Op-Ed: Engagement not rocket science – Leo Burnett, CanWest MediaWorks, Ideas Research Group

Tired of waiting and wondering, three players hooked up to unearth facts about Canadian audiences' engagement tendencies. Leo B. VP Jason Oke reveals their findings.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘engagement,’ but not much shared understanding on how to define or measure it. Many seem to be hoping someone else figures it out. In the meantime, competing definitions and hypothetical ideas are dominating the conversation.

Leo Burnett Canada saw an opportunity to build some thought leadership in Canada. We didn’t want to wait for someone in the US or the UK to tell us what to do. And quite frankly, we didn’t see why Canada could not contribute to the conversation. So we partnered with two other like-minded organizations, CanWest MediaWorks and the Ideas Research Group.

To begin to better understand what really drives engagement, we completed a pilot research project with 320 people across Canada using Canadian media and Canadian advertising. With a combination of quantitative research, qualitative interviews and ethnographic photo diaries, our research explored engagement in several different ways, looking at both advertising and media programming. Here are some of our findings.

1. The relationship between engagement in television programming and engagement in advertising.

* This has been a topic of much debate – does a high amount of engagement in the programming lead to greater engagement in advertising?

* In our study, half of the sample, 150 respondents, viewed a portion of a current top-rated CanWest show (20 shows were used, including Prison Break, Family Guy, The Simpsons, The Gilmore Girls, Vanished, Without A Trace, The Office, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) with a typical five-ad break inserted. The other half viewed the same ads in isolation, as they would in a typical copy test.

* The ads were all Canadian (or US adapt), current or recent ads from major marketers including the food, beverage, automotive, retail, confectionary, finance, beer, and laundry categories.

* Conclusion: We found no relation between the engagement in programming and the engagement in ads. 58% of people agreed that, if they could, they would skip the advertising to get back to the programming faster.

* Ads did not get a boost in highly engaging content – in fact, the opposite was true. The emotional impact of the ads was rated on average 10% lower in programming context, indicating that the way we currently test advertising (in isolation, compared to other ads) probably overstates the emotional connection people feel with advertising. In the real world, it is juxtaposed with highly engaging content. Further, and unsurprisingly, programming content was judged to be almost twice as engaging as ads.

* We think this indicates that advertising needs to be much better, to aim to match the level of engagement provided by programming. We have much to learn from programming.

2. What people do find engaging.

*We armed people with digital cameras and had them take pictures for a week of advertising they noticed and found engaging. We let them define advertising and engagement themselves to truly understand what was engaging to them.

*Conclusion: Engagement seemed to be driven by several factors, which we group as ‘Conditions,’ ‘Context’ and ‘Content.’

* Conditions include pre-existing brand interest. People are more likely to notice an ad if they have used that brand before, or if they have enjoyed communications from it before, or if they are in the market for that product/service.

* Context includes what else they were doing, where the ad was located, whether it interrupted them or whether they chose it

* Content is driven not by the message of the ad, but by how it made them feel. People noticed ads that had humour, were thought-provoking, made them feel intelligent, that were beautiful/aesthetically pleasing, were surprising, had depth and different layers of meaning, made them feel important, gave them something to talk about with friends/family, and even sometimes had elements that made them feel negative. This is why we call it content – because effective advertising seemed to fulfill the same human needs that media does.

*What is interesting is that across all three factors, engagement is driven by people’s own situation and feelings, rather than by messaging. People are more likely to notice things that fulfill their needs and add value to their lives. This is not to say that messaging is unimportant, but that messaging by itself is not enough.

3. How to measure emotional response.

*We explored different ways of measuring emotional response. Words are poor tools for describing emotion, so we also used metaphor elicitation techniques using images, colours and music.

*Overall, the key finding is that effective advertising tends to have a positive level of energy that people find appealing. This matches the level of energy created by media content. This doesn’t necessarily mean high-energy, but that it creates a positive feeling similar to listening to a favourite song (feelings like comforted, soothed, light, fresh, carefree, fun, invigorated, upbeat, vibrant, active).

*Conversely, poor advertising tends to have a negative emotional energy (hokey, annoying, sickly, uninspired), or no sense of energy at all (down, boring, blah, bland, nothing).

Key observations:

Advertising today has an energy crisis. Our advertising pales in comparison to the media space in which we advertise. Advertising is becoming less effective because there is a lot of advertising that leaves people cold. And it is our fault.

We believe this is because we have been too focused on ourselves and the messages we make, trying to make them simple and clear and persuasive. We treat people as consumers, as simply targets for our messages – rather than thinking about them as people, and about the feelings we leave them with.

It’s not that messaging isn’t important, but if 58% of people are going to avoid your ads, then the message doesn’t matter. We need to put engagement before messaging. We need to think of people not as consumers or targets, but as people, as an audience. We need to take some cues from programming – start with basic human needs, emotions, and storytelling, figure out ways to earn and keep people’s interest week in and week out. Figure out how to engage people first, and only then does it matter what your message is. We have messaging strategies and media strategies, we need to develop engagement strategies.

And because people are more likely to pay attention to an ad if they have enjoyed communications from it before, this means that the brand advertising dynamic is changing. For 100 years, ads have sold brands, but now that people have increased ways of avoiding advertising, or choosing which ads to watch, brands also sell ads. So every brand needs to start thinking about establishing a communications legacy – how to become one of those brands whose ads people look forward to seeing.

Jason Oke, VP/senior account planner at Leo Burnett Canada, presented a version of this joint report at this week’s Media in Canada Forum.