A new buzzword is hovering over the social media universe. It has been repeated mantra-like so many times (and one wonders whether with or without full awareness of its far-reaching implications) that engagement has ceased to be a means to an end in the eyes of many and surprisingly become the ‘raison d’être’ of every social media (and according to some unsuspecting commentators and bloggers, personal branding) strategy. Posts and articles on how to improve engagement in social media ecosystems proliferate – Mike Stenger‘s recent (and otherwise helpful) take on Google + being an excellent example – and social media strategists busy themselves with techniques and tactics to drive up their engagement metrics.

Social media engagement

So much so that the staunchest defenders of engagement as the new leitmotiv of the social media are boldly claiming that those metrics (which range from number of retweets to comments and/or replies) should be adopted as the standard ones to gauge the success of every social media strategy for people and brands alike. Engagement, we are told, is the new ROI (return on investment) of social media and any strategy that is not producing it in large quantities is faulty and failing in its objectives.

How they come to miraculously know what those objectives specifically are remains a mystery to me. One suspects that they don’t, since most organizations and people who engage in the social media seek primarily to sell more, attract clients, offer customers an alternative communication channel and (especially in the case of personal branders) find suitable employment and improve their career prospects. Following their faulty logic, we would equally come to the conclusion that celebrities who cannot interact with their millions of followers must be failing in the social networks, as well as those like the present writer who follow thousands of accounts on Twitter, since – according to the most extreme proponents of engagement – we should only follow a reduced number of people we are able to interact with directly (we should apparently behave in Twitter as teenagers do with their cell phones and only save the numbers of our immediate circle we are calling and texting all day: that’s ‘total engagement’ for you).

In a personal branding context

But putting all the hype aside, let us analyze some of their specific proposals to improve our engagement – I will use Mike’s good post as an example – in order to ascertain whether they are indeed helpful from a personal branding perspective and help us maximize our ROI and achieve our goals.

First of all we are advised “to have a target audience or connection with people who could be interested in your product or service, which will eventually lead to sales” and offered a number of tactics to attain this worthy goal. Sensible advice, but: Which is the overall objective then? To drive up engagement or indeed sales and other conversion criterion (find a job most likely in our case)? Or has the personal brander who has found her dream job in the social media with minimal engagement not been decidely successful? Moreover, it should be noted that some products or services will have massive ‘target audiences’ with which it will be practically impossible to interact on a one-to-one basis but perfectly possible to sell to.

Mike continues inviting us to “take time to comment” and “get into the trenches and interact” in order to “build an active and engaged audience.” I believe I speak on behalf of many when I state that nothing would please me more than having the time and the leisure to comment on the contents of my followers (and what about the many who don’t produce content?): sadly, and with the exception of those with a very reduced number of followers and employing most of their time to that effect, this is simply unrealistic (read impossible). Even big brands with substantial resources at their disposal cannot reply to every single comment they receive on Facebook or Twitter, as it is also the case with the already mentioned celebrities. It is much more helpful to zero in on those influencers and key elements of our audiences whose potential impact is vital for our goals. Time is money, and savvy time-management is a must if we are to concentrate on what constitutes the true priority for our goals. Summing up: good for engagement, potentially a waste of time for our ROI unless we are very selective.

Sadly Mike’s third recommendation is not one that is likely to help the ubiquitous ROI acronym: “participate in hangouts” or Google+ online meetings (usually videoconferences). Hypothetically (yet not necessarily, as anyone who has actually taken part in them knows first-hand) they might be instrumental in helping us to improve the engagement with those people who take part in them, but is this truly worth the time investment? Without doubt in some cases the answer could be in the affirmative, but – especially unless the hang-out in question includes the likes of our star-clients, influencers and other narrowly targeted groups – it could just as easily be a waste of time. To maximize our chances we must be ultra-selective not just with hangouts but with any other online or offline networking event, as companies who spend thousands on trade fairs to come back home with their coffers empty despite having apparently ‘engaged’ with hundreds in their stands know only too well.

Our blogger’s final recommendation is the commonsensical one of “publishing and sharing great quality content.” And who could disagree with that? What we are not told is that following that sound advice is incredibly time-consuming and is likely to leave us little time for hangouts, chatting with our followers, replying to their comments or interacting with them as much as we would otherwise love: only those who use the social networks for purely personal reasons often enjoy the luxury of doing so for obvious reasons. The rest of us – bent as we are on achieving tangible goals such as increasing sales or attracting job opportunities – don’t live in a parallel universe full of rainbows and unicorns where time is not a pressing matter (to paraphrase social media sicentist Dan Zarrella) and at times simply do not seek or need more engagement but brands that solve our problems, offer us the right information (whether we care to comment or not) and above all quality products and services. And as personal branders intent on improving our career prospects, engagement may be a means to an end but it is hardly ever the end in itself.

‘Engagement’ and its metrics (RTs, number of ‘likes’, comments and others) are useful to test the impact our online initiatives are having in certain contexts, but turning them into the cornerstones of our strategies is a costly mistake that may make us waste valuable time and resources while our attention is diverted from more sensible and rewarding foci. Finally, and for those who still want some advice to improve their engagement across the social media, let me humbly offer my own: add value with quality work that truly helps people – whether you have the chance of ‘engaging’ with them or not – and contributes to their success. Nothing else truly matters.


Oscar Del Santo is a lecturer, consultant, key speaker, blogger and populariser of online reputation and inbound marketing in Spain. He has been extensively featured in the Spanish and Latin American media and is included in the ‘Top Social Media Influencers’ and ‘Best Marketing Tweeters in Spanish’ lists @OscarDS. He is the author of ‘Reputacion Online para Tod@s’ and the co-author of ‘Marketing de Atraccion 2.0’.