Are You Engaged? How About Now?

May 3, 2016

Much of our work at Fast Horse is done with the goal of building consumer engagement with a brand – and often, we measure engagement by how many people like, share, heart (or in the good old days of Twitter – up until several months ago – “star”) content posted on social media. We create content that we hope will be particularly share-worthy, and just as often, we work with social media influencer/content creators who know their craft and their audience to do it on our clients’ behalf.

As a person who has read a lot of solikeciology, anthropology and (especially) media audience studies in her day, I struggle with the notion that simply pressing a thumbs up or a heart signifies any real meaning.

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Anthropologist Clifford Geertz ponders ritual and social change in everyday life

Anthropology would tell us that this is ritualized behavior – and suggest that logging on to your social feed of choice may simply be part of an every-day ritual that entails scrolling, scanning and clicking and perhaps brings you comfort or satisfaction or belonging.

Sociology might tell us that the very act of conferring a heart to a social post represents an attempt to gain social capital – the idea that if you heart another person’s content, you’ll align yourself with their thinking and perhaps become a more valued member of their community (or at least they won’t “mute” you on their Twitter feed).

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Theorist Pierre Bourdieu (looking very French) considering cultural and social capital

Finally, media audience studies might suggest that we’re all just constantly negotiating meanings in the social posts we read, and that some are very personal understandings of the photos or words in front of us. And what this means is constantly shifting.

I suspect that all three modes of thinking are at play when people swipe through their Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or Facebook feeds. This is why I always cringe a little bit when we assume that the likes and hearts truly signify engagement with a piece of content. Perhaps lingering on a post somewhat longer means more? (Or perhaps it means that I left my laptop open when I went to grab another cup of coffee.) Perhaps the fact that I’ve shared it means I engaged with it? (Or perhaps that means that I just wanted a friend to see it because I knew she would know that I was rolling my eyes at what it said.)

In other words, engagement is still a slippery proposition when it comes to social content. So, let’s just give up, count our hearts and call it a day, right?

Absolutely not. This is why marketers need to truly do their work before the content is even posted. It means using research and insight to better understand the audience that you are trying to reach and learn about the content that gets them posting hearts and also commenting and engaging in positive conversation with one another.

It also means carefully choosing influencers who are expert content creators in your category. Don’t just review and vet them. Look closely and carefully at the kind of content they post, and follow how their audience reacts. Evaluate whether the look and feel of their images and the tone of their social posts resonates with your client’s brand. Finally, guide those creators to produce work that resonates with their own followers and also will likely resonate with potential brand champions who will also be driven to the content.

And yes, be strategic about how audiences discover that content. Post it on all of the clients’ social channels, the influencers’ social channels and anywhere else where it might reach your target audience. Sometimes – okay, often times – you will have to pay Facebook or Twitter to ensure the post is viewed by the audience that you want. Sometimes that is simply worth the money.

Media theorist Ien Ang reminds us that the audience does not always choose to understand your content as you intend for it to be understood.

Media theorist Ien Ang reminds us that the audience does not always choose to understand your content as you intend for it to be understood.

Finally, measure and monitor. Which kinds of posts seem to get the most traction with your audience? Let this information guide your future creative briefs for influencers, and in the meantime, build in flexibility so you can post more of those types of social posts.

Ultimately, your audience truly might be scrolling and sharing as part of their evening ritual, or liking and hearting to create a sense of belonging, or sharing as a means of resisting the message of the text (weird things happen in media studies). At least you’ll know that you’ve done your job to make that content as engaging as humanly possible.