Today’s subject line draws from a recent paper by Northwestern University PhD candidate Jacob Nelson titled “The Elusive Engagement Metric
,” which dives into the potential haziness of measuring audience engagement for media companies. The study hones in on one particular audience-engagement consultancy for newsrooms named Hearken
—which, incidentally, was the
very first startup that opened my eyes several years ago to the potential of “public-powered journalism” and “public-powered media” more broadly.
Nelson’s ultimate evaluation of Hearken might not seem quite as uplifting. He claims that the startup’s sales pitch relies too much on appealing to prospective clients’ intuition and drawing on loose “anecdata,” rather than on empirical evidence that engagement (whatever that means) is something that readers really want and can grow news orgs sustainably.
“Hearken’s staff could not cite an engagement metric to demonstrate the impact of its tools and services because no such metric that has industry-wide backing currently exists,” writes Nelson. He also includes some eyebrow-raising quotes from his conversations with Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel, who said, among other things, that “the marinade of the industry right now is one of extreme shit-your-pants fear.”
Brandel has since rebutted with a series of letters
and blog posts
of her own—underscoring not only how Nelson’s paper drew largely on outdated conversations that took place back in early 2017, but also that Hearken has empirically helped everyone from local newsrooms to major metropolitan publishers increase their reader engagement and drive up conversions, on their own terms
Nonetheless, I think some findings from Nelson’s work are still worth unpacking in the context of music. In particular, what makes so much of digital strategy in the music business feel like the wild west, even today, is that there’s no singular engagement metric with “industry-wide backing” for music—nor should that be the end goal in the first place.
This is what I mean by the death of Engagement, with a capital E
. As long as companies and artists of different sizes have different goals
, there will be no singular, quantifiable ideal for what engagement looks like. While fixating on this hypothetical singular metric might make it easier for the music industry in the short term, but certainly won’t help us out in the long term; some have even argued that metric fixation is stifling entrepreneurship
as as whole.
While seemingly unrelated, I think the potential for fraud in anything with data, especially in streaming and social media, is directly related to this death of Engagement. For instance, last week, a leading Norwegian newspaper accused Tidal of artificially inflating the performance
of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo
and Beyoncé’s Lemonade
with hundreds of millions of fake streams, without the knowledge of the real-life Tidal users under whom these fake streams registered.
Tidal has aggressively denied these claims, but they’re a worthy reminder that click fraud schemes are nothing new
in the music business, in the same way that ad-tech is nothing new on the Internet. I think the fact that these claims blew up so much in the first place also points to how the music industry still suffers from a “tyranny of the quantifiable,” whereby anything that refutes a dominant metric for defining success that people take for granted (i.e. number of streams) also refutes their sense of reality itself.
From an audience development perspective, engagement requires and nurtures trust
between an organization and its users. In the world of easily-manipulable streaming metrics, that previously strong tie between engagement and trust seems to be severing by the day—and, fortunately, is making some people realize that engagement can take other forms that are equally if not more fruitful (see my previous newsletter about the myth of the SoundCloud bumper sticker
One of my key findings from my research with the Membership Puzzle Project is that fostering that trust involves leaving some of the key decisions and grunt work to the users themselves. Author Carina Chocano wrote a phenomenal op-ed
in the New York Times
last month about this topic, focusing on how Facebook and other tech startups have botched the meaning of community.
“A community, at least in theory, is a site of collective decision-making; it is maintained by the people who built it, for their own benefit,” she writes. “It monitors itself and invests in its own health. It rewards participation with a real stake in the common good.” In other words, the ideal communities are self-organizing and set the terms for their own mutual engagement.
In contrast, platforms like Facebook that purport to “create community” are arguably “in the business of exploiting the communities they’ve created for the benefit of those outside (the business community, the strategic communications community, the Moldovan hacker community),” says Chocano. “They invite members to ‘participate,’ but not, in the end, to make decisions together.” Facebook’s model for engagement is Engagement with a capital E.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the claims about Hearken and Tidal, and whether or not they speak to you. If you’re building a career as an artist, running your own company or overseeing a marketing or branding department at another company, how do you decide what “engagement” means to you? Do you feel yourself trying to climb out of the tyranny of some quantifiable meaning of Engagement with a capital E, and instead trying to study how your users or fans are setting the terms of engagement for themselves and how that term might manifest itself in a more self-organizing fashion? Let’s talk!