The creative cost of cheap social media engagements

By the time it became my job to know and navigate social media and online communities, the burgeoning social media marketing industry (at that time an uncomfortable conglomeration of PR, advertising, content, marketing and customer service folk) was already talking extensively about what was then its greatest challenge: measurability and return on investment.

The feasibility of measurement is no longer a topic for discussion. If we can think of it, we can measure it. The maturation of the platforms and adtech’s robust but questionable tracking capabilities made sure of that.

Social media marketers broadly agree on a handful of immutable rules. Armed too with the ‘how’ of measurement, we are more advanced than we were a decade and a half ago. With We Are Social’s Digital 2022 analysis reporting an active social media user base of 4.62 billion people globally, you’d better believe we have to be.

But in the grand scheme of things social media measurement and reporting still amount to a frontier industry full of unresolved paths to an undefined destination. More art than science, the way we seek and prove value in what we do varies from client to client, from brief to brief – and it’s still a matter of enormous debate.

Prateek Katyal via Unsplash

There are many reasons for the persistence of this measurement no-man’s land. The most fundamental and maybe the most uncomfortable is that social media can make good stuff happen that isn’t measurable.

In a recent article that passed my eyeballs thanks to Bob Hoffman’s newsletter, PR data expert Andrew Bruce Smith discussed the value of social media engagement in the context of the ‘passive information consumer’.

“For any given platform, the typical user is a passive information consumer,” he wrote. “They see posts in their feed, but don’t ‘engage’ with the vast majority of them.”

You see that? That’s me, that is.

For half my life I’ve spent half my time kicking around on one social media platform or another, taking in stories and participating in conversations and absorbing cultural odds ‘n’ sods, and I can promise you that I wouldn’t dream of liking or replying to anything from a brand.

Shit, with the very occasional exception of an Instagram post or LinkedIn update I wouldn’t like anything from a person either. Therein lies the difference between an engager and a non-engager, between a Liker and a liker. I’m not not there. I don’t not see your social media posts. But can you truly understand their impact on me and my relationship with your brand if I don’t click?

Smith’s article considers the activeness of social media users and concludes that highly active engagers are the minority, and that they often click ‘Like’ or reply with a couple of emoji by way of a reaction to no more than a headline or a few words.

He didn’t say it but I will: those unthinking engagements aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on. Social media professionals know this instinctively. Low-effort engagements don’t amount to much in their own right – that line of thinking has been in the rear view mirror for a long time now.

But there is, in the industry and its interface with adtech, a kind of unspoken acceptance that these measurable engagements are proxy indicators of success.

We’ve convinced ourselves that a post or campaign with solid reach (either the basic version or more scientifically verifiable advertising metrics and objectives) and a high engagement rate can be deemed successful because it’s performed well within the minority that tends to actively engage.

There’s an assumption that their actions can be extrapolated into the whole audience. Even setting aside the platforms’ algorithmic biases and ability to target users who’ve shown a willingness to engage in certain ways in order to fulfil advertising objectives, there’s a silent untruth beneath this: that those of us who don’t engage are the same in every other way as those who do.

But I am not like a Liker. I would suggest that people who like or reply to brand posts are also different from those who don’t in many other ways. Even on the surface we think differently and we’re motivated differently. Look deeper and we might prove to be very different indeed. Assuming we are the same is folly.

As a social media advertiser you can certainly reach me but you’ll have to work harder to know me because I simply will not show my hand. That doesn’t mean I don’t buy things or that I’m not in the tangle of consumers conveniently simplified as a funnel along with everyone else.

The industry and the platforms understand that Likes, Clicks and Shares do not meaningful engagement make. There have been strides towards a better basis from which to measure engagement, rooted in the knowledge that it’s entirely possible for someone who isn’t engaged to click ‘Like’ and for someone who is engaged to not.

The platforms are now geared up to treat various types of view metrics to absorb that knowledge into engagement reporting. After all, if I watch a brand’s social video for 15 seconds I can surely be defined as engaging with it.

That might be true but it cannot easily be proven so, which leaves us with a measurement conundrum not unlike the one we started with. We can’t know what we can’t know. We have no idea how, or even whether, our content really impacts non-engagers and the way they think or feel about our brands.

This has so far been an argument about measurement put forth by someone for whom measurement is rather lower down the list of priorities than it should be.

Perhaps it’s my non-engager personality but I primarily care about the work and the myriad intangible ways it can connect with audiences. I’m fascinated by the type of qualitative data that can only be gleaned from talking to people.

As Smith points out in his article, the easy measurement of cheap social media engagements isn’t a misrepresentation of audience uniformity in a vacuum. It affects creative. The cart leads the horse.

Social media posts are far too often created to trigger a measurable reaction (low-value, high-volume replies, perhaps most notably), not in service of an idea or a genuine action. Seen is better than good. Acknowledged is better than effective.

The apparently harmless assumption that the active slice of an audience is materially the same as the rest is in fact dangerous because it leads to the creation of noise. Crap. Cultural pollution.

Like if you agree. Fill in the missing word. Who’s ready for the weekend? Tag a friend.

We don’t work in a perfect world. There are reasons these assumptions and their implications take hold, and, truthfully, there are millions of people who have no problem with these types of content. If they really are engaged by that, if they feel closer to a brand, who am I to say their engagement doesn’t have value?

So, what I would actually advocate is that social media creative professionals and our measurement colleagues, and those who need to have a strong grasp of both at once, enter into work with open eyes and exercise vigilance in our thinking.

We must know and work within the limitations of our reality, not delude ourselves into a mentality of false success based on a flawed belief that only what can be easily measured should inform creative and storytelling.

An audience-first focus is a must but it has to be defined by the real motivations and passions and pressures of the right audience. Chasing and counting low-input engagements from people who tend to click and reply assumes that they’re more engaged than they are, all the while entirely ignoring and even alienating a higher-potential audience that thinks those posts are guff.