Engagement Once Gave Life to the Internet. Now, It’s Killing It

It's time for publishers to learn its true value

Engagement doesn't always reflect that an audience is valuing what a publisher is sharing. Getty Images
Headshot of Gabe Garner

I’m old enough to remember the “Punch the Monkey” banners that were around in the late ‘90s. For those who don’t, these were horizontal display ads featuring an animated monkey going back and forth, encouraging you to try and catch it with your mouse, clicking on the banner. These banners weren’t really advertising anything, just getting you to engage with them. Once you did, you’d arrive at a page with some special offer as a prize, usually 20 percent off something you would never need or want. It was a small, low brow con. Nothing a digital marketer would be proud to put on their resume.

But that little monkey signaled what would become currency to all digital marketing. It birthed a little KPI we know as engagement. Fast forward to today, and many of the problems we’re having in our public discourse can be traced back to that monkey.

We live in a starkly divided political landscape where facts are fuzzy and a Twitter handle has been elected leader of the free world. Family reunions are tense with the revelation that your Aunt Jane is kind of a racist based on some of the things she’s been posting to Facebook. Unending political debates are pushed to the top of your newsfeed.

Many of the problems we face today can be traced back to slanted or flat-out false stories that gain traction across social media. These stories tend to be short on facts but big on affirming one’s world view. This process has calcified our positions and damaged our public discourse.

Each one of these stories is optimized for—you guessed it—engagement. You can dismiss them as clickbait, but we’re kind of past that. Even well-reputed publications optimize their content for maximum click/shareability.

All of this stems from a media model that creates an absolute value for engagement. A media/publishing company’s product is its audience. It sells this product to advertisers. The makeup of that audience and its behaviors on their platform are the metrics they use to prove to advertisers they should buy their inventory. This is all demonstrated through KPIs like engagement.

Advertisers need to add more nuance into their KPIs, where they consider what the real takeaway should be from engagement rather than treating it as an absolute value.

This has really led to all the trouble we’re in today because engagement does not actually connote value, truth or anything, really. People engage with content for a variety of reasons, often because it upsets them. But their time spent engaging with this content is tallied and valued then sold to advertisers. The old journalistic adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” has never been truer than it is in today’s digital landscape where the “blood” can take the form of all sorts of triggering content.

To get through this, advertisers need to add more nuance into their KPIs, where they consider what the real takeaway should be from engagement rather than treating it as an absolute value. This is more than a brand-safety issue; it’s about leading the way toward better overall business value in marketing and advertising.

More and more publishing companies are moving to a subscription model, and this helps. The New York Times is seeing success with this approach, relying more heavily on subscriptions for revenue than advertising (60 percent of their revenue and growing). Their aim to become “the Netflix of news” is a good one and starts to relieve the burden of chasing engagement. The direction this leads is more reliant on their product (news) being the source of their income, not the audience consuming it.

Facebook is wrestling with a similar choice right now. They had denied their role as a media company for years while implementing a business model that was exactly a media business. “We’re a platform,” they’d say, “not publishing company.”

But with their power and influence over today’s world in the headlines, they aren’t holding to this position anymore. Instead, Mark Zuckerberg has publicly argued that their media model is what makes Facebook accessible to all. If they suddenly removed advertisers from the platform and made users pay for it, fewer people would be able to engage.

He’s not wrong. But there has to be some kind of balancing force to deny those who profit on malicious content. If change doesn’t come soon, then we have to accept that the economy of engagement leaves the world open to bad actors, and that a bi-product of the ad world is the further erosion of national discourse.

It’s a genie (or monkey) we won’t be able to put back in the bottle.

@fusehead Gabe Garner works as svp of business planning at design and technology agency Firstborn.