The disastrous consequences of measuring engagement

The engagement metric is steering social media marketers very wrong. Here’s what you should be doing instead.

The disastrous consequences of measuring engagement

Brad Smallwood, Facebook’s VP of measurement of insights, published research saying there’s “no link” between trendy online measures and ad effectiveness. (Photo via Facebook video capture)

Brands have measured engagement since the beginning of social marketing. We couldn’t have chosen a worse metric.

Facebook included engagement data its first Facebook Ads dashboard in 2007. That same year Forrester declared engagement “marketing’s new key metric.” Ever since, brands have listed engagement as their standard social metric.

But measuring engagement has proven disastrous for marketers. This insidious metric fails to gauge our success, undermines our ability to improve social marketing, and ultimately makes us look stupid.

Engagement data doesn’t measure success

Social sites have given marketers piles of engagement data for more than a decade. But Sprout Social says 55% of marketers still can’t measure social ROI — making it our top social challenge.

The disastrous consequences of measuring engagement

The reason for this disconnect: Engagement doesn’t actually describe marketing success.

  • There’s little connection between engagement and business value. United Airlines created the most engaging Facebook post of 2017. Just one problem: All the engagement was negative. But social sites report all engagement, good or bad, as “success.” Brands find even positive engagement doesn’t indicate business results. One senior sporting goods marketer tells me, “In 2016 we had our most engagement ever, but sales were soft. We have seen significant value since dropping engagement as a core metric.”
  • Facebook agrees engagement doesn’t prove success. The company admits in its own marketing materials that “industry research has repeatedly shown that engagement rates do not correlate with the outcomes ultimately used to judge the success of marketing efforts.” Facebook’s head of marketing science, Brad Smallwood, calls engagement data “irrelevant” and says it has “no more chance of predicting actual business outcomes … than a random guess.” No wonder Facebook’s case studies nearly always feature business metrics like sales and awareness, and almost never highlight engagement.

Engagement data prevents us from improving

The best digital marketers optimize their campaigns and define best practices. Search and email marketers relentlessly test and learn — one reason these channels drive higher average order values than social. Meanwhile, social marketers’ focus on engagement data teaches us “lessons” that don’t lead to business outcomes.

  • It keeps us from optimizing campaigns. Telecom provider Cox found that image ads generated less social engagement than other creative formats, so it removed them from its ad buys. But when Cox started tracking conversions from social, it saw that image ads drove more revenue than other ad formats. The lesson: “Optimizing” for engagement doesn’t make our campaigns perform better, and may actually make them perform worse.
  • It destroys our ability to identify best practices. When we don’t measure which social programs drive business results, we celebrate and replicate social strategies without knowing if they really worked. For instance, social vendor Buffer’s list of “21 Facebook and Instagram video tips” promotes social video but offers only engagement as proof of its value. And even here on Marketing Land, the column titled “Three brands still killing it on Facebook” marvels at engagement but offers no evidence these brands’ campaigns drive business results. (Editor’s note: Keep in mind that businesses are often reluctant to share revenue numbers for publication.)
The disastrous consequences of measuring engagement

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Engagement data makes us look stupid

For years social marketers have reported data that doesn’t prove success and at the same time have failed to get any better at our jobs. Meanwhile, other digital marketers have driven reliable business value. The result: It’s pretty hard for our bosses to take us seriously.

  • Our peers in other channels prove actual success. Search, display, and email marketers report CMO-friendly metrics like leads, sales, and lifetime value. Many can split credit for conversions between channels and optimize spending mid-campaign. While our peers run advanced models on business outcomes, social marketers do simple math on debunked engagement data. We might as well claim that two plus two equal seventy.
  • Our bosses don’t believe social works. Given social marketers’ refusal to report business metrics, it’s little wonder less than one-quarter of CMOs say they can prove the value of social. One senior travel marketer, discussing email, echoes a common refrain when he says that marketing leaders consider other digital channels vastly superior to social. “That’s never even been a conversation,” he told me. “Email is a respected channel.” By contrast, social is not.

Instead of engagement, measure what matters to your company

Yes, it’s easy to measure engagement. But we need to do better in order to gauge our success, improve social marketing, and convince our bosses that social works.

  • Focus on business success. CEOs don’t report engagement rates on earnings calls — they report brand strength and sales. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank reportedly uses a prominent sign in his office to remind employees, “Don’t forget to sell shirts and shoes.” That explains why Under Armour measures purchase intent, rather than engagement, when advertising on social media.
  • Borrow peers’ metrics and tools. Our CMOs already trust certain metrics (like brand awareness and sales) and have already hired measurement vendors (like web analytics firms and CRM platforms). When we use social vendors and report engagement data, we reduce the chance that our bosses will believe in the value of social. Instead, we must use the tools our companies already have.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Nate Elliott is the principal of Nineteen Insights. He helps brands create great marketing programs and he helps marketing technology companies build great products. As a Forrester analyst and a DoubleClick product manager Nate shaped the growth of digital marketing. Over the past 20 years he’s worked with every big online publisher, brand, and agency. Nate believes in the power of integration: To succeed, digital marketing must support the same goals and measure the same outcomes as traditional marketing. He distributes free data and research at

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