Is online engagement a waste of time?

It is if you don’t tie it to business goals. Here’s how to make sure your time spent on social media isn’t for naught.


Back in the early days of social media, the leading “gurus” were actively anti-business.

They made fun of measurement, strategy, objectives, and any hint of trying to monetize a social media effort. That sounds weird today, but it’s true. The mantra was, “Social media is not about your stupid company. It’s all about the conversation.”

We’ve come a long way, and even the purists have relented. Today, we mainline social media into the traditional marketing, PR and advertising initiatives, for better or worse.

But despite this progress, every now and then I catch a whiff of the old days. Such was the case on a recent blog post where commenters vigorously defended engagement as the true goal of social media.

I was sufficiently disturbed by this conversation, so I think it’s time for a reality check.

Engagement is not a strategy

A strategy is a direction that capitalizes on a unique value proposition that serves unmet or under-served customer wants and needs. In other words, are you creating something that would be difficult—or impossible—for your competitors to copy?

Is it possible to truly be strategic by engaging with customers in a unique way? It’s difficult.

I do believe it is possible to create a strategic advantage by delivering great content and executing a social media initiative well. But the entry barriers to creating a Facebook page and initiating engagement, for example, are so low it is unlikely that doing so can truly be strategic. You should view engagement more as a tactic that supports an over-arching marketing strategy, unless you have super-human community management skills that consistently bring in customers.

Social media’s place in the marketing mix is to provide small, consistent provocations and conversations through content that lead to engagement and interaction. Skillfully done, that engagement ultimately results in consumer interest, and hopefully loyalty and meaningful activity (like a purchase).

Engagement must lead to stakeholder value

Apple, the most valuable brand in the history of the world, has no social media engagement. By comparison, the gold standard of social media engagement, Dell, is floundering. Its stock price is hovering near a five-year low.

Engagement in and of itself is not a predictor of success. That’s why engagement is not a valuable activity unless it is tied to some organizational goal such as:

  • Customer acquisition
  • Brand awareness/defense
  • Investment
  • New product development
  • Registrations
  • Service
  • Employment/recruiting

I would not invest in a company that drives engagement as a goal without tying it to a business objective that moves the needle.

Engage, yes, but only in the context of business results.

You can talk yourself broke

One commenter on my blog argued a company’s goal should be to drive engagement ever upward, and pointed to her success in moving a brand from a 10 percent engagement level to 25 percent.

Again, without tying this to a goal, it seems like a silly way to describe success. In fact, you could be hurting your customer.

Let’s not forget that all engagement comes at a cost. We have to be sure we’re ready to increase staff to effectively meet those demands. And for some companies, that may not be a good business decision.

Let me give you a micro-example. Last week I wrote a blog post that had more than 100 comments. As a small business owner, if I had this level of engagement every day, I would not have time to work on the consulting and teaching activities that feed my family.

If I really wanted to, I could pump up this level of engagement all the time. But it would be foolhardy for me to do so. I need to strike the proper balance of commercial activities across my customer base that optimize my business results. In fact, I purposely plan my blog posts to depress engagement on days when I don’t have time to properly handle it.

If you’re not careful, you can talk yourself broke.

There is a level of diminishing returns to any economic activity, and engagement is no different. Aiming to increase engagement for every customer in the absence of strategy is irresponsible.

The conversational brand

Finally, you must also consider a successful engagement level in the context of your company and product. An engagement level that would be disappointing for Disney might be thrilling for a niche B2B chemical manufacturer. There are no absolutes in this business.

Likewise, not all conversation is created equal. A company may drive an artificially high engagement level by posting inane polls and cat pictures that don’t contribute to business objectives.

If you’re starting a new social media strategy, I hope you’ll consider these takeaways:

  1. You need to evaluate and support engagement in the context of company objectives.
  2. Engagement level alone is not necessarily a meaningful indicator of marketing success or financial performance.
  3. Engagement comes at a cost, and you must consider it a balanced part of an optimized marketing mix.

Those are a few observations on engagement, but I welcome your views, dissent and additions in the comment section. Yes, I want engagement!

Mark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. A version of this article originally appeared on his blog, {grow}.

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