Why ‘Engagement’ Still Matters

For the last several years, everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve heard speakers, read bloggers and newsletter articles and taken webinars in which people have emphasized how important engagement is as a social media strategy for nonprofits.  The mantra would usually go something like “It’s not about the Facebook likes you have, or the number of email opens, it’s about the engagement you have with the people who follow you and subscribe to your newsletter.” 

Like the Donkey in Shrek whose been told to search for a blue flower with red thorns, I’ve tromped off into the social media field—with purpose—attempting to achieve meaningful engagement, repeating to myself “red flower, blue thorns, red flower, blue thorns…” or rather “engagement, engagement, engagement…”

And, then, just before Christmas, Beth Kanter, on her blog, summarized a Vision Critical Report titled  “What Social Media Can’t Tell You About Your Customers.”  According to Beth, the Vision Critical report tells us that the social media environment is just one more place that the Pareto Principle operates.  About 85% of social media updates come from people we can label “enthusiasts,” those who post 5 or more times a week.  These enthusiasts comprise only about 29% of our following. The “lurkers,” those who post 1 or fewer times per week, are greater than 50% of our social media followers.  Yet, they account for 5% or less of the posts we receive.

What’s more is that the noisy few, the enthusiasts, are about as atypical as they can be.  It turns out, this 29% of your following is representative of, well, nobody.  So all that social media “engagement” you are having is with a very unusual few who tell you not much about the larger many. You simply can’t make any generalizations based on the “engagement” you are involved in with your “enthusiasts.”

In Beth Kanter’s wonderful summary (which is perfect for the lay-person who doesn’t want to slog through the full report), Beth highlights a lot of what social media analytics can’t tell you. She certainly doesn’t do this to suggest that social media can’t tell you anything or that engagement is meaningless. She is raising awareness about the limitations of social media data.

Because of the list of things social media can’t tell us and because the value of engagement is more limited than we have thought for so long, I’ve spent the last few weeks wondering what benefit there is in engagement.  This is what I finally came to:

I still believe engagement matters significantly, not just to the “enthusiasts,” with whom you are engaged, but also to all the silent witnesses.  The more-or-less silent majority, the lurkers and the “dabblers,” (who post 2-4 times per week) are watching.  Many of them are following along with the conversation, even if they aren’t contributing to it.  They are paying attention to how you are treating the enthusiasts.  Respectfully? Dismissively? Defensively? Helpfully? Compassionately?

They’re making note of how you are responding to others and through the interactions you are having with others, they are making assumptions about how you might engage with them if they chose to engage with you.

The tone of your engagement—even if it is only with a limited, atypical few—is helping to define your brand. Whether you strive to increase engagement or simply just to ensure that your engagement is caring, meaningful, respectful, and appropriate, your engagement with your enthusiasts is important because someone else is always watching and learning about your brand.