Engagement for engagement’s sake is not very interesting.

There is a lot of crappy “engagement” out there -- look no further than most of the trending topics streams on Twitter or frankly, many Facebook pages. Yet, many organizations are tracking engagement as the end goal in their social efforts. But in a world where the Charlie Bit My Finger video competes with aggregate TED video views, assuming that volume and impact are related is at best naive.

Easy Engagement = Meaningful Engagement

In a rush to prove that we have "engagement," platforms have reduced the friction of engaging to next to nothing. The rub is that the easier the engagement, the less meaningful and valuable it is. B.J. Fogg has built a behavior model I find quite useful in understanding the dynamics of engagement:


Because so many organizations are chasing engagement, what many technology providers have done, since changing motivation is more challenging, is to make engagement very easy and to create a lot of triggers. The result is that people with very low motivation engage because they are triggered and it is easy.

The big issue for businesses is that individuals with low motivation are not likely to be meaningful or significant to the organization because they have no motivation to do anything but the most basic engagement. Those individuals actually create a lot of noise in the organization’s ecosystem.

I’ve always preferred engagement approaches that have higher barriers to entry because when someone engages, you know that they are motivated and therefore more likely to participate in a more constructive and complex way. This thinking comes from my understanding of systems dynamics, which show how much more efficient it is to validate agent input into a system than to manage agents once inside a system. This roughly translates to "do not allow crap into the system because it is expensive to manage."

Levels of Engagement 

So what kind of engagement matters? It largely depends on your business goals and how complex they are. The more complex the outcome you are looking for, the deeper the relationship you need to establish and the longer it will take to bear fruit.

I created a relationship development model a few years ago and it is useful when thinking about what kind of engagement -- and therefore what kinds of approaches -- you need for the outcome you want.


If you are working on a broad brand awareness initiative, you likely only need to build relationships to the "Recognition" stage in this model. That means creating enough resonance with individuals that they recognize your brand and have a generally positive feeling about it.

Social networks like Facebook and YouTube are good places to develop this type of relationship. In that context, the engagement that matters might be Facebook “likes.”

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want to build a strategic partnership, you are going to need to get on a plane a few times before you succeed. That level of trust does not happen overnight and it typically requires face-to-face interactions.

Learning Opportunities

Where Communities Fit In

In the middle there are a broad set of business goals that are too complex to execute on public social networks, but can be achieved cost effectively using online communities, because communities enable richer relationships to develop, trust to be established and outcomes to be rewarded.

Goals like offering complex customer support, building brand advocates, generating real-time market research, collecting and vetting new ideas, identifying expertise and knowledge, developing new innovations, hiring and training new employees, and many more, require not just engagement, but collaboration, which can be viewed as engagement that produces value.

When you focus on building communities to attract the people that matter most to moving your organization forward, only then does the volume of engagement matter. However, even then, all engagement is not created equal. Start by categorizing engagement is a way that allows you to monitor the performance of your community. For example, you could measure the following:


Ideally, you will also see the qualitative content of the community and each individual in it evolve from more casual and tentative contributions to more substantive and complex contributions. In a successful community, contributions and engagement tend to start out as transactional and then move to supportive to critiquing to collaborative. How long this process takes depends on how quickly community management can help people get comfortable and connected with one another.

Because of this dynamic, we know that communities enable:

  • Comfort and trust
  • Complex and multi-faceted conversations
  • Surfacing of expertise within a relevant content
  • Rapid iteration of ideas, and therefore innovation

We are starting to see good data about why communities and networks fail. What we don’t yet have good data on is:

  • How successful communities grow
  • How long it takes for communities to demonstrate ROI
  • The impact of community management

Engagement continues to be a topic the needs further data and study but these are some good starting points for organizations to think on for what they are looking to get out of their community initiatives. While the information is still emerging, the good news is more and more organizations are working with communities each and every year and soon we will have more data and hopefully be able to answer these critical questions.