The Hidden Costs of Boosting Engagement
Online “Engagement” is a hot buzzword that’s deployed by a number of web services industries to describe their value proposition. (Full disclosure: Yottaa is as guilty of this as anyone). Like most buzzwords, its popularity is due to the fact that it’s a pithy and accurate description of what the target audience, website owners and online marketers, want to achieve. Engagement connotes attention, enjoyment, and — most importantly — interaction. No matter what your business does, if you have a website, you want visitors to engage with it.
Let’s assume that all services that promise to increase engagement are effective in doing so. With so many services doing different things to promote engagement, it would seem like the more the better — why not do everything you can to improve engagement? But in the increasingly complex environment that is the Internet, adding services and products to a site always has consequences, intended or otherwise. In this post we’ll cover some of the pros and cons of common engagement-inducing services like social media widgets, online advertising, gamification, and A/B testing. We also cover some hidden costs related to performance that may actually lead to neutral or reduced engagement.
Pros: Social media is now the easiest way for companies to interact with their customers quickly and informally, generating a culture of online engagement that far outreaches traditional methods of communication. We now live in an era in which customers make most of their purchasing decisions online, so social engagement has become the best way to encourage long-term, easy-to-maintain relationships.
Cons: Aside from the potential for PR #fails due to bad ideas or poor execution, there are no inherent cons to engaging with prospects, customers, and users via different social channels. The issue comes in when integrating social sharing and follow widgets on your website. This is generally seen as an effortless way of prompting visitors to engage with you cross-channel — the thinking goes “if you put the option in front of viewers, there’s at least a chance they will use it.”
Pros: There has been a lot of growth in the online ad space in the past couple of years. Be it mobile, social or video ads, personalized or targeted, big data has opened the door to smart ads that speak to specific users and promote engagement with tailored offers. This has breathed new life into the online display advertising industry, which had for some time been written off by online marketers as having a bad combination of high prices and a lack of robust, track-able metrics.
Cons: For the publishers selling ads performance is an ongoing battle. To maximize profits they push the envelope on their offerings, spreading from standard banners to creative popovers, media players, and full page takeovers. The performance implications of adding these heavy assets is obvious for anyone who spends time online: How many times have you seen flashy ad schemes destroy the usability of a page when something goes wrong with the animation or video player? In those cases, how many times have you waited for the page to resolve itself? Probably not many.
What to do: Depending on the pricing model, be careful with media buys. If you’re paying per click, the usual forms of manipulation exist and have to be tracked. That’s industry standard by now. For per-impression models (CPM) there is intentional fraud, and then there is innacurate traffic reporting due to poor performance. If the site’s performance is such that a percentage of visitors (whom you are paying to be in front of) bounce because your ad breaks or the page fails to load, that’s bad for all parties involved. You can ensure that the performance of the publishing site is top notch using third-party testing services like websitetest.com, and if possible include performance as a sort of SLA for the agreement. If you’re paying for your exquisite piece of advertising to be seen by thousands, don’t let your investment go to waste because your ad effectively crashes the site.
Pros: Gamification uses game design techniques and mechanics to engage audiences with otherwise nongame content, with things like leaderboards, contests, quizzes and other online games. These are inherently engaging, as they speak to our desires to express our opinions, compete, and learn more in bite-sized bits. Gamification promotes users to complete a desired action, and is largely used by marketers today as a way to engage visitors online. More than 70% of the world’s largest 2,000 companies are expected to use gamification at least once by the end of 2014, and vendors claim that it can lead to a 100% to 150% pickup in engagement metrics (Source). It’s entertaining, portable, and somewhat addictive, meaning longer time on site and more visitors.
Cons: It gets old fast. Attention spans are short, and the willingness of visitors to repeat the same game again and again is low. It also ages quickly, and gamification that is even a few months old can look outdated. A smooth, reliable, and well-curated web experience can be broken up by a feature like gamification feels bolted on or foreign. Plus if games cause performance issues or distract users from more important processes — like finding information they are looking for — it’s no better than old-school forms of “interruptive” marketing.
What to do: Before you buy into the hype, make sure any game will be inserted seamlessly and elegantly into your existing experience, whether that’s mobile or desktop. If the game involves taking people off you own site onto a third-party platform, or inserting a lot of third party scripts onto your site, weigh the performance risk of “the unknown”. Sending your users into an environment you don’t control is always risky.
Pros: Marketing today is all about experimentation and measurement. A/B testing has surfaced as one of the key techniques in enabling this desire to test, measure and improve, on landing pages, home pages, shopping carts, email campaigns and other key online areas. When done well, A/B testing allows you to tweak and improve your site for optimal user engagement, having done the research and legwork to identify what visitors respond to. It’s a smarter way of running your site or app, which should act as more than a brochure, but actively point users toward decision-making.
Image from Flickr
Cons: A/B testing isn’t totally accurate; often it leads to misleading interpretations and incorrect conclusions. The fact is most A/B testing offered through analytics platforms today aren’t complex enough to draw definite conclusions about one aspect of the test over another, as reviewed in this white paper by Qubit. Implementing A/B testing also adds code to your site, meaning more assets to request and a heavier site, which can occasionally cause page load delays. So the implementation alone immediately tampers with the results, as users will react differently to a slow page, and often bounce earlier, regardless of the color or content changes you’re testing.
There are a plethora of services that claim to increase visitor/user engagement online. Many of them do. But they also have unintended consequences for the user experience, especially with regard to performance. When gauging success online, it’s difficult to isolate which of the many moving parts on today’s sites are causing increases and decreases in conversion rate and other metrics, and combining these services makes it even harder. The best thing for long-term success in providing an engaging environment is to ensure fast performance, great content, and reliability. If a service that purports to improve engagement negatively affects any of those facets, its effect may actually be neutral or negative for your metrics long term.