The great paradox for communicators and marketers is that while we give rhetorical priority to concepts of interactivity and audience-focused programs, we continue to hammer away at “breaking through the clutter,” “capturing people’s attention” and “getting people to do things.” Yet, even before the emergence of social media the music was already echoing off the walls: It’s no longer about getting attention, it’s about earning it.
That last phrase was all I was able to write down for the latest Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants before their deadline. The reason is because the topic wasn’t just about ‘cutting through clutter,’ but how to engage your audience once they elect to give you the time of day (or you happen to be at the opening). And the engagement process is one that I have been doing some research on for the past few months. Engagement is one of those words that everyone uses – ‘how do we engage our audience’ – but has been lacking any concrete definitions. With the client’s OK, here’s a run down on what we’re learning about what makes communication engaging – so far.
The project involves re-imagining health information sites for the Web 2.0 reality. We have been looking at such issues as:
- The changing nature of search technologies and how people find health information.
- The segments of health seekers and searchers and their characteristics.
- Designing health content that addresses various types of digital divides, especially focusing on the needs of people with low literacy and low health literacy skills.
- Applying lessons from eHealth studies to structure these sites towards enabling behavior change among users.
- Developing and testing a model for presenting health information using various outcome measures.
- Exploring how to measure engagement of users with the content. Our ultimate goal here is to establish a set of measures that can then be used to test various usability, design and social media approaches that will enhance user experiences on the site and increase their likelihood of trying new health behaviors – or using the information in their interactions with family and friends who want to change their own behavior.
If you are familiar with the engagement measurement initiative of the Advertising Research Foundation, that is not what we are doing in terms of brand encounters (though there may be some applicable lessons). Rather, we are interested in measuring the level of involvement and interaction a user has with health content (in this case presented as pages on a website) as an intervening variable in the behavior change process. A working hypothesis is: the more engagement a user has with health content, the more likely s/he is to:
- Recommend the site to others
- Return for follow-up visits
- Bookmark or tag the relevant pages
- Contribute content to the site via rating pages, making recommendations, post comments, etc
- Find the content appropriate, acceptable and applicable for themselves and the problem they are looking for information on
- Report feeling more prepared, confident and inclined to change a health behavior
- Try new health behaviors
- Maintain those behaviors
We used an initial pool of 12 items to measure engagement. Of these items, the ones that asked how clever, suspenseful, and absorbing content was accounted for the most number of significant differences among demographic groups for one or more of the 9 health topics we investigated. These items all seem to reflect an underlying dimension that reflects the attentive (or “involving”) properties of the materials (although the specific item attention-grabbing was only rated differently by groups in two instances—once in association with clever and in the other with surprising). Thought-provoking, stimulating, and convincing were the other items that we also found distinguished between groups on at least two occasions.
SO what? Well, we seem to have found a way allow people to discriminate how engaging they find health content. Our initial findings that different groups of people find some content more engaging than other groups (for instance, older adults find information about high blood pressure management more engaging than younger adults) is, on the one hand, intuitive. Yet, the implications are we may now use this measure of engagement to actually see how changes in content, layout, language, navigation and interactivity affect the illusive ‘engagement’ our audience has given us, and how to deepen this effect to enable positive impacts on their lives and further our health and social goals. Calibrating our content - whether it be presented aurally, tactually or visually, though print, electronic or digital media – to maximize it’s ability to engage people once they are open to it is the next big step for communicators and marketers.
How to engage your audience? Start with presenting information in clever, unexpected ways that raises a question or poses a problem the audience is interested in solving. It all goes back to being relevant to their lives [pdf], not ours.