Engagement: The Emperor’s New Clothes?
Hang on a minute! What is all this stuff about ‘engagement’? Everywhere I look these days membership organisations are talking about engagement as though it was the be all and end all of their existence. But why? And what do they mean by the term? Look up ‘engage’ in any shorter dictionary and – apart from a ‘promise to marry’ – to engage somebody means to attract or hold their attention of sympathy, or to cause them to participate. But that isn’t what the tech wizards appear to mean when they come knocking at your door with a ‘solution’ to your dwindling membership. What they have in mind seems much more superficial. Just clicking in some cases!
Now, if I click an online petition, that no more makes me an activist, than liking a post or a tweet makes me engaged with the author or their organisation. The truth is, there is no definition! We may have been bandying the word around since the mid-2000s, but in reality you can make engagement mean anything you like. It could be defined as consumers’ behaviour online, or the strategies brands use to attract attention, or the things you can count. Context is everything!
If you’re a writer looking for blog readers, or you’re an ecommerce site looking for shares, it will alter the type of engagement you’re looking for. If you want people to purchase, then it’s all about the first meeting and activity leading up to the sale. But if you’re a blogger, then engagement may be a comment or a share by an influencer.
When it comes to associations, I contend that engagement is the result of a member investing time and money with them in exchange for value. That value may me financial, practical, emotional, or a sense of belonging. The more resources they invest, the more engaged they are. And that happy state can’t be brought about by clicks alone!
Engagement is also about value. The value for the person doing the engaging as well as the value of that engagement for the association. It’s not the ‘output’ of a programme, but the strategies and actions that go into establishing relationships. It’s a discipline not a goal.
So, I reckon that any system that offers to analyse your engagement by counting clicks is leading you into a fool’s paradise. Vacuous statistics are just vanity metrics. Handy for keeping critics off your back, but essentially worthless when it comes to predicting outcomes or measuring success!
The twin goals of most associations are member acquisition and retention. When it comes to acquisition, the numbers that view your website, blog, or twitter account; share content from your publications; or even read your press coverage, are superficial. They’re not a signal that you have held attention or triggered participation. And transactional interactions, like buying a product, or paying for a course, are unreliable as an indicator of likely member retention. Attention gained through financial incentive tends to be transient!
It’s only when you put issues of empathy into the mix that you can really start to measure engagement; when participants align with your ethos, and the significance of the relationship outweighs the financial cost of membership! Indicators of that state of mind are a willingness to write or speak on your behalf; volunteer for a committee or task force; serve in a leadership role; achieve status; invest in sponsorship or similar. Of course, not every member can achieve this, but at least they should have the feeling that they could!
Healthy associations create more engagement opportunities in areas that create value for both organisation and member. Strategically, it’s also worthwhile for associations to plot the members likely progress from pre to post engagement, and consider what the first steps on the commitment escalator might be. As an efficient flow from low to high value engagement will tend to be healthier from both revenue and mission fulfilment perspectives.
©2017 M J Hoare