How Should We Understand Engagement vs. Retention?

A question, to set the tone: would you rather have wealth or fame?

It’s not an uncommon question, and it seems easy—either one would be great. It’s actually easier than that since the two are fairly inextricable. The overused phrase “famous for being famous” rarely applies to those in poverty, and extreme wealth almost always makes one well-known.

Does the same relationship exist for audience engagement vs. retention in media? 

Can you have one without the other? Is one more important? And would you want just one, if you could separate them?

Arthur Castro’s piece for App Growth Experts contains a useful matrix designed to place familiar apps and products on a graph of engagement vs. retention.  

At the intersection of high retention and high engagement sits the label “Addiction”, surrounded by social media and mobile games. 

Console video games and others sit under high engagement but low retention, and are labeled “Fad.”  

High retention and low engagement, labeled “Utility”, contains the example of a phone’s Weather app.

And the example-free box that represents low engagement and low retention is ingloriously labeled “Disposable.”

Whether or not this model is perfect, it’s a good way to think of what could be improved—or, what merits improvement at all—in your customers’ relationship to your message/product.

High Engagement AND High Retention

Can you expect to reach addiction levels? If your product is the Weather app, maybe not… but then again, what does your weather app look like? Is higher engagement truly off the table? What would you gain if you could increase that engagement?

Some products likely won’t reach the apex of both, or at least not in the perfect, revenue-maximizing ideal you might seek. Castro offers some metrics to evaluate customer retention: time, core behavior, and unit of value.

Metric to Consider: Time

Time relates to the frequency with which your customers interact with your product. Core behavior gets at the precise way your customers use your product, and unit of value relates to how many people benefit from/utilize your product when it is used.

These metrics show us that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what good retention looks like. If your product is a refrigerator, you probably rank very highly on time, have a clear understanding of the core behavior involved, and know that a fairly small amount of customers benefit from the product each day.

But as I’m sure you’ll agree, that does not mean you’ve made a bad refrigerator, or that its retention rate should be higher. In fact, you might be doing better than any other refrigerator on the market.

How to Track Engagement and Retention

Similarly, tracking engagement varies with the product in question. “Your engagement rate is usually analyzed when looking to improve a piece of content,” writes Richard Johnson, showing two major differentiators between engagement tracking and retention tracking.

For one, the use of the word “improve” is significant—engagement is more of a forward-looking metric than retention.  You’re probably not spending a lot of time analyzing engagement if your product is flying off the shelves, and retention metrics are looking great.

Johnson’s next words, wherein he refers to a “piece of content,” draws the other distinction. Johnson explicitly ties content to social media, digital marketing like video, and similar initiatives. This can’t be quite as important as retention, can it? Because, realistically, does your refrigerator company expect to have a vibrant online community?

Well… yes, it should, very much so.

What do we learn from engagement?

“A higher consumer engagement is an indicator of great content and, when taking an overview, then a great content strategy.” 

That content strategy is how you get page views, how you get interest. It’s the only way to reach the retention that you want and need.

How do you increase retention?

Get creative. Improve your content, no matter what the product, so that you can see just what makes people gravitate towards your brand.  Sticking with the refrigerator concept, let’s say your current social media campaigns feature a character named Fridgy.  He’s, well, a fridge, and by all accounts, consumers are not connecting with Fridgy.

As you analyze engagement, you’ll quickly see that you need to improve Fridgy—actually, maybe ditch him altogether, and restart your creative process. Try some kind of viral, hashtag-friendly contest—how many products can customers fit in your fridge?  Sure, it’s not earthshakingly cool, but it’s probably better than the dead-end engagement you’re looking at now.

So how should we think about engagement vs. retention?

In a lot of ways, the same way we think about fame and fortune.  Engagement might be analogous to fame, and retention might be similar to wealth, but even if the analogies aren’t perfect, the point is the same.  You want, and frankly need, both.

You’ll need different strategies to reach the different levels of retention and engagement described in Castro’s graph.  And it’s important to note that not every product has a chance at reaching “addiction” levels of engagement and retention.

That’s okay.

You decide where your product’s best place in the spectrum is regarding engagement vs. retention, based on its type, your business model, and the numerous other variables that are unique to your company.  

Just don’t give up on the engagement you’ll need to maintain momentum and drive retention.  In that above example with Fridgy, notice that the answer was never “Toss the mascot, and scrap the social media campaign.”  Adjust your content marketing to generate higher engagement through better content.

Utilize the metrics of retention—time, core behavior, and unit of value—to reimagine how you’ll engage consumers.  Then use what you learn from successful efforts at engagement to consider revising your retention metrics.  Maybe an enthusiastic response from a previously untapped demographic shows you a new core behavior that you can reflect in your marketing, and drive engagement further.

At TruScribe, we work hard to create, boost, and maintain engagement and increase retention rates of your message.  Try to incorporate the same ethos into your business: focus on both, value both, and drill down on the interplay between the two.  Success isn’t found in one or the other: it’s found through the effective combination of both.