By J. Dean Spence
What would you say if, when you asked me what marriage is, I answered “Marriage is meeting someone, dating, falling in love, getting engaged, planning a wedding, going to the chapel…”
You might stop me and say “Whoa, Jason Dean! That’s not marriage. That’s maybe how people come to be married. But marriage is a state of union between spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.”
No one would define marriage the way I did. They would all define it similarly to how you did.
However, when people—even digital experts who know their stuff—talk about social media engagement they do use a definitional strategy like I used to define marriage. “Engagement is getting likes, shares and comments on my posts.” Or, “It’s when I enter into dialogue in social spaces with audiences that read my posts.” But that’s not defining engagement—that’s just articulating how it comes to be.
I’ve only read one satisfying definition of the term by marketing scholar Ian H. Gordon who says it is “forward thinking”, and suggests that it is entering into a collaborative relationship with your audience in an effort to arrive at a mutually desirable future state.
So, for example, if you are an internal communication specialist who wants to engage your company’s employees, engagement might look like creating a better workplace through effective communication. It gets trickier to define what engagement looks like, however, for external social media communicators wanting to engage audiences.
The New York Times’ Founder, Adolph Ochs’ vision for the paper was “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” And today, the paper engages me in this way by allowing me, with my digital subscription, to comment on stories on the NYT app.
Of course, the NYT is not a social media platform. But, although unlikely, let’s pretend that the folks at the NYT knew about Gordon’s definition of engagement and used it when they designed their digital paper. The same principle would apply to you: start with Gordon’s definition of engagement and then figure out what engagement looks like for your company.
To be better digital communicators, and better strategic communicators in general, we must first understand clearly what engagement is. Engagement is a journey—you might get there by walking down any road you happen to come to, but if you have a map you’ll get there sooner.