So, that new engagement metric you’ve come up with suddenly pulls the TV show you are marketing from #50 to #3, based on using a more comprehensive, multi-platform audience rating system. A sign of true success … or delusion?

Do you watch the TV Show Glee!? While it might seem counter-intuitive given its “popularity” -- the answer it seems is mostly “no.” Earlier this year, Glee finished the 2010-2011 broadcast television season in 43rd place. This puts it right smack dab in the middle of the road for broadcast TV. Add in cable television, and Glee drops to 55th place.

So, let’s say you’re the “marketing person” in charge of getting Glee renewed. And, you need to convince advertisers that somehow putting their money into Glee is better than putting it into the 42+ options that rank higher. What would you do? Well, what if I told you that you could walk into the office of the people in charge of such things and claim that Glee is not only a top 20 show -- but that it ranks #2 of all television shows -- and only lags slightly behind the number one show -- American Idol?

How About We Measure “Engagement”?

That’s what Optimedia showed with their Content Power Rankings (pdf). They measure “engagement” of television programming. The research ranks TV shows based on what they determine to be levels of engagement with the brand. They combine Facebook Fan Page “likes,” plus Nielsen BuzzMetrics and other data sources to come up with the “most comprehensive multi-platform audience rating system” (note the quotes). And, using that metric a show like South Park, which ranks 211th in the Nielsen ratings, jumps to #4 behind Glee and Dancing With the Stars in terms of “buzz” and “engagement.” And, our marketing job at Glee is now safe -- because it jumps from a middling 43rd place to #2 of all shows.

But what does that number really mean? Is the Glee brand really commanding a more “engaging” experience than The Office, or The Big Bang Theory? Is it really #2? But, more importantly, are we starting to use numbers to make arguments to prove success -- and losing sight of the real value of engagement? Are we really sure of who or what or why we’re trying to engage in the first place?

Of course, as marketers, we’re paid to sell consumers something. As David Ogilvy said, “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative,’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

To Fight For The Right, Without Question Or Pause…

I’m noticing an eerily similar trend just starting to emerge with efforts around content marketing, social media engagement and the buzz around “web engagement management.” As the pressures to provide ROI and some kind of analytics strategy around these efforts grow, the methodologies are exploding in really odd ways. And it’s both confusing and confounding managers to explain the efficacy of the strategy in general.

In short -- this overwhelming need we have to assign some kind of new numerical value or score to the process, while we move in “real-time,” is not helping us to answer the real question: Who are we *really* trying to engage and to what end?

As I’m sure many of us who advocate the ideas of “engagement” expected, skeptics are starting to ask smart questions. Over on Ad Age’s CMO Strategy blog, Jonathan Salem Baskin recently asked if the Lure of Social Media was dangerous and nothing really new. He struggled with the logic and became “more convinced that we’re misreading history and present circumstance.” Interestingly, the comments on this post mostly focused on one side or the other (engagement is amazing vs. it’s all a bunch of bullshit) without ever wondering if it’s just okay to ask the question.

From WMD’s to IED’s

So you may or may not remember that I once said that some marketers use analytics as “WMD “-- or weapons of mass delusion. My point there was that when marketers use analytics to try and prove value, rather than gain insight and improve a process -- they quickly delude themselves into believing that they’re successful. They box themselves into a corner where if the graph doesn’t always move up and to the right -- that they’re somehow failing as marketers.

Unfortunately, that’s the trend I see developing with “engagement.” I’m seeing marketers and agencies literally change the definition of “engagement” from month to month to fit what they’re seeing across their content. They go through the process of developing personas, develop their content strategy, define their channels -- and then start to measure engagement success based on whatever number starts to go up and to the right the fastest (a Twitter follower drive is a common one). In short, they start developing what I’m going to start calling IED’s -- Integrated Engagement Delusions.

What happens? Well, it’s not soon after that the metric fails for one reason or another (are we surprised that the Twitter followers are all multi-level marketers who can help you earn from home?). Then, the experiment collapses in on itself, the content marketing is called a failure -- and the whole idea of engagement is blamed.

This is where the skeptics have every right to doubt the efficacy of a social web program, content marketing or engagement strategy. Baskin is right when he says: “Social behavior isn’t unique to technology; it’s just that we have partial visibility into some aspects of how people converse now.”

That’s the key. Yes, of course conversations about brands have been happening forever. Yes, of course we’ve been conversing with our customers and prospects about our products since the very beginning -- and helping them through a buying process. The difference now is that the social web makes the creation and sharing of that content (conversation) so much more frictionless. Our moms are using social media now; our nieces and nephews are using content and searching and sharing. They can both engage, and be engaged like never before. And, yes, we now have the opportunity to manage it more fluidly than before.

To Dream the Impossible Dream

I certainly don’t believe that focusing on engagement is an imaginary challenge. Regardless if our business is to make hubcap fasteners at the local level, manage a global Fortune 100 services brand or launch a single marketing entrepreneur -- our businesses must embrace the challenge of engaging our audiences more fully.

Even if our only purpose is utilize the Social Web or content marketing to better understand what our consumers care about -- I think it holds the potential for tremendous marketing value for any business.

Bad metrics, applied with poor methodologies, to unjustified efforts or glossed over goals will eventually unravel no matter how big, bright or shiny the new approach is.

I’m hopeful that, as digital marketers, we’re moving past the point where we think a business should be immediately and blindly sold on having a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a thought leadership positioned blog tomorrow. Let’s face it -- any marketing strategy that doesn’t have “create a customer” at the end of its process is a distraction.

So, here’s some interesting statistics. Glee actually dropped from #33 to #43 this year in terms of all broadcast shows. Bad right? Well, the number of viewers is actually up from averaging 9 Million per episode -- to just over 10 million per episode. So, good, right? But, this year’s “Super Bowl” episode rivaled any of the number one show ratings. So is Optimedia’s “engagement” metric an interesting leading indicator to actual viewers, or is it an indicator of an expanding brand which can be leveraged online?

Similarly, if we see our Web page visits going down -- but the level of engagement (pageviews per session, time on site, comments per post etc.) going up -- are we actually doing a better job? I don’t know -- how are sales?

See, none of those numbers prove anything really. The key is that taken together -- they can help us gain greater insight, which helps us make more creative and strategic decisions. The success or failure of Social Media Marketing, Content Marketing and “engagement” is still being written.

At the end of Man of La Mancha, as the Inquisition enters the prison to take Cervantes off to his trial, the prisoners have already found him not guilty and they return his manuscript. It is, of course, his unfinished novel. As Cervantes and his servant go to face the judge -- they swell with courage, and their eyes gleam -- as the prisoners all together sing The Impossible Dream:

And the world will be better for this -- That one man, scorned and covered with scars, -- Still strove, with his last ounce of courage, -- To reach … the unreachable star.

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