When Engagement Goes Afoul

Just placing your message in front of people, especially in today’s cacophonous world, simply does not work. Much like we zoom past dozens of billboards on our way to work every day without even noticing that they’ve changed, getting your message out is a poor way to measure how well you’re messaging. Our social marketing friends will tell you that’s a core component to the work that they do: measure success by success (also known as behavior change), not by opportunity for change (also known as failure to change).

But when we move out of tightly controlled social marketing situations and academia, how do you measure success? How does government measure success? Well, for a long time, it was counting eyeballs. We gave out 500 brochures, our bus ads were seen by 100,000 people, our website got 10,000 hits, our Facebook page has 1,500 likes. But just because people saw our message doesn’t mean that the message was successful, just that the medium was.

As eyeball-counting has lost its luster, comms folks have started talking about engagement, especially in social media. How many times were we retweeted? How many folks shared our Facebook post? This is definitely growth from the days of billboards and newspaper ads, so it’s a good thing. And while we can’t evaluate behavior change, we can count behavior, albeit small. This is a Good Thing.

But when we figure out good things, we inevitably find shortcuts. We find cheaters. We find folks who create “zombie communities.” We find folks like those who run Bank of America’s Twitter account:

When Twitter user @darthmarkh tweeted about how he was chased away by cops after drawing chalk in front of a New York City Bank of America that was pointing out how BofA was taking away people’s homes, the BofA Help Twitter account decided to jump in and asked @darthmarkh if he needed help with his account… completely ignoring the fact that @darthmarkh was eviscerating Bank of America right in front of its face.

In an effort to make sure to engage with everyone that reached out them, Bank of America automated its responses. So when other folks chimed in to continue to complain, guess what the Bank of America Twitter account did? Yep, ran through it’s entire list of pre-approved, empathetic, personally-signed tweets responding to them all. (If you want to see the whole insane back and forth, Gizmodo has a huge image of it here.

What does this mean for us? Well, first of all, don’t ever do that. Ever. Second, think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you need to be everything to everyone? Is there ever a time to engage less? (Yep, we talked about this yesterday.) This post on GovLoop highlights one of the real pitfalls of trying to be everything to everyone:

Both individuals and organizations who try to engage on too many platforms will find that it’s almost impossible to maintain that engagement without increased and/or dedicated resources. If they don’t increase their resource commitments, they are very likely to end up with abandoned digital properties and other digital detritus.

We need to focus on energy on where it’s most useful. If that means replying to every tweet that mentions you, then make sure you can support that. For most of us that’s not possible, so don’t set up a system that requires that. Don’t shortcut it. The public knows and with the viral nature of that social media you’re trying to exploit, well, let’s just say you don’t want to end up on Gizmodo.

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