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Engagement Fatigue: The Ultimate Consumer Response to Irrelevant Engagement Marketing


Engagement Fatigue: The Ultimate Consumer Response to Irrelevant Engagement Marketing

Oct 17, 2009By Michael Stoner

I’m writing about disorder today.

Not one that we face at this precise moment, mind you, but one that we will experience as marketers rush headlong into the social web. As we create community after community so that we can coerce — I  mean encourage — ”friends,” “fans,” “followers,” and whatever else you want to call those elusive, sought-after “brand fanatics” to engage with us.

The disorder is engagement fatigue. Engagement fatigue will occur when mass numbers of people participating in social networking — everyone who is making marketers salivate because they’re swarming to Facebook, Twitter, etc. — get tired of brand engagement marketing and tune out.

I’m proposing engagement fatigue for inclusion not only in marketing lexicon, but in the DSM IV, because when it manifests itself, psychologists may need to help marketers recover from engagement fatigue reaction disorder. [Note: Before posting this, I Googled both terms and couldn’t find them, which means I’m making an historic contribution to both marketing and psychology. Cool!]

Musings from #musms09

I’m thinking about this because I attended a terrific conference this week —  a social media summit at the University of Missouri — where Brad J. Ward (@bradjward) and Liz Allen (@lizallen) shared different perspectives on the importance of understanding and managing social media. [You can check out their presentations and track back-channel conversation.]

Brad talked about how marketers like Volkswagen and Vitamin Water are embracing Facebook, using the staggeringly popular social network to build brand communities where people can follow and engage with their brands. My first reaction that this is an compelling glimpse of the possible.

Then reality set in. Is it just me who believes that a brand community centered around Vitamin Water just might not be sustainable? And, moreover, that there aren’t that many brands that have enough emotional resonance to engage people for an extended period of time?

I’m probably a poor sample, but there are very few brands that I personally care enough about to engage with or about in a community.

Not that I’m not loyal to certain brands. One that surely qualifies is Apple. Apple has helped me to be more productive at work and its products enhance my personal life. As a result, I’ve personally spent or authorized upwards of $1.5 million for laptops and other hardware; software; iPods; iPhones and assorted accessories; not to mention apps and iTunes purchases in the past 20 years.

I talk about my experience with Apple products and can state unequivocally that it provides the best customer service I’ve ever experienced. But while I really appreciate the tools that Apple has created — and while some people may consider me a fanboy, though I don’t  - I haven’t signed up for an Apple community or group of any sort and can’t imagine myself doing so. Emotional resonance with a brand only goes so far for me, even with my Mac.

Do you engage with brand communities?

How about you? I know people who are involved in all kinds of online communities, but most of them are grass-roots communities based on professional or esoteric interests, not communities built by a brand for the sole purpose of its promulgation.

For many brands, building a brand-focused community is going to require a lot of dedication, inspiration, perspiration, and ultimately frustration because the really hard and most elusive part will be getting enough people to care long enough to achieve some sort of ROI on the effort involved in building the community. And without that effort, theres little chance that a community will succeed. Its quite a conundrum and already Ive seen communities fail. You have too.

Moreover, how many brands have enough emotional resonance with people for them to spend time in a brand community engaging with others around the brand?

I can think of some brands that I believe have the requisite consumer loyalty and enough interest over time to sustain a community. Harley Davidson. Sporting teams—the Chicago Cubs, the Red Sox, Manchester United. How many more? I’m just not sure.

So I suggest that most brands just don’t have the scale, emotional resonance, and long-term loyalty to make a community work. People may continue to buy a brand’s merchandise — as I’ll continue to buy Apple products because they’re well-designed, durable, and easy to use — but I think that most brands are going to have a huge challenge translating loyalty to real, long-term engagement through Facebook or other social networks.

That’s where I believe schools, colleges and universities have a real advantage. People really care about these institutions and have an emotional connection with them, one that may be rekindled via a thoughtfully managed, truly engaging social network—not that this is going to be easy or free.

Engagement spam—then, engagement fatigue

From a larger perspective, though, what happens when every marketer is trying to engage customers and potential customers? [Oops, how Web 1.0‑ish of me! I meant friends!]

You can see engagement spam coming as marketers harangue us to join their communities. People will ignore it and either wont participate or will stop participating in communities. And as a result, a lot of communities will collapse.

While I believe that people do crave real engagement, once the fad of engagement marketing is over, they just won’t make time for the phony engagement that most marketers will serve up. And they’ll take their attention elsewhere.

So what’s a brand to do?

The most important step is to create communities around meaningful exchanges with others in ways that are relevant to the brand and to the genuine interests and needs of community members. Brands can’t be manipulative when they create or sponsor engagement around issues or concerns related to the core brand.

Amy Mengel makes this point in Five reasons corporations are failing at social media, based on notes from the October Inbound Marketing Summit.

She cites as examples Citrix Online’s Workshifting community, developed to help people who telecommute or work out of other nontraditional locations; Kodak’s photography blog that covers a lot more than Kodak products, and the community that Humana, the health insurance giant, developed around bicycle sharing. And she remarks, “If a company is only talking online about its specific products and not looking for ways to connect to the bigger picture, it’s pretty difficult for people to be engaged.”

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?