Why reach and frequency, not engagement, are the social metrics brand marketers should care about

Reach Out

Over the past year, I’ve been surprised by how much focus marketers continue to place on the catch-all “engagement” metric.

There’s no doubt that social media engagement is an important measure of consumer response and amplification. It’s the de facto indicator that your brand is making some sort of connection with people. Yes, they actually care enough to like, comment, share or click on a link!

But, if you’ve been focused on just measuring people who have taken an action on your Facebook post, tweet or pin, then you’ve been discounting the value of two key metrics – reach and frequency.

For brand marketing, reaching the right number of consumers at the right frequency is arguably more important than driving engagement. Just look at the history of advertising effectiveness in traditional media. Findings from a recent Facebook study conducted in partnership with Datalogix have also proven the brand value of online reach and frequency. The research demonstrated that “99 percent of sales generated from online branding ad campaigns were from people that saw, but did not interact with, ads.” While optimizing for effective frequency saw a “40 percent increase in ROI with the same budget.”

Yet, advertisers and their agencies still have engagement blinders on. Allow me to attempt to illustrate through this scenario:

Your brand has a goal to achieve a 10% post engagement rate (defined as the % of people who interacted with the content over those who were exposed to the content in the news feed). The first post falls short of the goal, however the second post achieves your desired engagement rate. The metrics break down like this…

Post #1: 50 engaged users / 1000 people reached x 100 = 5% engagement rate

Post #2: 50 engaged users / 500 people reached x 100 = 10% engagement rate

As you can see from the performance of post #2, even though the brand doubled its engagement rate (from 5% to 10%, yeah!), only half the number of people were reached by the content (500 instead of 1000, yikes!). The key takeaway -> If you’re stuck on optimizing content for engagement rate, then the way you are measuring can run the risk of de-valuing audience reach. Remember, exposure to brand messaging has been proven time and again to build brands and grow revenue.

For most brands, it’s not easy to spike organic or viral reach in a way that will impact enough consumers to matter. Facebook continually adjusts the news feed sorting algorithm (commonly known as EdgeRank) to affect if brand Page posts show up in the news feed. One of the latest changes reduces reach for Pages that get an above average rate of complaints (which is often negative feedback associated with spammy posts). To truly attain reach @ scale in social platforms, paid media must be an “always-on” line item on your marketing and media plans.

Now let’s continue on to the crux of the matter by asking if generating engagement, to the detriment of lower reach, is a positive for brands?

In my opinion, it is not. If you manage a brand (either directly or indirectly), think long and hard about this. Are you happy with maintaining or growing your engagement rates if fewer people are exposed to your message? If you are, then continue with the status quo of focusing on engagement metrics.

Or, are you most concerned about increasing the absolute number of people that are being exposed to your brand content? If you’re in this camp, then concentrate on growing the proportion of your current fan base that is reached each week. Even better, design content plans to reach a pre-defined percentage of your target social universe (fans + non-fans) each month, at an effective frequency. Aka media planning 101.

If, like me, you believe that getting more value from your content comes down to reaching more of your target audience, then challenge the status quo. Start to create different behavior across your content teams and media buying agencies by incenting them to distribute content across social networks with reach and frequency goals in mind. Continue to measure and optimize engagement, but don’t leave reach and frequency behind at its expense.

Do you agree that optimizing brand content for more effective reach & frequency drives more value than engagement? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below…

Photo Credit: stuartpilbrow on Flickr

  • Right on. There’s nothing more annoying than a “social media guru” complaining how brands “don’t get it” because they fail to drive engagement. In a brand marketing context, I’ll take sales, at scale, over engagement.

  • Paolo P

    Hey Matt,
    I think you make a strong mathematical case for reach over engagement rate. But engagement absolutes are the only thing advertisers can control right now. Seeing as how unlike Google’s SEO measures, FB has been able to keep Edgerank inputs from advertisers for such a long time now (and therefore kept advertisers from even understanding how to improve overall reach OTHER than ad dollars).

    Advertisers: pay for your ad to be seen in a newsfeed – but know that we control *but won’t tell you how to improve* your ‘chances’ of being seen in that newsfeed.
    It’s seems like this is a pay to play game – And by extension, the deepest pockets get seen the most.

  • What if the brand earns revenue the longer the audience engages with the content?

    What is the formula for this?

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  • Hi Matt, I am happy to join this thread as you are covering some of my key areas of interest. My POV is the converse of yours, however. Though I understand the equation you lay out, it supposes that a brand focused on engagement will invest less in reach. Our experience shows, however, that all major brands with social strategies are investing good amounts of money into reach for their content on social networks. I have yet to hear of one that has reduced spending to go for engagement instead. However, when two brands are spending equal amounts on reach and one is doing engagement better than the other, the latter brand gets more reach for the same money on Facebook because Edgerank allows its promoted content to go on more users’ walls. This is even more true given Facebook’s recent tightening of the its algorithm. Because engagement is a key competitive differentiation factor, allowing brands to outperform competitors given equal resources, it is also a key variable in the much sought after social media ROI figure. While determining true ROI is difficult, at least we know how to optimize ad spend (through posts with better engagement scores). At #engagementlabs, the company I work for, we have built a tool to measure all of this. It is called the eValue Social Media ROI Suite. Check it out here: http://www.evaluesuite.com. Look forward to further discussions!

    • Hi Tom, thanks for your perspective. I did not mean to imply that a brand focused on engagement will invest less in paid reach. However, I believe that brands may run the risk of unintentionally decreasing the reach of their content if primarily focused on engagement as the key success metric. Yes, post engagement is a critical factor in EdgeRank, but I fear that many marketers & agencies continue to place too much focus on it and not enough on reach & frequency goals. I look forward to more exchanges as well, thanks for reading!

    • Paul

      Tom’s POV is absolutely so right on…. The highest ROI in acheiving reach AND frequency … is through enagement. But yes… this requires such a change of paradigm for most of the traditionnal marketers out there.

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