Making "engagement" a meaningful metric for your business

This is a guest post by Liz Ryan, President of Relish Tray Media.  Liz has over 12 years of experience in online marketing strategy and implementation, both brand and agency side. Liz previously served as Director of Marketing at

Marketers have always, formally or informally, used "engagement" as a benchmark of a successful campaign.  Yet the notion of engagement is difficult to define and measure.

Engagement is a poorly defined metric that has different meanings to different marketing teams.  Ask ten people in an organization what engagement means, and you'll likely hear a variety of answers - open rates, click through rates, time on site, conversions, lifetime value, and more.

Merriam-Webster defines engagement a number of ways:

  1. The state of being in gear: Wouldn’t we all like to think we’re in gear and on top of our game plan, ready to strike with the right tools at the right moment?
  2. A hostile encounter between military forces:  This is what it can feel like, especially when you don’t have a clear strategy or data to help you form a plan.
  3. Emotional involvement:  Emotions; how do we connect with our clients, prospects, subscribers and members on an emotional level?

Emotional involvement is what we, as marketers, are really shooting for.

Define the right engagement metrics for your goal

To make "engagement" meaningful, we first need to define the appropriate engagement goals for a given business challenge.  For example:

  • If you're looking to "win back" customers by offering a giant discount, conversion rate is probably too short-sighted.  You want to measure engagement by tracking how many of those customers returned after the discount.
  • If you're looking to generate awareness of a new product offering, open rates and click rates might be sufficient.  Better yet, you might track how many visitors ended up spending a lot of time on the site once they arrive.
  • If you're looking to make the most of the holiday season, it certainly makes sense to keep an eye on profit and not only look to revenue conversion.

Track your engagement metric on the customer level

In most cases, the goal is get customers to interact more and more with your brand and store.  Rather than tracking aggregate metrics we should track engagement metrics on the customer level and monitor how those customer-level numbers change over time.

A simplified retail example: Let's assume our goal is to get customers purchasing more often.   Instead of focusing on the conversion rates of specific emails, we focus on the "purchase frequency" of each customer.  As we work on new retention marketing ideas, we can take snapshots of our customer set and inspect their purchase frequencies at different points in the year.  We hope to see that our marketing efforts are encouraging customers to purchase more often. 

Weekly buyers 10% 11% 13% 13%
Monthly buyers 50% 45% 40% 40%
Quarterly buyers 30% 35% 38% 40%
Twice-a-year buyers 10% 9% 9% 7%

In this example, we see an increase in weekly buyers, which is great.  However, we also see that a lot of our Monthly buyers have turned into Quarterly buyers - not so great.   As we keep trying new ideas and refining our strategies, we want to keep an eye on this type of engagement metric to measure our success.

As mentioned above, purchase frequency is just one type of engagement metric.  However, it's a great example of a concrete piece of engagement data that you can track on the individual customer level.  High-level brand engagement metrics are also valuable for numerous reasons, but it's concrete individual-level data that helps the most for optimizing engagement.

Everything revolves around the Customer and the Customer Lifecycle

Our goal is to deliver a one-to-one engagement experience with each customer.  To reach that goal, we need to start thinking about each customer with a long-term mindset.  Every new customer is, in fact, a new relationship that we can build.

Every time we interact with a customer, we learn.  When a customer makes her first purchase, we gain loads of valuable insight.  The channel, campaign, creative, medium, promotion, and product purchased can be used to help us determine how to follow up.  We can continue to learn with each subsequent interaction.  As we watch a customer evolve, we can learn her purchase frequency and learn whether or not she has seasonal buying habits.  These bits of data are very valuable when we begin to think about personalizing content and promotions for each customer.

So how can we get there?  Marketing tools need to be integrated with data from CRM and customer analytics - this can be done in house, if you have a team for it, or with outside vendors.  The big first step is to put pieces in place so you can track engagement metrics and behavioral characteristics at the customer level.

Use Multiple Channels

Finally, all too often, we look at engagement metrics per channel. Customers very rarely purchase in a channel vacuum.  Email marketing, display retargeting, mobile phone notifications, adwords, social network advertisements - these are tools working for the same goal of connecting with your customer.  Experiment to understand how specific individual customers react to different channels.

Continue to test and refine results. Never feel comfortable with your program, because in the modern marketing landscape, personal preferences and behaviors can change as quickly as your products do.

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