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Interruption vs. Engagement, Revised
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

My Advertising Age Column Started a Debate, Which Continues Here

Last week in Advertising Age, I tried to argue that we marketers should reevaluate our approaches to "interruption" and "engagement" marketing, as I think we're using both terms incorrectly. Budgets are getting shifted away from the short commercials of traditional media into longer social experiences of new media, like Old Spice's recent social campaign, as if the latter's entertainment can replace the former's historic utility.

Dozens of smart folks chimed in with ideas that either improved on what I'd tried to say, or added thoughts that had never occurred to me. I want to thank all of them...except for the numbnut who declared that "advertising is lies, all lies" and called us "paid prevaricators." I have no idea what he was doing slumming with us in one of the Inferno's inner rings, as he clearly belong further in.

I'd like to riff on what I found to be the most consistent and insightful commentary:

First, it was obvious that I muddled my basic premise. My point was that we've let our understanding of form dictate the function of our marketing efforts: social campaigns (or viral videos, in particular to the Old Spice case that was news last week and today is, well, Q.E.D.) can't be overtly commercial because people wouldn't seek them out or sit through them. Conversely, commercials have to sell and sell quickly/simply because they're so short, which is why people hate them. I think the semantics around these media limits our understanding and use of them.

Isn't interruption a brief engagement, and engagement a lengthy interruption?

That's the definitional challenge I'd hoped to make, but it didn't come across as forcefully as my case for reconsidering interruption (and, by default, my attack on engagement). A number of comments helped me see how I misstated my thinking on this point.

A related insight was that a number of people didn't buy my premise that we can still hope to sell to consumers, irrespective of medium. Some folks parroted the permission marketing nonsense that I think glorifies the egg without giving the chicken its due, but even they weren't altogether wrong. Consumers do not want to be sold the empty promises and silly nonsense that has passed for creative advertising for the past half century or more. But they still want communications that are truthful, relevant, and have some meaningful utility. My point was that advertising isn't bad; rather, we need to clarify what constitutes bad advertising, and then maybe the next step wouldn't be to avoid selling altogether, which is what much of the social media canon proscribes.

This leads to another group of comments I got that complained I'd presented the decision between traditional/new marketing as "either/or." But it is, at least in a number of companies that are trying to maximize limited marketing budgets and shifting money away from produced content (like TV spots) to social. And since the purposes of each approach are somewhat mutually exclusive because of how we've chosen to define them, it often also comes down to a decision between "selling" and "entertaining." I agree that this shouldn't be the case, though.

I think the most insightful comments argued forcefully for an answer that lies somewhere in the middle -- that engagement through social should be a part of a marketing strategy and not a stand-in for the strategy itself -- but I'm still struggling with how to make that answer a reality. It statement just feels no different from the argument that sugary cereal should be a part of every balanced breakfast: surround something with good stuff and it becomes good, too, at least by any aggregate measure.

I understand the yearning to make social matter, and I share it. There's so much about the interactivity, the reality and real-time-ness, and the ubiquity of social media engagement that impacts every business, whether we acknowledge it or not. But that belief isn't a rationale for throwing out every time-tested expectation for marketing in order to create a social campaign, nor to thereafter set forth to discover or invent proof that our belief is correct.

Which brings me back to semantics. If successful "engagement" means getting consumers to pay attention to something with no commercial message, no relevance to their needs, no truthful content about a product, service, or business, and no future utility, then most social media campaigns are gigantic successes. But I'd call them a waste of time, or at least the risk of one. You can call swapping empty social calories for an interaction that could have had more value for a consumer and a brand anything you want, and even wish for it to be good, but that doesn't it make it so.

Conversely, if "interruption" means telling consumers things they don't care about, can't use, and aren't even true, then that's a waste of time, too. It's an interaction that no brand can afford today.

The fundamental point I’d hoped to make in my Advertising Age column was that we need to get past these silly definitions and made-up expectations, and realize that interruption and engagement are simply two ways of describing much the same thing. Conversation. And if it's truthful, relevant, and offers utility, it works, whatever we call it. The devil's in the details.

Thanks again to everyone for participating in the conversation.

Added: 26th July 2010

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