what does social engagement really even mean any more?

It’s mid-2018. The social media brand boom was roughly 8 or 9 years ago (depending on who you ask). Social networks themselves have come and gone. We brand marketers survived the “Overwhelming Era” from about 2011 – 2014 when it seemed like a new network, platform or community-driven website was popping up every month as the new craze, and as a marketer during this time, the need to explore all these options was very real. Hence the overwhelming part.  We were all seeking “engagement.” So here we sit, several years later. These platforms have grown up and evolved. But why haven’t what marketers call success in this space followed suit?

I’ve worked at six companies across multiple industries both on the client and agency side since that social brand boom in 2009, and have been either somewhat involved or straight-up leading the strategy and vision for the content marketing and social media practice at each of them. And at all of them, achieving social media engagement was and still is called pretty darn important. And from what I hear from other colleagues and read, it’s still very prevalent out in the world.

I get it. It’s a measure. It’s data. It’s some kind of benchmark of if things are working. But it’s also a crutch that’s about as inconsistent and out of the brand’s control as it can possibly be.

It should be a grain of salt.

Over those years I’ve seen plenty in this space. Sometimes things work. Then that same thing will completely not work. Then we’ll put a different amount of money against that thing or play with the audiences and then boom we get more engagement so it must have worked, right? Then it doesn’t work again. Sometimes we’d do research to actually ask people if they cared about the content or thing we did on there. But that’s also a grain of salt in this context.

I’ve used about 20+ social media analytics tools in my years of doing this and have been extremely ingrained in social media KPIs, metrics, and what we’ve thought at different points for what success looked like. I fought for why it’s important to execs. I’ve strived for those metrics. I’ve seen it change over the years. And my views on it have evolved over the years, too.

The reasons people “engage” with certain content on a specific platform can come down to the day, the time of day, their mood, because they just felt like it and other times don’t, or because the content was actually relevant to them, or because they saw friends engaging, or because they accidentally clicked a button for that matter. Brands have been in a tizzy for years trying to find the truth of why people engage like they do, and how to make said people do it consistently. I have, too.

Putting all this in the scope of the overall business, social engagement is like an email open rate. It could mean something, but it also might mean nothing. It could mean they are loyalists to your brand and wanted more information, or it could mean they could not care less about your brand but happened to engage on a piece of content because they like to do that on Tuesdays and were simply trying to delete it or unsubscribe.

Brands put so much weight on these social media metrics, for YEARS! but I think it’s time we call a spade a spade. It’s nice to see the engagement. But we need to start looking beyond and using social content for what it can do, and it shouldn’t any longer be about driving a “Like.”

It should be part of a bigger brand strategy, or movement, or campaign… to supplement as another touch-point for the consumer. Please stop making “social media campaigns” that are about “driving social media engagement.” They should be part of driving the overall business objectives, not about driving “shares.”

If I am leading a marketing strategy and there’s a new cross-channel brand campaign, of course social media will be one of the arms, but as long as we’re reaching who we want to reach, I could not care less if anyone actually “engages” with the content (and don’t forget about the lurkers – they never engage!). There are too many brands still putting too much overthinking into social media metrics. It’s not 2015 anymore.

And one more quick pseudo-rant: UGC is no longer a “big idea.” 

Can we please challenge ourselves to get beyond the constant agency pitches or interview candidates that come in with a “big idea” of launching a “UGC campaign?” Many brands have been doing UGC for almost 10 years. It’s old news. It’s a stale idea. Please, no more campaigns with the sole objective of generating user-generated-content.

UGC should be a by-product of a meaningful brand campaign or movement. If what you’re marketing resonates and is relevant, people in 2018 behave in a way where sharing personal stories related to this campaign is normal and expected (and has been for several years). And I can guarantee it, that’s the most authentic and real output you can get – when people actually care enough to do it on their own. If you’re a brand and still doing UGC photo contests for prizes or using a third-party tool to crowd-source stories based on a specific topic you’re trying to create content for, then your brand campaign or story isn’t strong or meaningful enough, or it’s not reaching the right people. Or your objective is misaligned.

You shouldn’t have to force UGC. That’s not real. And consumers know it.

I am still a big supporter of utilizing UGC as part of a bigger brand campaign or strategy…but…only when it means something and is real. You brand’s hashtag should be part of a much bigger brand play, not its own side thing to get people to share photos (example, #OptOutside for REI – a big emotional brand campaign that people felt something real for and wanted to share stories towards – it wasn’t a “share your photos with us” UGC-only campaign – when it’s good, it organically happens).

Again, it’s no longer 2015. Let’s think bigger and smarter and move beyond what we’ve seen for 8+ years in this space.

Content needs to be quality and meaningful and relevant. When you put your focus and attention in creating that, really truly putting in the effort and commitment, great things can happen. And still too often, brands don’t put nearly enough thought, resources and focus, and when they don’t, you get UGC photo contests or hashtags for one specific social media campaign. It’s getting tired. It’s noise.

Think about how social and content play into your larger marketing and business objectives and what it can really do for your brand, not about how it will generate social media metrics. Quality over quantity has never been more true. Your brand advocates and loyalists will thank you.



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