Ignoring an Important Indicator of Engagement

Are you engaged with engagement?

Engagement. It’s been all the rage the past few years as both for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations look for ways to create with their customers or members what we once called “stickiness”.  Gallup's work on employee engagement has also generated significant attention for the concept.

Much of the customer or member engagement emphasis, perhaps rightly so, has focused on activity-based metrics as the primary engagement indicator: liking posts on Facebook, checking in at a store on a location app, registering for a webinar, volunteering on a committee, et al.  Drawing on gaming principles, in some cases your activity is displayed publicly (i.e., our top blog commenters are … ) and badges and/or prizes are rewarded when certain activity thresholds are achieved.

But quantifying engagement by measuring activity alone is an incomplete (and insufficient) indicator.

To identify the missing element, consider how program designers craft outcomes in three areas for a learning experience:

  • Cognitive (intellect): what we want people to know and/or think
  • Psychomotor (physical activity): what we want learners to be able to do
  • Affective (heart and emotion): how we want participants to feel

Comparing learning outcome language to current engagement measures, you see that we favor psychomotor and cognitive engagement indicators.  Given that those are easier to measure, that's not too surprising.

What is most missing is the affective part of engagement, whether a customer or member feels engaged with your organization, your brand, your values, and much more. Intuitively we’d assume someone spending more time on your website, giving more money (or more regularly) to your fundraising appeals, or attending more of your programs would almost directly correlate with one’s engagement level.  Certainly many companies and associations act as if it does.

But to do so ignores the fact that engagement has qualitative aspects that may not correlate with its quantitative indicators. A few examples:
  •  A member could attend a lot of association events, but still feel outside the community or experience other forms of disconnect that might cause her to report a low level of engagement.  
  • Another member might be the classic "mailbox member" who never attends events or buys any products, but self-reports deep engagement because he reads your magazine cover to cover.
  • Or imagine the customer who infrequently buys your product but for whatever reason self-identifies as a brand loyalist deeply engaged with all that you offer. 
Personally, even though it is irrational, though I failed to visit a favorite neighborhood restaurant at all in 2015 I feel deeply engaged because of a few limited interactions with its owner in 2014.

If we are serious about using engagement as a success indicator in our organizations, we need to embrace both its qualitative and quantitative indicators.  We need to move beyond the activity that is easy to track to the feelings that individuals may hold toward the organization and its offerings.  We need to discover the measures that customers and members themselves would use as indicators of their engagement level.   

It's just possible that for some people, the heart of engagement is tied more to engagement of the heart than either the hands or the head.

Joe Rominiecki, who keeps an eye on all things membership for ASAE's Associations Now, was kind enough to point folks to this post. In doing so he rightly noted I had not suggested how to measure the affective part of engagement, so let me correct that.

I would suggest experimenting with asking members a simple question: How engaged do you feel with our association?  Since we're talking about how engaged a member feels, a self-reported assessment is really the only option.  

I might then consider including either or both of the following additional questions: 
  • For the engagement rating you selected, please describe your experience(s) with the association that most influenced your choice.
  • How does your current engagement level match with your overall desired engagement level?
I'll leave it to the survey/assessment pros to determine the response scales to offer, as well as how to do some cross-tab analysis with members' self-reported feelings of engagement with the more quantitative activity measures the association may be using.  The qualitative responses to the second would require some thematic analysis to see if there are any overall membership engagement trends that should be further explored. And the response to the third question might help guide future targeted communications and marketing for individual members based on their responses.