Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Rules of Engagement

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for this important message….

Last week, Advertising Week, there was a panel discussion hosted by Mediapost on the topic of Engagement. This has been a hot topic over the past few years, and now I feel compelled to weigh in on the subject. So, excuse me while I disengage from our ongoing review of the evolution of advertising, with the purpose of bringing historical perspective to the rapid changes occurring in our times, to address this important issue.

(Due to space limitations, this post is a condensed version of the point-of-view which came attached with the email announcement you received. If, for any reason, you did not receive the attachment, please feel welcome to email me and request another copy.)

What is Engagement? Joe Plummer, Chief Research Officer of the Advertising Research Foundation, put forward the ARF’s “working definition” of Engagement as follows: to turn on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.

Erwin Ephron, media consultant, criticizes this definition as having no operational construct from which to base rational decisions. “We have a traditional advertising model,” he states, “which says media attract audience which is delivered to advertising. In this model there is media engagement, which is people attracted by media, and there is advertising engagement, which is people effected by advertising. These are two different kinds of engagement, and we have many useful measures for each. There is no reason to throw those measurements away until we find something that is more useful. And that’s what we seem to be doing.”

There are qualitative differences in the advertising environment of every media vehicle and type. Media planners use various measures to help understand these qualitative distinctions among competing media vehicles. In print, the quality of the advertising environment might be inferred by looking at measures such as the percentage of relevant editorial, or time spent reading, or the degree to which readers clip articles or information, or to what extent readers describe a publication as “one of my favorites”, or one or more of many other such measures.

From a media planning perspective, when we talk about Engagement we’re talking about these kinds of qualitative considerations. Engagement is about how the quality of the environment in which the advertising is exposed enhances or detracts from the communication of the advertising message. When media sellers talk about how their readers/viewers are engaged, they are talking about the magnitude of interest and involvement their audience has with the media and the advertising. In this respect, Engagement is the new word for an old concept. It’s about how people relate to their media of choice.

If a single Engagement metric is ever devised, designed to be used as a measure of qualitative differences among media vehicles, I believe it will fail. Beginning in the 1980s, a number of agencies experimented with just such a metric, called “Media Values”.

The concept of Media Values was based on the observed fact that “a grp is not a grp”. Qualitative differences among television dayparts, and across media types, strongly suggest that an exposure in one media vehicle has a different communication value than an exposure in another vehicle. The practical application of this concept was to arrive at a Media Value for each vehicle and apply it to the impressions delivery to come up with an adjusted, value-weighted media delivery. So, for example, a Prime :30 would have a Media Value index of 100, whereas a Daytime :30 might be assigned a media value of 50. Where did these media values come from? They were assigned arbitrarily based on judgmental considerations of qualitative factors, such as amount of clutter, measured attentiveness levels, and other factors. The value-weighted impressions resulted, of course, in value-weighted cpms both for individual media vehicles and total media plans. Thus, in theory, you could now compare a media plan that was more efficient but used media that were deemed to have lower quality communication value against a media plan that was less efficient but used media with higher quality communication values.

The purpose of Media Values was to be able to quantify our qualitative judgments. However, the experiment with Media Values was a failure. Rather than illuminate the differences among media plan options, Media Values tended to wash the differences away so that plans appeared minimally different from one another. Furthermore, estimating media audiences is a rough science at best. Our audience estimates do not carry the kind of precision that enable to us to put too fine a point on their accuracy, so it is wrong to base decisions on minimal differences between them. And value-weighted audience estimates are certainly even less precise.

Additionally, averages can be misleading. Media Values based on “averages” of attention levels across broad demographic groups and product users may hide the true nature of communication values for specific target segments and product users. What may be true for a daypart, for example, may not be true for specific programs within the daypart.

Finally, Media Values do not reflect the synergy of combinations of media. Studies show that the combination of media is generally more effective than any one media by itself, but Media Values have no way of reflecting this dynamic.

I fear we are heading down the same path with the concept of Engagement as we did with the concept of Media Values. And if that’s the case, I suspect it will meet with the same fatal result.

Instead, I would rather see greater attention paid to the more fundamental exercise of counting audiences. Nielsen has been measuring tv audiences for over 50 years, and we are only now beginning to get a glimpse at commercial ratings. As media fragmentation continues to erode audiences for all media, and technology enables viewers to shift time and place of viewing, our audience estimates are becoming more and more susceptible to error. How can we ever feel confident about a more abstract magnitude of qualitative factors that influence our media choices if we can’t even feel confident about a discrete, countable audience size? There is much room for improvement in our basic measures of audiences for all media.

Also, taking a page from the online world, we don’t have to select media simply on the basis of demographic target segments. There are many ways to select target segments, including by behavior. As behavioral and contextual targeting have proved very successful with online advertising, perhaps they should be applied more often to offline media as well.

We can also consider the monetary value of people we reach who are not in our selected target audience. Instead, we treat them as if they don’t exist and have no value at all when in fact they most certainly contribute to the bottom line.

Finally, we need to provide media planners with better feedback on how their media plans perform. Too often, planners never learn the detailed results and analysis of sales (and margins) as they are impacted by advertising, promotion, distribution, and other factors. How can planners learn and adjust their plans appropriately without such feedback?

Another View of Engagement

Why is Engagement an important issue now? Advertisers, planners, and researchers continually try to better understand how advertising works, and try to develop models or theoretical constructs to guide our decision-making. We have learned from our collective experiences, and our understanding of the forces of advertising continues to evolve.

Looking back in history, Albert Lasker, called the Father of Modern Advertising, was driven to understand the nature of advertising. He asked his contemporaries of the early 1900s, “What is advertising?” They said it was “keeping your name in front of the public”. Lasker was not satisfied with this answer. He looked at what other successful agencies were doing. He saw one agency wrote advertising as if it were news about a product. Lasker thought, that’s it, advertising must be news. But one day in the Spring of 1904, a man by the name of John E. Kennedy came and sent him a note. The note said, “I am downstairs in the saloon, and I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you want to know what advertising is, send the word “yes” down by the bell boy.”

What Kennedy said to Lasker that day was that advertising was “salesmanship in print”. It’s been said there has never been a better definition of advertising. Yet here it is, more than a hundred years since that fateful meeting when the ad industry discarded the old definition of advertising as “keeping your name before the public” and adopted the notion that advertising was “salesmanship”. And what do we see growing in popularity? Product placement. What are the hot topics of the day? Consumer-generated media, word-of-mouth, and viral campaigns. Is that salesmanship?

As marketing communications moves from a monologue directed at the masses to a dialogue with individuals, is it time to revisit our definition of advertising? As technology enables us to go from talking at prospects to engaging in conversation with them, is our old definition in need of revision?

Is the definition of Engagement really about a new definition of advertising (or, more broadly, of marketing communications)? Is advertising, or marketing communications, now about “turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context?”

Keep reading our Smarter Ideas posts. As we continue to review the historical evolution of advertising, we will soon come to current times and will talk about the new era we are in. And we will address Lasker’s question anew. What have we learned in the last 165 years of the advertising industry? What remains the same, and what is different? What is Advertising in the 21st century?

We will now return you to our regularly scheduled program….

Sources and additional reading:

Kenneth H. Myers, Jr., SRDS The National Authority Serving the Media-Buying Function, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1968.

Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1984

Mediapost, Media Daily News, 9/29/06, Video Coverage of Forecast 2007