Ditching Engagement in Favor of Blunt-Force Awareness Is a Temptation Marketers Must Avoid

Compelling content is the fuel for reach and scale

Even paid content can get considerable boost from engagement in social media. Getty Images
Headshot of Jill Sherman

Recently, my Twitter feed and email inbox were flooded with the headline, “Advertisers Need to Stop Chasing Engagement and Get Back to Focusing on Awareness.” Finally, clients and co-workers said with relief, we can get away from the dreaded “E” word and get back to the way things were.

My response: Unfortunately, it’s not that black and white.

For context, Brian Sheehan, the author of the Adweek guest column on awareness versus engagement, made a solid argument that being top of mind should be the holy grail for advertisers: “At the top of every creative brief should be one objective: Make people aware of our brand, again!” he wrote. And I don’t disagree.

Overcoming consumer’s superhuman ability to filter out crap should take precedent over moving people down the proverbial—and often transient—funnel. But to completely abandon engagement ignores some core tenants of how social media works. Because, to social platform algorithms, awareness and engagement aren’t mutually exclusive.

1. It’s consumers—not brands and publishers—who decide what makes it into the feed. Social platform algorithms use engagement as a proxy for personalization. Every like, link click, comment, share and video view tells the algorithm that there is inherent value in the content to that user and that future content from the brand should be prioritized in their feed.

2. In social channels, paid frequency caps are low compared to how frequently users are coming back on a daily basis, and for good reason. The platforms want a stellar, personalized user experience, so people will come back 50 times a day (which they do) to see more of what they love. Engagement is the one thing that can move a piece of paid media from four potential views to twice or three times that many. Essentially, engagement can provide even greater reach and scale, potentially making your media buy more efficient.

3. In social networking, the unspoken value is the person-to-person movement of content. Yes, paying to target audiences can override this to some extent. But it is content’s value to people—not to publishers and brands—that is the litmus test. Human interaction with content, whether paid or organic, gives it the added momentum we refer to as virality and serves up more of what we love. (We can have the echo chamber debate some other time.)

"It is content’s value to people—not to publishers and brands—that is the litmus test."
Jill Sherman, svp of social strategy, DigitasLBi North America

Ultimately, engagement is the fuel for reach and scale in social channels. A key ingredient necessary for awareness. Without this, our feeds would be clogged with irrelevance.

My colleague Jon Lopes, DigitasLBi’s social analytics lead, cautions that engagement is not a stand-alone indicator of success: “Defining KPIs and aligning those measures to campaign goals is critical,” he stresses. “Ultimately, your social media should be accountable for delivering business impact. With emerging native analytics capabilities and a growing list of data partnerships, social platforms are taking the right steps to help marketers understand campaign effectiveness. For example, Facebook and Snapchat correlate in-feed ad placement with in-store purchases. Whether users engage or not.”

One key statement in Sheehan’s argument that strongly resonated with me is this: “Awareness matters because of a preponderance of content and advertising clutter.”

I could not agree more. People are spending half of all mobile minutes in social feeds, so the need for brands to break through is more important than ever. And while it’s futile to believe that vanity engagement metrics equate to social success, we must also acknowledge that people now play an even greater role in brand growth and awareness. Perhaps a more appropriate headline for Sheehan’s article would’ve been “Enough Already: Engagement Without Awareness is Fleeting.” Because that’s something I think he and I could both agree on.

@justjillsherman Jill Sherman is svp of social strategy at DigitasLBi North America.