The Engagement Thing

I’m cold on engagement. Sure, I used to have a planning chart that I rolled out from time to time that said, more or less, “The secret to social media success is to listen, respond, influence and engage,” but when I became a man I put away childish things. In this particular case, it involved replacing the word “engage” with the word “enlist” (I had a thing about creating zombie armies. I still do, if I’m being honest.)

One of the articles I share most often is Martin Weigel’s ‘Engagement: Fashionable Yet Bankrupt’. The paper has become a bit of a touchstone for me; and I can’t recommend it highly enough. On re-reading it recently, however, I was struck by something I’d not really noticed before; the fashion for Engagement that he was discussing seemed to be much older than I’d thought.

So, armed with an exciting new discovery (ScraperWiki) I set off to datamine the BrandRepublic archives. My aim was to find articles that mentioned the term “engagement”, and chart them day by day.

Here’s the scraper I built. And here’s what I managed to come up with as a first stab at the visualisation.


It was deeply flawed, and over-plotting hides most of the detail, but I felt I was on the right track. So I ran the plot again, only this time I plotted the monthly totals instead of day by day (I’d never used R’s zoo library or table function before, but together they represent another nail in the coffin for my everyday use of Excel):

Monthly engagement

That’s a nice-and-steady looking upward trend. But looking at the data, I could see one or two problems. For one thing, Brand Republic’s search takes a few liberties: a search for “engagement” turns up results for “engaged” or “engaging.” For another, it seems that many clients engage agencies, not just their audiences. I chickened out a little, and using the keyword analysis toolset that I’ve been building, I tried to narrow and focus the list. This gave me a list of just over 60 bigrams (like “engage audiences”, “customer engagement”, “engaged with”). While this list would significantly reduce the results returned, I’d feel more secure about the findings.)

Armed with this list, I did a little more mining, and finally produced this chart, comparing the increase in posts mentioning “Engagement” and “Social Media” in the Brand Republic archive:

Things to notice

The trend for Engagement begins long before the trend for Social Media, and possibly even a time before that misbegotten ur-text, those Plates of Nephi of Social Media, “The Cluetrain Manifesto“. I believe that this has coloured thinking about Social Media’s strategic and business objectives, and not for the better. I suspect that we have inherited and assimilated the idea of engagement as a goal, as a KPI into our practice in the same way that the early Christians absorbed elements of paganism into their beliefs.

Marketers — who are preternaturally sensitive to trends as it is — are swamped by mentions of Social Media and Engagement. They can’t escape them.

And — don’t both lines look suspiciously as though there’s a feedback loop in place? Journalists write about trend x. Marketers read about trend x, come up with their response. Journalists write about their response. Should we worry about this? Or just accept it as the way of the world?


  1. says

    Really like this. Had an idea to interrogate the Delicious API to look at trends in secondary tags used on posts saved with the primary tag "marketing". Expect you'd see a similar trend there. Unfortunately a dev colleague told me that the API wouldn't allow this kind of query.

    • says

      Funny — I think that (in its Yahoo! days) Delicious used to be a little more open. Certainly I recall some interesting work done around the network analysis of co-occurring tags. Now — I agree — the API seems far more closed. Perhaps it’s possible to scrape (although the lack of obvious pagination is probably beyond me.)

    • says

      I was surprised to find this was the case: I recall some interesting network analysis work done with data from the old (Yahoo-era) API — but the new owners seem to have locked it down to the point that it's practically useless.

      I've also taken a cursory look at a couple of scrapers built for it (both broken.) it strikes me that it might be non-trivial to build one that worked.

      Notwithstanding this <dander style = "up"> I shall take a closer look and report back when I have time</dander>. It strikes me as an interesting question!

    • Chris Miller says

      "Disruption" is another overused term, in a marketing context, that has me clenching my teeth a little.


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