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If You Want Your Social Marketing To Be Successful, Stop Engaging Your Customers

By April 11, 2012February 1st, 2018Social Marketing
If You Want Your Social Marketing To Be Successful, Stop Engaging Your Customers

I want to wipe the word “engage” right out of the dictionary, much like I wanted to wipe out “synergy” after the third time I heard it and “like” about five minutes after everyone started running around “liking” everything from photos of cute little babies to coupons for liquid laundry detergent.

If this sounds suspiciously like the beginning of a rant… well, it is, but only in part. Mostly it’s an idea that I’d like to share with you because I want to help you make your social marketing work. And I want you to start by wiping the word “engage” out of your mental dictionary and forgetting everything you think you know about what it means.

As of right now I want you to stop engaging your customers. And I want you to start being interested instead.

The Fallacy Of Engagement

It’s a marketable word and it sounds better in the webinars to say “engage” rather than “be interested in” your customers. There’s a certain economy of syllables.

But the more enmeshed we become in the social side of marketing, the more that word begins to lose meaning and the more it begins to morph into something unrecognizable from its original intent.

Seems like a good time for some definitions.

Engage (v): to occupy the attention or efforts of (a person or persons); to attract and hold by influence or power

Interested (adj): being affected or involved; participating

If I have to spend more than ten seconds explaining the fundamental difference between those two concepts then you should probably stop social marketing altogether and work on your people skills first.

So let’s parse this for only a brief moment. The first definition sounds an awful lot like traditional push-marketing in a new skin. Get the attention of your customers and then lord your power over them to keep them captive to your brand. It’s got “mememe” right at the center.

The latter definition, however, gets closer to the heart and goal of social marketing. It means that you are not just attracting attention to you, but actually participating in the lives and conversations of others. As social media is often called the great leveler, this is truly what the level playing field is about; customers and brands in the same space, interacting and participating with one another.

C’Mon, It’s Just Vocabulary

Lest you think there is no power in language, all you have to do is consider how many of us pepper our conversations with phrases like “the f-word” and “the n-word”. There’s a reason we don’t say those words and it’s because they have power.

The word “engage” is just distanced enough from the idea of actually being interested that it has a subtle and cumulative effect on our psyches.

Engaging someone implies that you are the power player, the one with the lasso to pull another person in your direction. Being interested in someone implies an equality, an openness and a meeting of the minds.

It’s vocabulary, yes, but there’s more to it than a word.

And while I’m not talking about soul-defining terminology here, I do think there is a powerful and distinct meaning to the words we use and consciously or not, they affect how we think and behave.

This Nuance Of Terms Couldn’t Possibly Matter… It’s Still Social Marketing

Nuh-uh, and that’s why I brought up the subject.

The first rule of human behavior is that nobody cares about you. In fact, the only thing anyone cares about is themselves. I hear you about to tell me six hundred ways in which we’re not nearly as selfish as all that, but stop your protesting, because we are.

I do something nice for you because it makes me feel good and because in turn you are more likely to do something nice for me. That’s just human nature and it’s kept the world turning for many thousands of years.

I’m not talking about deep, spiritual relationships here. I’m talking about the cold, cruel world of marketing where selfishness is magnified by the very fact that nobody has to give a c^@p about you, not even for their own sake.

The point is that if you begin your marketing plan by thinking that anyone gives the smallest, tiniest c^@p about you and your business, if you go out there and think that all you have to do is “engage” those people so you can “attract” them to you, you’ve got a serious lesson to learn, and here it is: you can only get by giving first.

Be Interested: That’s Where The Power of Connection Lies

Remember when you were a teenager and you really really really liked someone? Remember what your mother told you about how to get someone’s attention and be fairly certain of securing a second date? It wasn’t to “be interesting”. It was to “be interested“.

Ask questions. Get your date to tell you the details of his last hockey game or her trip to the mall. Inquire about families and hobbies, broken bones and homework assignments. If you dated smart, you did a lot less talking than you did listening and responding.

In today’s parlance, we’d call that “engaging”. But we’d be wrong.

More and more, engaging is turning into broadcasting, just on a different channel and with a different fuzzy word attached to it.

What This Means In Reality

This may sound like fun theory and maybe a little wordplay but how does it translate into real marketing? It starts with an attitude.

Engage says, “Come to me”.

Interest says, “I’ll come to you.”

Engage says, “Attract people to you.”

Interest says, “Make other people feel attractive.”

This is not theory. This is highly practical. Psychology has proven time and again that the people we like the most are the ones who make us feel good about ourselves.

As a marketer, you’re just some nerdy guy hoping for a date. It’s your customer’s party and there you are, trying to be engaging and interesting and failing miserably. Do you know why?

Because people do not like people who are interesting.

People do not like people who are funny, charming, or even engaging.

All those things may get attention but attention is a fleeting thing. Just ask the “funny guy” who has an off-day.

People like people who are interested in them, who make them feel like the engaging ones.

This paradigm is the complete reverse of what we’ve come to accept as social marketing.

That’s why I want you to stop engaging. Stop “attracting” your customers, relinquish your power altogether. And start being interested.

When you publish a Facebook update or a Twitter post, stop trying to be the nerdy guy at the party who wants attention. Curating content, sharing photos and videos, retweeting or sharing someone else’s post, +1s, repins, stumbles – these all get amassed under the umbrella of engagement and they may all be quite interesting; but none express true interest.

Yes, these are part of your brand’s personality, they add value and they demonstrate reciprocity. I don’t suggest giving them up. But I do suggest that you turn the attention away from yourself for a moment and start asking, talking and communicating directly with your customers.

It behooves you to forget what you know about how to “do” social and remember how it’s done every day in the real world. It’s hard. It takes time. It takes work. It’s so much easier to shoot off a retweet or “like” a post and call it engagement than it is to figure out what people are talking about, what they want, and meet them there.

Stop Telling Your Story

In the brave new world of social marketing, we’re bombarded constantly with advice to “tell the story of our brand”. Facebook has turned storytelling into a marketing ploy unto itself, with its new Timeline and ads-turned-sponsored-stories.

But next time you think anyone cares about your brand’s story, I want you to think about what I said earlier and remember that the only way you’re going to get a second date with your customer is if you ask for his or her story first.

There are no how-to tips on the planet that can teach you how to have a relationship. That can only come with practice, with intent and with a true expression of interest in the people you’re involved with.

If you really want to “do” social you need to stop drawing customers to you and start going to them. Only then will you be able to unlock the power and potential of social marketing. Otherwise, you’d be just as well off sending out a postcard to ten thousand people on that mailing list you bought last week.

Do you think I’m crazy? Am I overthinking social and turning it into something it wasn’t meant to be? Are we all just fine with spewing out content into social streams and calling it a new kind of marketing? Or is there something to the idea of losing the tired term “engagement”?

Yes, I am really interested in your thoughts!

Join the discussion 34 Comments

  • Ileane says:

    Hi Carol Lynn! I agree that words can make a big difference in the message we put out there. The thing is that everyone is thinking in terms of the visual experience these days. We all have the same images in our head because of Infographics, and sites like Pinterest. Years ago back when we were reading books, the author could paint a picture with words but each one of us had a different interpretation or visual in our head. 

    But these days when I think of the word Engage, I think of a place where everyone is happy, even all of the “followers”. But when I think of “interested” it just doesn’t have that happy go lucky feel to it. Make sense? 

    • I completely understand. Engage is a strong word, which certainly makes a better impression. My concern is that so many people are using it loosely to mean anything from “follow” to “send links” to whatever they want it to mean. They think engaging is sort of just opening a door and waiting for someone to walk through. Being “interested” doesn’t have the same mental appeal but it’s more to the point. It’s basically saying, if you open a door, you’d better walk through and meet your customer there! If businesses want to be successful on social they need to think about it in terms of how they can pay attention, talk to and relate to customers. Whatever word we attach to it, that’s the goal.

  • Adrienne says:

    Now there is a different take on this topic.  

    I have to actually agree with Ileane on this one Carol.  To me the word engaging is having a conversation and the way I pursue this is by letting them tell me all about themselves. What their needs are and how can I help them.  Engaging is the conversation going on between us both.

    Being interested in someone doesn’t have that same appeal.  At least it doesn’t to me although it’s really the same concept.  

    Social media marketing is about getting to know people and that all starts with conversations.  As long as you let your prospect be the one who is talking more, all is good.

    I like you take on it though, it’s always nice to hear other perspectives…  Interesting.

    • I think we need to invent our own word, Adrienne! I admit saying “be interested” sounds weak, where “engage” is such a strong word, but it’s more about the attitude than the word. I wish I had a better one. You used a good word: conversation. The problem with so much social I see is that it’s not a conversation. It’s very one-way, not very different than just airing a TV commercial or sticking an ad somewhere. People who are good at, they just “get it” and it’s very obvious from their social streams. But I can’t tell you how many people I talk to on various channels who simply never respond. They just keep broadcasting. Somewhere in their “Social 101” book, they heard you were supposed to “engage” and I think they interpreted as “get in gear” or something because they surely forgot all about the conversation. So whatever word we pick, it has to mean actually BEING SOCIAL. and not being the boring guy at they party who does nothing but talk about how great he is all night 🙂

      • Heheh… What a great post.

        Engage = powerful
        Interest = kinda lame

        Alternative solutions…
        “Don’t engage your audience — CARE about ’em.”

        “Don’t engage your audience — IMPACT them.”

        “Don’t engage your audience — CONNECT with ’em.”

  • This is the key for me. I won’t feel successful as a blogger until I can stop telling my story. I want people to feel safe sharing their thoughts with me.

     As a copywriter, I believe that it should be about the emotions we envoke to connect others to the brand. Engagement is nice, but getting them to buy is my job. 

    • Susan, I don’t think I ever heard anyone say they want to stop telling their own story! It’s definitely about the emotions – we buy on emotion, not logic, as much as we like to think we’re so rational and thoughtful. Nope, we buy stuff that appeals to us emotionally. There are so many facets to marketing, it’s almost as if it’s a job all by itself…….  

      • I feel that, my story is awesome, but that my community is made up of awesome people too. Look at Problogger, Darren has many more guest posts than his own now. For me that is what success looks like.
        He is a bit of a internet hero to me, although there are many components to why he found success. 

        I think there is a life-cycle to a blog. We may start out focused on ourselves, but as it grows, you have to give some ownership to your readers. You have to start telling and sharing their stories too. 

        • That’s a really interesting perspective and I think it’s a great attitude to have. I love Problogger, too. And what you said about a lifecycle – how true! Everything is like that, and we evolve with it. Part of evolving in the blog world is expanding to include other people or else you should call it a diary and call it a day. PS: I enjoy your blog quite a lot and finally found your subscribe link!

      •  We all stop telling our stories… when we die 🙂

        And I’m glad Susan doesn’t want to stop writing til she dies 😛

        • Hopefully we are still CREATING our stories until the day we die. and how’s this for a Win in the strong branding column: hopefully other people keep telling our stories AFTER we die.

  • Hi Carol Lynn,

    This was a very interesting view, and one that I haven’t been thinking much about. To me, there’s not very much difference between interesting and engage, even though I understand that the words are very different (and I’m Norwegian, so that doesn’t help.) On the other hand, maybe we can look at it like inbound vs outbound marketing. Inbound marketing happens when you’re interested, outbound marketing is when you’re only engaged?

    Some of the people I meet online are very push, I feel that they’re enganged but that all they’re really thinking about is how can they use me in order to drive more traffic and more sales, they’re not interested in me and what I’m doing. 

    Your post really got me thinking 🙂

    • You said it exactly right! I like that analogy to inbound vs outbound. Lots of people still use social as “outbound” and do a lot of pushing and selling. I’m sure that can work to some extent but the bigger opportunity is lost. You hit on a really good point, which is that it often feels like people “engage” you just as long as they can use you to sell/promote or otherwise help them achieve a goal. Now, obviously marketing has the goal of making the sale, but your approach has to be different if you want to be truly successful. All the really good brands and people on social channels are involved with others, not only for self promotion. Thanks for your insight!

      •  This brought a lot of clarity to the discussion, Jens + Carol 🙂  And it reinforces my earlier comment.. I use either, when called for 😀

  • Hi Carol Lynn,  Words are very powerful.  I find it interesting how people use the word engage.  Engaging is like a dance.  “will you like to dance with ME?”  comes to my mind when I think of that word.  Now posed with that question, it is a reflection of the person asking them to come to THEM and dance. 
    You are on target when you say that people are interested in themselves. What do I get? How will this benefit me?  These are the questions people have in their minds all the time.  So when we are out there on the social platforms, it is important to keep in mind always giving the answer to their question. 
    When on any social platform from your home base blog to a tweet, we must think of what a person needs to know.  Giving information in any style of writing is the key. 
    The “push” is out, the “giving” is in! 
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.  You Rock my friend.

    • Thanks, Donna, I’m glad you hit on what I was trying to convey. I think everyone here on this thread has the same idea about how to go about using social platforms, and I think in this group of people, everyone “gets it” so the vocabulary is a bit of splitting hairs. But for people who still go out there and try to be power players and get all the attention, they don’t realize they are missing the point. And it never hurts to be reminded that the biggest question any of our customers will ever ask is, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the one we’ve got to answer!

    •  Life’s a dance, and I want the world moving with me 😀

  • Carol Lynn! You definitely got my *interest* with this post, and now that I’m commenting I certainly feel *engaged* 😛

    That being said, count on me to offer a fresh view.

    I find the word engaged to be massively more powerful in *MOST* cases.

    Because I have a brand, and I do not want my brand to be just interesting — I know what I offer is insanely valuable, and basically a way of life. Not something to be interested in, but something to live. Something to focus attention on. The Ryze of humanity? The Ryze of each individual?

    I stand by my message 100%, and I expect it to be immensely powerful and riveting…

    …not to lord power *over,* but to leverage power to UNITE.

    On top of that, it is silly to think that any human being is stronger than any other, there are always David + Goliath stories, and seeing “the masses” as sheep who can’t make their own decisions or focus their attention where it suits them feels very disrespectful and dis-empowering to me.

    Life is a game of influence. Both interest AND engagement are a part of the influence game.

    Every word, every comment, every idea shared is an attempt to influence others toward us or away from us, and pretending like we’re not doing that isn’t my style 🙂

    Woo… all that said, I said in *most* cases I prefer “engage”, because there are always times, places, people, and styles that just feel better and more appropriate to use interest.

    So, I use both depending on circumstances, because ultimately, words are hollow without *intention* — and people feel my heart shining through mine, no matter which one’s I choose 😉

    • I’m glad this has stirred a little controversy 🙂 Seems like there are some very strong opinions on the matter. So let me comment on a few things you said…

      You don’t want your brand to be merely “interesting” – I totally agree. you want your brand the be strong. I suggest that one way to create a strong brand is to show interest in OTHERS – which is what you referred to when you mentioned your goal is to “unite”. This is the strength of brands – not “stories”. I always think of Apple – they have a seriously united fan base. Honestly I don’t think Apple is out there telling stories, I think they are creating products that people want, that make people feel good, and they’ve built a massive following around that. 

      But brands don’t start out strong. They start out non-existent and then they jump into social media and think they are going to be “engaging” and people will just flock to them. After about five minutes they decide social media is a total failure. No, social media is exactly what it is and if you can’t go out there and reach out to people, sure, you’re going to fail. I will go back to something I said, that social media is your customer’s party and you’re showing up and you want to be the center of attention. Ahem… no! You have to play nice first, you have to show that you are interested in learning what your customers want and need and then you unite around that.

      Something else you said – every word is an attempt to influence others – yes again. But that doesn’t happen by force of will. It happens with finesse and it happens by putting others first. If you can convey the “what’s in it for ME?” message then people will flock to you. Not because you’re “engaging” but because you’re paying attention.

      Honestly, it was a bit of an effort to split hairs over words because people throw around the word engage a lot but I don’t think they have the faintest idea of what it means. YOU might. Many people commenting here might. But for people who are living in a fog of self-delusion thinking social media is a complete failure, I want to jar them awake a bit.

      As always thank you for your unique insight 🙂

      •  Yep, I hear ya, Carol Lynn 🙂 Thanks 🙂

        A lot of people “think” and speculate about Apple, but if you were to ask any of the higher ups there, if they use “story-telling”, what do you really think they’d say? “No, we just create products people want?”

        Hehe.. Nice metaphor. Cocky guy that I am, I see social media (especially  – as MY party, and people are welcome to come and go as they please. I recommend staying though cuz the company’s fantastic, the decor is divine, and the buffet’s out-of-this-world 😉

        Very glad we agree about influence, whew 🙂

        And yeah, semantics aren’t my #1 cup of tea, but my linguistics, diction and articulation certainly aren’t … ‘weak’. lol.

        I know the point of your post, and it’s excellent, and I agreed with it all throughout the comments 😀

        Rock on and ryze up!

  • Wow, Carol!
    Simply excellent post!  I told you that you were a great writer writing deep stuff the other day as a reply to your comment on my blog.  And that was before I read this one.
    I have to say that you are so, so right.  Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s all about ourselves first in the marketing world.  While I was reading your article, I thought about a client of mine last year who seemed to want to be like my  “best friend”.  But to make a long story short, I realized how this wanna be friend was just acting up so he could try to get the lowest possible price to get me to write for him.  How glad I am that even thought I gave him a break in price to some degree I was always suspicious.
    Yes, it is a sad truth, but even when you feel that there might be something there, it could be completely fake with a very selfish purpose behind it.  However, on a positive note,  I believe that it is possible to make very nice and valuable online relationship where we can go a little bit beyond the me first.
    I think that my cat is luck, though, because everything I give her is 100% selfishness free and I don’t expect anything, I mean anything back 🙂

  • Bob Clarke says:

    Perhaps it’s because I’ve become accustomed to the word, but I don’t agree with the definition put forth about “holding by influence or power.”  To me, engaging someone means making contact, to connect with someone for the purpose of understanding them.

    Could it be as simple as this?  If you think in these terms, then engaging and “being interested” in someone go hand in hand. 

    • I’m glad you disagree – clearly you are engaging people in the sense of having a two-way conversation! In a perfect world it WOULD be the same thing. But for many people, they go on broadcasting and sell sell selling. I hope to get people thinking about how they approach social and relationships and whether you agree with the vocabulary or not, the concept is still: be two-way.

  • Nicky price says:

    Haha – I have been reading the comments and I have to admit it as I was reading the post before the comments I was disappointed to see the definition of the word “engage” as I too believed I could have an engaging conversation with people – but hey, so long as we are having that conversation and are really listening to the people we meet then we will be engaging, interesting …….whatever !  😉

    • I think people take the word “engage” for granted and just go about business as usual. I really wanted to get people to pay attention to what they **think** they’re doing. Social is about an attitude, whatever definition you apply, and it has to be reflected in your approach.

  • Hi Carol,

    I could have sworn that I’ve already posted a comment on this post, because I already read it, but can’t see it. Maybe it go through. What happened to it?

  • EmailTray says:

    I had your article open most of the day and wasn’t really understanding it until it finally clicked at 9:22PM. Meanwhile, I was doing what you were suggesting. I was being interested in others on Google+ (and from the account of a different product line than I am now posting from).

    • Well I’m glad it clicked eventually! I’m also glad that you realized that you’re doing it anyway, because that means you’re paying attention to your customers and your audience and actually building relationships with people instead of just talking at them. Good for you.