The notions of web presence and customer engagement aren’t new, but are gaining in interest as web presence expands beyond the corporate website and as companies must know more about effective means of connecting to customers. Many questions swirl around understanding what engagement is, what defining characteristics should be measured and why, how to align metrics to goals and which metrics matter the most. Context -- or even hierarchies of context -- plays a major role for selecting metrics, analyzing the data returned by metrics and understanding what to do with the data.

Engagement, like influence, is at heart an abstract. For purposes of customer engagement on the web, engagement can be thought of as the measurement of attention to something, which takes us to the "can of worms" of what constitutes customer attention to a company’s web presence. For each company, what comprises engagement can be fairly individual, generally derived from a matrix of attributes, in turn leading to a matrix of metrics. As web presence becomes more far-flung and sophisticated, the metrics, tools, data and analyses become more complex.

Which are the right attributes and metrics? For each company, they are the ones that measure actions and events that relate to key business context and goals. Many domain experts offer many different metrics from which to choose, any of which could be relevant to individual companies. Once a matrix of metrics has been selected, it’s likely that each organization will constantly need to assess that set of metrics for validity and effectiveness – and that the change of metrics selection will be continuous, hopefully to reflect actions taken in response to analysis, new markets explored and company innovations.

Jumping into an assessment of customer engagement is not a simple undertaking and will take a lot of work. Monitoring web presence on sites other than the corporate website is still a new undertaking, with the tech tools still evolving. Also in continuing evolution is the understanding of how to interpret data collected and how to use that data to make decisions for solution offerings, customer connections and communication and business strategy. A company will need to define both the current status and the desired status for what constitutes an "engaged customer" -- yet another definition set that should continuously evolve.

Why Understanding Engagement Matters

Most organizations have moved well beyond clocking the number of hits on a web page. Not only do these organizations have a tall order to provide personalized experiences as well as high-quality content on the corporate website, but visitors to the site must be sufficiently engaged to take action. What sort of action is taken depends on the company’s strategy for web presence and customer engagement, further in support of overall business strategies and goals.

Forrester analyst Stephen Powers covers web content management solutions, and to a certain extent, web engagement. In The Online Customer Engagement Software Ecosystem, 2010 Powers discusses engagement:

Customer Engagement Remains Top of Mind For Companies
The uncertain economy has increased pressure on companies to engage customers more efficiently, especially via online channels that offer lower-cost ways to interact with customers, enable better lead generation and increase customer retention rates. This is likely why investments in software to manage customer experiences has held up relatively well in the current economy.

Our most recent data suggests this trend will continue into the next year. Consider that in 2010, 51% of organizations plan content management implementations, more than one-third will implement or upgrade customer relationship management tools and one in four is planning marketing automation software investments."

An article in Forbes brings up the tough part of measuring engagement: The highly qualitative nature of engagement, no matter the context:

For the past year or so, the conversation around how to "engage" consumers online has spiked among publishers, media companies, advertisers and agencies. As Michael Mendenhall, CMO of Hewlett-Packard said, "Marketers monitor the front end and the back end so they see clickstreams and commerce. ... The difficult part is the qualitative part in between, which is the level of engagement."

The qualitative aspect of web engagement takes us into the messier world of sentiment analysis, which is still a work-in-process, and that of semantic/content analysis. Demarcations are likely to start blurring between what matters for customer engagement on the corporate website and what matters on social sites, also along qualitative lines.

Web analytics domain expert Avinash Kaushik wrote a blog post in 2007 entitled “Engagement" Is Not A Metric, It's An Excuse, providing this view on qualitative versus quantitative aspects of engagement:

At the heart of it, engagement tries to measure something deeply qualitative. Yet most efforts to measure it in our world tend to be hard-core quantitative (translate that as: "we have clickstream, let's take our interpretations of what could possibly be happening, now find clicks that can carry the burden of our personal impositions, voila! here's engagement").

The reason engagement has not caught on like wildfire (except in white papers and analyst reports and pundit posts) is that it is a "heart" metric we are trying to measure with "head" data, and engagement is such a utterly unique feeling for each website that it will almost always have a unique definition for each and every website."

Since 2007, quite a bit more progress has been made in the how and why of web engagement metrics, but some of the problems remain. Distributed web presence outside the corporate website has added another dimension to the qualitative elusiveness of web/customer engagement. User-generated content in forums, blogs, microblogs, communities must be found, assessed for sentiment and key content. Processes for engaging the author of the UGC must be designed to try to open more communication channels for customers. And then we have to figure out how to measure all of this in meaningful ways.

Choosing Effective Metrics

Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts. -- Albert Einstein

So…there are an overwhelming number of individual metrics that relate to customer/web engagement -- the customer experience on a particular website -- both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Web engagement not only pertains to company-owned web assets, but to the many social sites that continue to proliferate on the Internet. Companies must decide where and how they wish to monitor engagement, using metrics and the tools to do so. Before choosing metrics, a clear understanding of the company’s hierarchy of strategies, programs and objectives must be in place.

Not only do high-level business strategies affect the selection of attributes to monitor and measure, but other levels of strategies and objectives matter, too. Individual initiatives designed by product marketing, marketing and sales groups have specific achievable components and objectives. Web engagement metrics will align to levels of program objectives as well as to the company’s "big picture," essentially a hierarchy of metrics building toward overall business strategies, and toward building future direction. Metrics only have meaning if proper analysis is conducted, results examined against objectives and if processes for taking action are in place, with decisions and next steps activated. (And then repeat….)

I’m not going to provide an overview of the vast array of tech tools available to assist in monitoring and measuring web/customer engagement. The solution space is in early stages, so there is much still to do to "master" the world of engagement metrics. Suffice it to say, that there is a lot of work going on to develop and refine tech offerings.

In the category of "not everything that counts can be measured": Listening, understanding and acting on what engaged customers/buyers have to say are among the most important corporate "to-dos" regarding real engagement. Companies must also heed the contextual relevance of any customer-generated content -- for real understanding; content cannot be yanked from its context and analyzed in a vacuum. 

Part 2 of this article series Measuring Web Customer Engagement Using Goals, Metrics explores a sampling of goals and metrics for measuring and understanding engagement on the Web.