When I was a teenager I remember some girls at school sporting rings to show they were engaged. They had no real intention of getting married, despite their starry eyed dreams of one day being a princess; engagement was merely to offer some kind of handle to their insecurity as opposed to any real mature commitment.

Commitment, now there’s a thing. I remember my grandma once talking about it. Yet far from being old fashioned, isn’t that the real intention behind advertising – to drive some kind of commitment towards a brand from their consumer? Or has this too really become a thing of the past, favouring flighting fancies instead brought about like a bad episode of Sex in the City?

Cutting through all the Amercanism behind ‘engagement’ being bandied around as a proposed equal term for interaction, what we find is a panic-stricken way of justifying falling click through rates. However, I think it is being adopted with all the lustre of insecure teenage girl without any real substance or understanding of real-life experience – and to all these people I want to say one thing to you – bring back ‘courting’!

Think about it. Way before we can even talk about engagement comes the flirting.

Their eyes met across a room and a smile formed on her lips. He acted a fool, miming amusing gestures and the smile became a giggle. He walked over and made some cheeky comment and the giggle became a laugh. It is then that he gets the chance to offer to buy her a drink or ask her to dance… let alone a date.

Now, isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Engagement is not synonymous with interactivity. Engagement is the chemistry, the emotional connection, the mental appreciation of something way, way before the touchy-feely bit. Surprisingly, yes this can be tracked online – indeed it has been for years – post impression is the industries way of trying to tangibly measure this, i.e. someone saw something, and made a mental connection to follow up within a certain timeframe.

For too long we have been banging on about clicks and now I am seeing “pay per engagement” as some kind of commercial solution to the waning results afforded by pay per click, but yet again the industry is starting off down another dead-end road.

I want to see user journeys realistically evaluated – do I see therefore I click, do I see therefore I interact or do I see therefore I search? Who knows, I may do all of the above depending upon my mood and requirements whilst allowing time for my feelings and knowledge to develop a long way in advance for building up rapport direct with a brand.

Time. After all, you are not supposed to dive straight in there to declare undying love – people need time, and for good reason.

If you are not already, then familiarise yourself with the work of Robert Heath and his discussions on “Low Level Processing” and how this impacts advertising. Let me summarise for you. It was perceived you could never build a brand through print because it is predominantly a response medium, but Stella Artois turned this theory on its head when they built their brand through print. Basically they took how to measure TV and applied same analysis to print. What they did was demonstrated that the last 50 years of advertising was quite possibly the wrong way. It was only discovered in 2001.
What the study showed was that people do not ‘consciously’ take in the message, but any effect happens because of different part of brain takes it in, so this is not as easily measured as once assumed.

Now from a digital advertiser’s perspective, my point of view is this, if people do not take in immediately, you can’t expect them to react immediately – therefore difficult to measure immediately (i.e. clicks or interactions) but you could pick them up later – and hence post-impression. In fact a study Eyeblaster did proved just this – that conversions were 4:1 more likely to happen as a result of seeing an ad then actually clicking on an ad.

As Heath says, “low involvement does not translate to low impact – just more subtle!”

This is naturally enhanced from an advertiser’s viewpoint by the power of rich media at creating a more impacting stop-and-think message on screen. I’m talking catch her eye, make her smile.

Colour/placement will have an effect; different creative’s will have effect; different request upon the consumer – to remember (brand) or perform action (response) – but these effects may be relational to where the consumer was at any given moment in time and therefore not as influenced directly by the immediacy of advertising as traditional marketers would have us believe. Robert Heath’s theory of ‘the hidden power of advertising’ discusses low involvement processing of consumers who are who are more emotionally than cognitively charged in terms of decision making. It is tapping in to the realms of experience and emotion than knowledge that produces the greatest impacts, which puts ‘and now the science bit’ of the advert into a much smaller chunk of the effects of the consumer than previously thought.

Ken Kaess, CEO DDB Worldwide elaborates, “following Heath’s theory, instead of focusing on what people tell us directly about a product or commercial, new techniques will need to focus on the emotions and associations a brand communication taps into.”

And how will we do that? By bringing search into the mix of data analysis alongside display whilst tracking the viral affects of social media. Convergence. In the same way the girl may do a bit of detective work about the guy before committing to a date, so online we may see something that provokes interest, we may flirt and interact, then we may go research or chat on forums and talk with friends and build up a picture – and I can do that all before I go to an advertisers site. Let’s face it, just as some girls would never go back to a guys place and prefer to stay in public, so we too need to be prepared for the fact they may never show up on the advertiser’s site (they may go direct to another shop) and therefore never be picked up by post-impression or post-click tags. I wonder how many items are bought on Amazon without the user ever going to the manufacturer’s website – let alone a campaign microsite? Oops, did I just hear that you just spent your profit margin on a microsite? My condolences.

We need to stop being frightened about asking big questions. What was that initial emotional trigger – and can it be tracked across subsequent movements? That’s the real heart of the digital user experience and a truer definition of engagement, something that will lead to a decision making commitment. Not some new fangled trendy co-habitation, jumping in and out of bed and then justifying it like Peter Stringfellow. I want to see results, real results. Long-term lasting results; loyalty, retention, advocacy. I want those consumers to go on to become parents who spawn children equally stable with the brand, and then become grand-parents.

So not let’s build up yet another learning and justification to undo for advertisers. It’s time we learnt from the past and the mature amongst us need to lead by example.

In this new world of two-way social communication with consumer-control, we need to learn to respect their equal rights. Don’t palm off interaction as engagement. It’s about time advertisers stopped preaching with the arrogance of the past, fuelled by some new floored justification purported by certain vendors and agencies. It’s time they got some good-old fashioned values back, and got down on one knee.

And yes, please, bring back courting…