Let’s Get Engaged, Honey

February 1, 2010

Let’s just say it: engagement is a buzzword.

I spent a few years in the educational publishing business, and it was a word I saw trotted out again and again, to describe every latest and every greatest. Engaging resources. Engage your students with this product. It’s all about engagement. After a while, a word loses it’s efficacy, particularly in a market where extremely similar products are being hawked to the same customer base, over and over again. And the unfortunate effect is that the problem these products tried to solve – lack of student engagement (or boredom), which is a real problem if you’re a teacher or a parent, becomes diluted in gobbledygook, over-used messaging. The messaging itself becomes boring. Not “engaging”. Talk about buzz-kill.

Engaged means not bored. Engaged means not thinking about something else. Engaged means busy. Honourable outcomes, yes, but kinda middle of the road. How about intrigued? Inspired? Motivated to act? Lit candle under posterior body part? Game-changing?

Can we realistically ask this much of companies, organizations, campaigns?

A short while ago, I posted my resolutions for 2010.

Top of the list was a pledge to consciously use the term Return on Engagement vs Return on Investment. ROE instead of ROI.

Return on Engagement isn’t my idea, but it is one that appears to be gathering steam as organizations and campaigns realize that they need to connect with real people, to tell stories and make change that resounds beyond an easily measured analytic, and beyond a dollar figure increment indicator of success.

Return on investment is important. It’s important for you in terms of structuring your day. The time you devote to one particular thing means, possibly, that other deliverables get pushed back, delayed, or not done. If your boss pays you $50,000, does your output result in a greater profit that that? If you spend $30,000 on a new website, does it result in a measurably higher level of visits, sales, click thru, donations, profits?

All of these are important. Accountability is important. Money is important. Making and raising money is important.

But doing all this without thinking about real engagement is only doing it half way. And thinking about the returns you want to achieve from really inspiring your audience is an exercise worth doing.

If a website is engaging, it might convince me to sign up for a newsletter, or to bookmark, or to share with my friend. If it’s not boring, bland, status quo, hard to use, cluttered, indecipherable, confusing. If a campaign is engaging, it makes me care, or helps me rationalize why I do care. I’ll want to tell people about it, in the hopes that they too will care and it will connect us. It will grow legs because it’s worth talking about.

So let’s take the next step. Let’s get engaged. Really engaged. The relationship kind – the kind where we make a pact to be together, and express it to the world in a physical manifestation. Let’s plan to walk down the aisle in the near future, plan our honeymoon, dream about our offspring.

If we get engaged, that means I’m going to wear your ring. Or your campaign t-shirt. Or your badge on my blog or social network. Since you really should meet my friends and family and develop relationships with them, I’ll invite you into our lives. I’ll tell them about you. I’ll show them all the evidence….the photos, the footprint. I’ll be so enraptured that I’ll want to tell the world. I’ll shout it from the rooftops. I’ll blog about it. I’ll tweet it out. I’ll click a little gold star to show my appreciation. I will (mostly) stop seeing other people, because I’m pretty happy with what you give me.

And in return, I’ll expect some respect in our courtship. I’ll expect you to treat my mum, my Nana, and my friends in the same caring and responsive way you treat me. I’ll expect you to make an extra effort, or at least to be consistent, in showing them how wonderful you are. Once you’ve put the ring on my finger, you won’t disappear. You won’t start seeing other people either. You’ll connect me to people I should meet. You’ll continue to enrich my life somehow, and to make things easier and more enjoyable for me. Your thoughtful touches when least expected are like Easter eggs in the spring (props to Tara Hunt’s Whuffie Factor).

Will we go through with the wedding? Were we engaged…enough? Did it matter? Was a relationships forged? Was the (measurable) action taken as a result of real engagement, forethought, and progress? Seth Godin wrote a very thoughtful post on measurement that matters, and measurement that doesn’t matter. With limited resources, we need to make it matter, because it has to help us move forward to make the world a better place.

That’s the difference between ROI and ROE, or perhaps, where the 2 need to converge. Campaigns need to be measurable – the bean counters demand this. Your board probably demands this. But if we can start talking about the differences we made – how the ROI leads to the ROE – then we’re doing justice to our creativity. We’re addressing the “why” – and making it easier to propose future innovations.

“Let’s Get Engaged, Honey” is a guest post by Aerin Guy.

Aerin is the Director of Communications at the Wellesley Institute in Toronto, Canada, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank dedicated to urban health issues.  Her background includes marketing, communications, technology and publishing, but not necessarily in that order.  Aerin is a frequent speaker and workshop facilitator, and consults with non-profit organizations on communications strategy and making the most of the online space. Aerin’s parents made her play outside instead of with a Coleco Vision, but she is now making up for lost time by immersing herself in communications theory, social media tools, and technology for positive social change.  You can find her here:

…and learn about the work of the Wellesley Institute at www.wellesleyinstitute.com

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