Media Psychology: What is engagement?What is engagement? Despite the fact that I work with clients everyday to track ENGAGEMENT metrics, I haven’t taken the time to reflect on a working definition. There appears to be two distinct camps approaching this question; 1) psychologists and 2) marketing professionals and academics. As a disclaimer, I have worked for almost a decade as a digital marketing strategist and therefore the latter approach to defining engagement is more familiar to me.

These dual approaches are outlined by Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G. in their work entitled ‘The Concept of Engagement’. Psychologists have defined engagement as a ‘sort of ongoing emotional, cognitive and behavioral activation state in individuals’, whereas advertising professionals ‘see it as the turning on of a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context’ (Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G., 2010, p. 4). Their work goes further to uncover contradictory definitions for the term ‘engagement’ and confusion around its actual meaning (Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G., 2010).

A strong voice on the business side, Brian Solis, had this to say on the subject of defining engagement (Solis, B. 2011):

 Engagement is defined as the interaction between a consumer or stakeholder and an organization. It is measured – here’s the important part – as the take-away value, sentiment and actions that follow the exchange. Without definition, where will they go, what will they feel, what will they do or say?

Despite the lack of a clear-cut definition, both camps include mention of an ‘action’. Whether it’s an interaction or a behavioral activation state, the fact that the engaged user is behaviorally taking action seems to be a common thread.

 Engagement = Behavior

The concept that engagement includes a behavioral action is supported by the work of Bijmolt, T.H.A., Leeflang, P.S.H., Block, F., Eisenbeiss, M., Hardie, B.G.S., and Lemmens, A.L. They define customer engagement as the behavioral manifestation from a customer toward a brand or a firm which goes beyond purchase behavior (Bijmolt, T.H.A. et al. 2010).

Gambetti also stresses the importance of the behavioral component of engagement, citing actions such as co-creation, social sharing and other interactive, collaborative and participative dimensions as helping brands connect with and ENGAGE consumers (Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G., 2010).

This behavioral stance is further supported by Van Doorn and her colleagues who cite several different meanings of the verb ‘to engage’, all of which imply a behavioral focus (Van Doorn, J., Lemon, K. N., Mittal, V., Nass, S., Pick, D. N., Pirner, P., 2010). Their work develops the concept of Customer Engagement Behaviors or CEB’s, which are customers’ behavioral manifestations (beyond purchase) toward a brand resulting from motivational drivers. CEB’s can include a wide range of behaviors including word-of-mouth activity, recommendations, helping other customers, blogging, writing reviews and social media activity (Van Dorn, J. et al. 2010).

 Five Dimensions of Engagement

In order to nuance their definition of the term ‘engagement’, Van Dorn et al. proposed five dimensions of customer engagement behaviors. These key components help to further define engagement and determine the impact on a brand or firm. They include (Van Dorn et al. 2010):

  • Valence – the extent to which the attitude behind the behavior is positive or negative.
  • Form/Modality – the different ways the behavior is expressed by customers, for example time, money or both.
  • Scope – the temporal and geographic scope of the behavior, momentary or ongoing, local or global.
  • Impact – immediacy, breadth, intensity and longevity of the behaviors impact.
  • Customer goals – the purpose and intended audience of the engagement behavior.

Each of these factors helps to further refine what customer engagement actually LOOKS like and serves to aide in its measurement.

An Engaged Consumer is a Happy Consumer

As technology and digital media continues to evolve, so will the concept of ‘engagement’. The term will continue to be a buzz word for marketing professionals as long as studies continue to prove engaged consumers are more loyal customers (Lea, W. 2012). There is a keen opportunity for psychologists and marketing professionals to come together to provide a better experience for consumers.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of positive psychology, outlined three platforms for happiness in a recent TEDx talk in Chicago. They included pleasure, engagement and meaning. His research has determined that the MOST predictive element of happiness is ENGAGEMENT or the ability to enter into a state of ‘flow’. If brands can better understand the underlying psychological aspects of engagement, then perhaps they can contribute to overall consumer satisfaction. The union of positive psychology and business practices could spell a better future for us all.




Bijmolt, T. H. A., Leeflang, P. S. H., Block, F., Eisenbeiss, M., Hardie, B. G. S., Lemmens, A. l., et al. (2010). Analytics for Customer Engagement. Journal of Service Research, 13(3),341-356.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Rules of Engagement presentation, TEDxChicago 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7e1xU0-h9Y8

Gambetti, R., & Graffigna, G. (2010). The Concept of Engagement. International Journal of Market Research, 52(6), 801-826.

Lea, W. (2012). The New Rules of Customer Engagement. http://www.inc.com/wendy-lea/new-rules-of-customer-engagement.html

Solis, Brian. (2011). The Rules of Smarter Engagement. http://www.briansolis.com/2011/11/the-rules-of-smarter-engagement/

Solis, Brian. (2012). Engagement ain’t nothing but a number – why 1% isn’t good enough http://www.briansolis.com/2012/04/engagement-aint-nothing-but-a-number-why-1-isnt-good-enough/

Van Doorn, J., Lemon, K. N., Mittal, V., Nass, S., Pick, D. N., Pirner, P., et al. (2010). Customer Engagement Behavior: Theoretical Foundations and Research Directions. Journal of Service Research, 13(3), 253-266.