Does the industry have the wrong understanding of user engagement?

We asked ourselves, "What's actually behind engagement rates? And how do different platforms actually generate their engagement?" To do this, we took a look at our Content.ONE data and generated a simple evaluation, comparing all engagement types across all platforms. Our blog post on the frequency of different engagement types can be found here. On the same topic, here is an article by Jürgen Scharrer in the current issue of Horizont.

"Engagement": what do clicks tell us about reception and potential advertising impact?

All advertisers crave it: Likes, shares, clicks and comments. But what do these metrics really tell us about user engagement? Companion's Michael Heine reminds the industry of an old marketing adage: "The most powerful form of content delivery is passive media use without interaction: You watch a movie and you're impressed, without popping popcorn or clicking."

The advertising industry has a new favorite topic: Following a wake-up call from Adidas media director Simon Peel, there is a heated debate about whether performance marketing aimed at short-term sales success has not been overdone in recent years. Many industry leaders have spoken out in the meantime, and of all the statements, the one by Michael Heine, head of the consulting firm Companion, was particularly noteworthy. In his HORIZONT guest article, "No more data-driven nonsense," there are some powerful sentences. For example, this one: "That you can't build a brand with paid search and online display is something everyone should know who doesn't get their expertise from Google training courses. Brand needs reception - what can be done to make this truism enter the general knowledge of the digital naïve?"

Now, Heine is providing further talking points with a new study. It's about a perennial issue in digital marketing: user engagement. The prevailing doctrine: the more interactive a communication, the greater the advertising impact. Long live the permanently participative consumer!

Michael Heine starts early by first saying basic things about user engagement. His key phrase: "Communications professionals know that the most powerful form of content delivery is passive media use without interaction: You watch a movie and you're impressed, without any popcorn popping or clicking."

Such a view of things is diametrically opposed to anything like how user engagement is discussed in digital marketing. Here, a purely click-based definition prevails. The simple logic: the more shares, comments, and likes, the more successful a post or campaign.

Viewing time is also "engagement" - even the more important one

But if Heine is right - and all the studies suggest he is - the usual key performance indicators (KPIs) only tell half the story. Companion's approach is to complement the click-based view with a viewtime-based one.

On the one hand, Companion counts the interactions exactly as they are delivered by the platforms' dashboards. In addition, the "true views" of video ads are also taken into account. The simple equation for Companion is: one interaction + one true view = two engagements.

"Communications professionals know that the most powerful form of content delivery is passive media use without interaction: you watch a movie and you're impressed, without any popcorn popping or clicking." Michael Heine

Specifically, Heine and his team looked at five billion impressions (pages, posts and videos) to see how the engagements are distributed and what generates them. The study does not claim to be representative, but the basis is so broad that it is possible to derive reliable statements from it.

So what do the results reveal? The first thing that catches the eye is the extremely low significance of comments. They contribute between 0 and 0.4 percent of the engagements counted. As a rule, very little goes viral either. Only YouTube and Linkedin can score points here, and Twitter with some exceptions. The authors write that the activation of users on social media is generally lower than expected. Only 2 to 6 percent of users show any form of engagement at all!

Website and newsletter get recognition again

The figures for newsletters and websites are much better, with interaction rates of 18 and 16 percent respectively. On the one hand, this is no surprise, because owned media channels are generally used primarily by people who already have a certain level of interest. The companion figures are nevertheless eye-opening. If you only look at likes and shares, corporate websites are hopelessly inferior to Facebook, Instagram and the like. If, on the other hand, the viewtime criterion is also taken into account, the picture is completely different. The conclusion is: "Content meets target group. Newsletters and websites clearly engage best." Investing in your own channels is therefore more effective than you might think.

The whole thing is more than just an interesting numbers game. If the focus is solely on click-based values, this has concrete consequences for the strategy. The aim is to increase clicks at all costs. And the best way to do that is to set click carousels in motion. The user has to interact with the content in order to get it at all. According to Heine, these "pure operating processes" are counted as engagement, but in reality they are often not engagement at all.

This brings us full circle to what the Companion boss has to say about the "Adidas case". In digital marketing, optimization is all too often based on key figures that ultimately lead in the wrong direction. Heine: "You don't build brand value with clicks. But you can build it with viewing time, with passive engagement in the form of inner participation when watching or reading content.