Advertising Engagement: Past, Present And Future
When you're struggling with what "engagement" really means, know you're not the first. Columnist Peter Minnium runs through the term's history and how it's changed over the years.
While talk of “engagement” currently permeates discussions of digital advertising effectiveness, it is by no means a new concept; in fact, it has been debated in some form for more than 100 years.
The digital industry invented many things, but it did not invent advertising nor originate the notion of advertising engagement. Well before the interactive evolution began, print, billboard, radio, and TV ads filled the ether, and practitioners worked hard to determine their effectiveness.
Smart marketers, agencies, and publishers understand this history, internalizing and reflecting in their current approaches the lessons learned, while continuing to evolve their frameworks and tools to take advantage of the new capabilities brought about by the digital evolution to engage consumers and drive sales.
“How advertising works” has been the million-dollar question (actually, multi-billion-dollar) over the past century.
Psychologists, sociologists, researchers, marketers, agencies, and many others have felled forests worth of trees to propagate theories. This long search for the answer began publicly just before the start of the 19th century, with an early advertising pioneer, E. St. Elmo Lewis, who laid the groundwork for the dominant model still in wide use today.
The Engagement Argument Begins: 1898 & The Stages Of Advertising Persuasion
In 1898, the American advertising and sales pioneer E. St. Elmo Lewis developed a practical sales tool based on the mechanisms of personal selling. The most successful salesmen, Lewis postulated, followed an orderly, four-step process that coincided with four cognitive phases that consumers go through when buying a product.
While he developed these principles based on personal selling, to be used as the backbone for structuring an organization’s sales, he extended them to advertising.
In his book, “Financial Advertising,” Lewis detailed the four components as follows: attract attention, maintain interest, create desire, and get action.
For Lewis, engagement was a linear process and entirely cognitive, i.e., a thought process to be worked through step-by-step. This logical approach reflects the market reality of the time, when genuinely new products were being introduced with little consumer understanding.
It wasn’t until 1925 that Lewis’ four phases became recognized as hierarchical — when the AIDA funnel was born.
The Marketing Funnel & AIDA Model Gain Prominence
In 1925, Edward K. Strong Jr., in The Psychology of Selling and Advertising, adapted Lewis’ model but added the funnel dimension, with the understanding that not all those that enter at the awareness stage exit with an action.
The concepts of the marketing funnel and AIDA were born.
It is hard to find a marketer alive today who has not been exposed, for better or worse, to the AIDA model of Attention-Interest-Desire-Action; the funnel is one of the core marketing models used by advertisers to outline the progression of potential customers from first contact with a product or brand through to purchase.
AIDA provides a framework for how consumers can be segmented into different stages as they move along a journey directed by advertising and other marketing efforts to create the desired action, i.e. making a transaction.
These basic stages were adhered to by the vast majority of experts for decades, although there were a variety of modifications to the model, including:
- AIDAS – (Favorable) Attention, Interest, Desire, Action, (Permanent) Satisfaction
- AICCA – Attention, Interest, Confidence, Conviction, Action
- ADICA – Attention, Desire, (Removing) Inhibitions, (Inspiring) Confidence, Action
- AIDCA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Confidence, Action
While the AIDA model set forth by Strong in 1925 maintains a cognitive lens on engagement, these later variations begin to add an emotional element with phases such as satisfaction, confidence, and conviction.
Multi-Layered Advertising Objectives Introduced
An important milestone in the measurement of advertising was the publication in the early 1960s of Defining Advertising Goals for Measured Advertising Results (DAGMAR) by Russell H. Coney. In it, the author broke with past tradition by suggesting that the goals of advertising and marketing were not the same.
Marketing goals are measured in terms of sales, of course; but, advertising goals are not.
Coney recognized that actual purchases are predicated by achievement of a hierarchy of communications objectives; advertising goals, he postulated, should be measured in terms of the customers’ movement along the hierarchy.
Marketers have since worked hard to understand how measures at each stage correlate with — and are proxies for — sales.
The DAGMAR model stipulates that advertising works by moving consumers through four levels: Awareness, Comprehension, Conviction and Action, commonly referred to as ACCA.
By introducing the concept that advertising can achieve multiple objectives in pursuit of driving sales, DAGMAR laid the groundwork for later measures of engagement — which is itself an omni-dimensional pre-sale objective.
Cognitive, Emotive & Behavioral Framework Established
Also in the 1960s, Lavidge and Steiner posited that advertising works via a “Hierarchy of Effects,” whereby audiences of advertising and other marketing communications respond to messages in a very ordered way — cognitively first (thinking), affectively second (feeling), and behaviorally third (doing).
This model is known as a hierarchy because the numbers of consumers moving from one stage to the next declines at each phase in the model.
The Hierarchy of Effects model opened the door for today’s concept of engagement, which very much includes understanding how consumers think, feel and do.
Digital Advertising Collapses The Funnel
At the turn of the 20th century, when Lewis and later Strong established the AIDA funnel, the purchase process was largely personal and naturally linear.
Advertising had progressed significantly by the 1960s, when DAGMAR and the Hierarchy of Effects models gained prominence; yet, the process remained largely a sequential one with the target first thinking, second feeling, and third doing.
Today, digital advertising has enabled a level of interaction and dialogue between marketers and consumers whereby the two are becoming equal partners in the advertising experience, often co-creating the meaning of the brand.
It is this phenomenon that the industry seeks to capture as it struggles to define “engagement.”
In this realm, the Hierarchy of Effects model of advertising falls flat — quite literally. Digital advertising enables a world in which consumer thinking, feeling and doing are not linear nor are they distinct phases. Rather, they are interconnected and can occur in any order.
The IAB describes this flattening in its seminal work on engagement, “The Advertising Engagement Spectrum: Defining and Measuring Digital Ad Engagement in a Cross-Platform World,” as a spectrum of interconnected dynamics and depicts them not as a funnel, but as a continuum of inter-connected gears.
IAB defines engagement as “a spectrum of consumer advertising activities and experiences—cognitive, emotional, and physical—that will have a positive impact on a brand.”
While this is not a complete model for how advertising works from start to finish, it offers a compelling explanation of how advertisers today can bridge the gap from an impression to ad effectiveness and ultimately sales.
The Path Forward
Digital advertising may not have invented engagement; however, its added capabilities significantly increase the ability for marketers and their agencies to build brands.
Today, consumers are equal partners in creating the advertising experience. As ever, publishers and marketers create compelling content and context. It’s the viewer, however, that chooses to pay attention to, spend time on, interact with and ultimately internalize the advertising.
Smart marketers, agencies and publishers are making understanding, modeling and measuring these effects a priority in their quest to meet the demands of this new consumer partner.