engagingThis post has been in my head for atleast 18 months. Nothing like a flight from San Francisco to Washington DC to get things out of one's head.

Measuring "engagement" seems to be this long standing quest on the web. There was so much we could measure and so little. As Marketers we have been frustrated with the near constant 2% conversion rates for our websites. We would like to have another metric that justifies our existence, and of course that of our website.

And that's just when it comes to e-commerce websites.

The fervor for measuring engagement is even higher for non-ecommerce websites because there is little in terms of Outcomes to measure there.

So there has been a lot of proverbial ink used up in defining "engagement". Pundits have pontificated. Bloggers have blogged. Guru's have spoken from their perches. Industry Analysts have given their brains to the cause. Vendors have…. well tried. Hard.

Yet not much to show for all this collective effort.

Engagement is not a metric that anyone understands and even when used it rarely drives the action / improvement on the website.


Because it is not really a metric, it is an excuse.

An excuse for an unwillingness to sit down and identify why a site exists. An excuse for a unwillingness to identify real metrics that measure if your web presence is productive. An excuse for taking a short cut with clickstream data rather than apply a true Web Analytics 2.0 approach to measure success.

Does that sound a tad bit tough-lovish?

The desire to measure "engagement" with customers is a good one. But let's try to understand why in the context of web analytics so many efforts at measuring "engagement" have yielded almost no results:

  1. engagement ring 1Each business is unique and each website is trying to accomplish something unique. Think of all the reasons a website exists, now imagine what engagement could be for each.

    Result: It is really hard to generalize, and often turns out to be a comparison of apples to monkeys to whales. That translates into a poor understand of what is being measured.

  2. It is nearly impossible to define engagement in a standard way that can be applied across the board. Definitions that exist are either too broad (to cover every nuance) or too narrow (hence very unique).

    Result: Few people understand what you mean when you say "engagement", and even fewer can then translate it to apply to their sites. Unlike clicks, visits, conversions, recency, ip addresses etc when you tell your management "engagement" it is hard to know what it is/means.

  3. At the heart of it engagement tries to measure something deeply qualitative.
    Yet most efforts to measure it in our world tend to be hard core quantitative (translate that as: "we have clickstream, let's take our interpretations of what could possibly be happening, now find clicks that can carry the burden of our personal impositions, voila! here's engagement").

    Result: That mismatch is ok for a couple months, but as you measure it over time you'll discover that it does not indicate true customer intent and hence is doomed to have sub optimal impact.

  4. One of my personal golden rules is that a metric should be instantly useful. This one is not. Say you measure engagement. It could be a % or a absolute number or a ratio or whatever (in fact it can be any or all of those at the same time). You fire off a graph or a excel spreadsheet with trends. You repeatedly get asked: What are we measuring?

    Result: Little action. It is not most important but we should always try to have metrics that are instantly useful, you look at 'em and you know what it is and if going up is good or bad. It is rare to find a measure of true customer engagement for a website that does not required a partial PhD to understand what is being measured.

  5. Most of all engagement is a proxy for measuring an outcome from a website. Conversion is not enough, as mentioned above, so we try something else. The problem that we'll define engagement as a measure of some kind of outcome but we won't give it the sexy name of engagement.

    Result: Confusion and delay (tip of the hat to Thomas The Tank Engine). If we are measuring page views divided by unique visitors as a proxy of engagement (more pages per visitor means more "engagement") they why not call that metric page view per visitor? Atleast that will make it clear what you are measuring and then some smart person will question that it is not a very good definition!

In Summary: The reason engagement has not caught on like wild fire (except in white papers and analyst reports and pundit posts) is that it is a "heart" metric we are trying to measure with "head" data, and engagement is such a utterly unique feeling for each website that it will almost always have a unique definition for each and every website.

"So what you are saying is that we should not measure engagement."

I am saying you should very very carefully consider the above points, then not take a short cut (or as the American's say, a cop out) and actually define the metric as a Outcome metric (see element three of the trinity ).

follow 1

Here is a process you can follow:

Step One: Define why your website exists. What is its purpose? Not a five hundred word essay, rather in fifteen words or less. If it helps complete this statement: "When the crap hits the fan the only purpose of my website is to ……….".

Step Two: If you did a great job with it then the above statement contains the critical few metrics (three or less) that will identify exactly how you can measure if your website is successful at delivering against its purpose.

Step Three: If you have a ecommerce website then revenue or conversion is probably one of your critical few. But one of the critical few is what your senior management might call engagement. Work hard to define exactly what that metric is (see below for ideas).

Step Four: Don't call that metric engagement. Call it by its real name. Don't hide behind a pretty moniker.

Simple easy to follow process that should help identify the critical metrics for your business and force your business leaders / stakeholders to help identify the real success metric that otherwise might have been hidden behind "engagement". And now it will be actionable across your organization becuase people will understand exactly what it is.


To stimulate your thought process here are some metrics you can use to measure "customer engagement" (that visitors are engaging with your website):

  • "Are you engaged with us?"
    (exact phrasing of a site level survey question – let your customers interpret it as they will, after all why is your interpretation better then theirs)

  • Likelihood to recommend website
    (another site level survey question – would you recommend our website to your friends / family members / lovers :))

  • Use primary market research
    (similar to the first one, but in this case use good old market research to get a feel for how engaging your website is – and measure it every three months to compute the trend)

  • Customer retention over time
    (on a ecommerce or non-ecommerce website, do people come back and how often – here's a helpful post on how to measure it)

  • # of Visits per Unique Visits, Recency of Unique Visitors
    (recommended as a last resort – I am really not in favor of using quantitative metrics to measure qualitative outcomes – but you can use these to see if your website is "engaging" enough to pull people back and more frequently)

I am sure you'll have other metrics that you can think of in the spirit of the ones above. The above list is to share with you how I think about it.

engagement hugh gaping void

We all want to engage with our customers. But as analytics practitioner our goal is to use the right metric by working hard to get to the root cause (rather than making a excuse) and sharing that with clarity with our decision makers. Then and only then will it be actionable.

In Summary :

  • When most people measure "engagement" they have not done due diligence to identify what success means for their online presence. In absence of that hard work they fall into measuring engagement, and then measure something that is hard to action or something that will rarely improve the bottomline. Avoid this at all costs.

  • Think very carefully about what you are measuring if you do measure engagement. If engagement to you is repeat visitors by visitors then call it Visit Frequency, don't call it engagement. Don't sexify, simplify! :)

  • If you want to measure "engagement" then think of new and more interesting ways to measure that (see list above). Engagement at its core a qualitative feeling. It really hard to measure via pure clickstream (web analytics data). Think different.

Ok now its your turn. Please share your perspectives, critique, additions and subtractions via comments. Thank you in advance.

[Like this post? For more posts like this please click here, if it might be of interest please check out my book: Web Analytics: An Hour A Day.]

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