes the report.

Source

"Can You Measure Engagement?" Jack Loechner. MediaPost, 01/29/14.

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