Engagement lessons from outside journalism

By Joy Mayer on April 26, 2011 2 Comments Ideas

Engagement: What it is and what it isn’t

Engagement dimensions
Know what the goal is, and how to get there
Get comfortable with participatory communication
Invest in relationship building
Instill a sense of personal investment
Listen as well as talk
To summarize, a few key points

When I set out this year to study community engagement in journalism, I knew that one facet would be an exploration of what “engagement” means on a broader scale. Other disciplines have put the concept to thoughtful, sophisticated use, and journalists would do well to consider what we have to learn from them.

Some of those explorations came in the form of interviews and informal research into other professions, like nonprofits, user engagement and customer service, community development, corporate strategy and community libraries.

An undergraduate student explored the concept of participatory museums, including a look at how an Asian art museum, and a former journalist, are serving the needs of a community in Seattle.

I also had the privilege of working this year with a doctoral student, Maria Garcia, who conducted a review of how other fields of study, and other professionals, talk about engagement. I’m pleased to share with you her summary of what she learned through her culling of academic research, trade publication and popular press.

-- Joy Mayer, 2010-2011 Reynolds Fellow

By: Maria M. Garcia

It’s the story of all time. Boy meets girl. Boy wants girl. Boy moves heaven and earth to get girl’s attention. Girl makes it difficult. And this is the dance of engagement. No, not matrimonial engagement, but to be highly involved with something. That something can be a message, a cause, a campaign, a discussion or a product. Engagement in this context is the awakening of the senses towards something of interest. For many, engaging the right audience spells success. Ignoring them or having them ignore you is a recipe for disaster. In this article, key points on engagement are offered in aim to bring this intriguing subject to light.

Engagement: What it is and what it isn’t

It goes beyond merely catching attention and causing a bit of noise. It certainly moves past the monologue and the clutter of noise. The term engagement is frequently used across many disciplines as a form of attracting and motivating people to become involved with something. Engagement has also been used interchangeably with an assortment of other words, such as: community involvement, citizenship, participation, community building, civic engagement, empowerment, activism, democratic collaboration or high involvement. After reading a great deal of literature on engagement, we propose that the highest form of engagement is participation. Participation not only affects the individual, but also the community and even public policy. People often become engaged with an issue, process, or community when they have vested interests in it.

Engagement dimensions

Trust and engagement are a social capital (Shah et al., 2001). Understanding how individuals find meaning through engagement allows for a better understanding of the effectiveness of a product or an event (Cornwell & Smith, 2001). There are different dimensions that explain why individuals become emotionally and cognitively involved in an event, process, or media platform. Inspired by a study of students’ levels of engagement by Suarez-Orozco and colleagues (2008), three dimensions of engagement have been identified and made relevant to the argument in this article: cognitive, behavioral, and relational. Cognitive engagement refers to the degree in which individuals are engrossed and intellectually involved in what they are learning. Relational engagement is the extent to which individuals feel connected to their environment. Behavioral engagement is reflective of individual participation and involvement in activities. In sum, engagement can be considered a measure of an individual’s cognitive response, personal or emotional connection, and/or actions. Across industries, these dimensions of engagement are vital to reaching specific goals that contribute to the welfare of an organization and its constituents.

Know what the goal is, and how to get there

Although many industries are concerned with engagement and approach it with similar tactics, their goals vary greatly. There are many factors that overlap one another across these many fields aiming to reach their goals. From capturing interest to inspiring participation, engagement is best defined as an action that inspires individuals to become involved, and to some extent, a state of involvement.

In marketing and other aspects of strategic communication, the main goal is to increase sales and drive revenue. Effectively engaging consumers equates to brand loyalty, favorable attitudes, and high involvement. For many companies, increased sales are a valid measure of engagement success. In other instances, increased membership or subscription is the true measure.

In community building and community organizing, one of the objectives is to drive community members to civic involvement and to raise awareness. In many aspects, involvement is centered in civic participation and acts of citizenship, such as volunteering (Barry, 2010). In activism and community involvement, non-profits and community groups—NGOs, charities, and community-centered organizations—often strive for direct action, which also comes in the form of civic participation. In a study of civic involvement and mobile phone use conducted by Campbell (2010), the author stated that civic engagement could be measured in accordance to the following five categories: doing volunteer work; working on a community project; contributing money to a social group or cause; going to a community or neighborhood meeting; and, working on behalf of a social group or cause. Regardless of the tools used or tactics implemented, the actions remained consistent with the goal of creating change through civic involvement.

Get comfortable with participatory communication

In the business arena, marketers invest time and money in various campaigns that are cause- or sponsorship-centered. It has been argued that individuals are inclined to actively participate in a cause because of shared social identity or shared belief. Current trends show that consumers do pay attention to cause-related marketing (i.e., CRM) and special events. Many large organizations launch a new CRM campaign, align themselves with an event that builds awareness or drives in donations for a cause, or sponsor an event that many consumers would support. Advertisers believe that promoting a specific cause or showing presence in a major event triggers improved brand recall and recognition among consumers towards their brand.

In a study conducted by Cornwell and Smith (2001), the authors investigated 12 categories that related to event participants and motivational factors for engagement. They identified categories that consisted of the following: awareness/learning, research funds/seek cure, honor/celebrating, emotional/feeling, solidarity, support others and being supported, social/togetherness, fighting/victory, spirituality, incredulous victim, common enemy and intergenerational. They argued individuals participated in an event, such as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, for at least one of the reasons listed above. Participants invest in cause-related events because an issue affects them or someone they know personally, and/or they have developed an emotional attachment to the cause. Marketers also believe when consumers are involved with generating awareness for a cause or perceive the organizations aligned with the cause in a positive manner, then the chances for engagement are greater. Participation largely viewed as supporting a CRM campaign, offering donations, or signing up to be involved with an event. In strategic communication, propelling such individual consumer action leads to effective engagement.

In order to create a successful campaign with effective engagement, activists not only require the proper tools, but also need the proper approach. That approach is participation—a means to become a part of something big, a movement, that will initiate some form of change in public policy or catapult a behavioral change in society. Engagement can also be triggered by one’s sense of empowerment or when one recognizes that the opportunity to obtain it is within reach. One of the highest degrees of engagement falls within the realms of activism. Activism remains an increasingly popular activity that unites people in society under a single banner for the purpose of creating awareness for a cause or shaping public policy. “In the 1980s, activists developed sophistication and expanded their influence; activism on a global scale became a trend” (Anderson, 1992, p. 152). When it comes to public affairs and activism, activists are motivated to become involved with a campaign out of passion and interest. Many view a campaign as an opportunity to make a difference through action. Activism is centered on effective communication and organization. It is through effective collective action where such change is achieved. Action is another term that is used loosely since it not just refers to human bodily movement, but also the act of communication, which in this case is participatory communication.

Today, one such opportunity for individual participation is offered online. It is a force so powerful, totalitarian governments cannot even manage to control it. Since the emergence of Web 2.0, which has also been pegged Revolution 2.0 (Friedman, 2005), individuals have plugged themselves into the World Wide Web to create dialogue and to collaborate with others from across the globe. From Facebook to Twitter to Wikipedia, people are becoming increasingly active in the participatory process and are shifting from passive viewers to active producers of content. The stream of user generated content and information sharing that is found online has created such a large impact on many countries, serving as a tool to help individuals challenge their government and address public policy. As shown in the 2011 uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, social media engagement is not just an avenue for entertainment and social connection, but has surfaced as a channel for activism. In fact, it is a channel that does not only just beckon individuals to spread the message, but create an additional voice for the cause.

Invest in relationship building

The area of community building has received a great deal of attention since U.S. President Barack Obama took office. As made evident in many other fields, engagement is at the heart of community building. “Community building provides a platform for local governance, including policy development and action” (Ng, 2010, p. 1024). Community building is dependent on the processes of shaping strong relationships with members within a community and inspiring them to become proactive. Relationship development is core to building community involvement (Christens, 2010). No matter whether these communities are based locally in a specific geographic location or online, the formula remains the same. Relationships are key. In order to motivate people to listen, to create, to interact, and to take action, relationships must be fostered.

Communal ties are dependent on relationship building to increase collective action efforts by members who make up that community. Some communities are formed through shared identity and shared beliefs. As shown in activist literature, individuals often become a part of an organization because they identify with the organization’s goals and its members. The motivation behind membership is usually inspired through relationships, especially friendships. Community members feel their voices can be heard within the collective and that they have interests (i.e., rights, investments, etc.) that have to be protected. The bond created between members is often strong enough to promote trust within the group. By solidifying these community ties, members inherently become highly engaged with the community’s missions and issues.

Inarguably, the Internet promotes and supports civic engagement (Chadwick, 2006). Shah and colleagues (2001) believed that the Internet served as a motivational tool in that it helps build personal connections, share knowledge while serving as a platform to address joint concerns about issues important to different types of users. It enables interaction among various people. Collectively, users make up multitudes of communities that share dialogue and implement action, bringing forth yet another dimension to community building.

Instill a sense of personal investment

People also become interested in an issue or topic of discussion if they feel they are affected directly by it. Rotolo and colleagues (2010) proposed that individuals become highly engaged if their vested interests are at stake. In their study, they argued that homeowners are more likely to be civically involved in their community than renters because they have made an investment within that community. This argument may also be easily applied to organizations and their audiences. Audiences become engaged when feel they are directly affected by the decisions made by their organization or that the organization can impact an issue they feel is important. Similar to the foundations of building relationships, it is that connection that can spark interest, awareness, and action. In general, civic engagement is triggered when individuals have both the motivation and the outlet to share their concerns. For the online platform, civic engagement can spring from community blogs, online networks, or online local papers and bulletins. Individuals immerse themselves in the participatory process and begin to identify with others who share the same passion for a cause or belief. With increased participation made online, it is important that we understand how individuals use online tools to interact. “In order to give youth a voice and encourage young people to become involved in civic affairs and social change it must be easy and convenient to participate” (Thackery & Hunter, 2010).

As one of the major trends today, social media has created an arena for social interaction and collaboration. Online communication is clearly one of the fastest means of mass communication to date. One single message sent online can reach millions of people in just a matter of seconds. With the right content carried on the right vehicle to the right audience, engagement can be achieved quickly and easily. In order to harness true engagement, the audience must react to the message and become part of the participatory process along the three dimensions of engagement (cognitive, emotional, and behavioral). Of all the industries, for-profit companies were one of the first to utilize online tools to spark interaction with their target audiences. As stated by Crawford (2009), “The corporate sector was quick to see the benefits of using social media to forge a closer relationship with customers, gain information about products, and enhance public personae.” (p. 531). If used wisely, social media strengthens an organization’s credibility and relationship with its public because it allows for interaction and collaboration. In one study, Hickerson and Thompson (2007) found that individuals are active with online tools, such as wikis, for an assortment of reasons. Some of those reasons include the need to inform others, to have fun, to impact others, to contribute to knowledge, and to learn. Clearly, if these are the key ingredients to engagement, then they are worth considering when creating a campaign or developing a project.

Listen as well as talk

In many ways, engagement is fundamentally a process that involves active communication on two levels: the output and the input. Output is the standard SMCR model, that is, sender-message-channel-receiver. Basically, this is when one source sends a message through a channel in order to reach an audience. Input refers to active listening. For some, listening does not lead to engagement unless it produces a cognitive, relational, or behavioral response. However, it has been argued that listening is a shared act between both senders and receivers: “As individuals, politicians and companies develop a greater capacity to listen to multiple others online, and more people come to expect this form of attention, a greater sense of responsibility to listen emerges” (Crawford, 2009, p. 526). The belief is that successful engagement offers the balance of both listening and communicating.

Individuals who participate in the communication process are actively sharing their opinions, thoughts, and beliefs with others in their community while also actively listening to what others have to say. For this is the basic rule of conversation. Crawford (2009) also identified ‘lurking’ as an important element in the communication process as a means to engage. Lurking was once thought of as a passive action where an individual sifted through information posted online. Lurking has since transitioned into an action that influences other people’s level of engagement. Crawford (2009) defines lurkers as individuals who actively log and track others’ online contributions, further promoting additional public contributions. The author argues that lurking is vital to the engagement process, such that: “listening invokes the more dynamic process of online attention…it is an embedded part of networked engagement—a necessary corollary to having a ‘voice’. If we reconceptualize lurking as listening, it reframes a set of behaviors once seen as vacant and empty into receptive and reciprocal practices” (p.527). Lurkers are engaged because they gather what others have to say. Sometimes lurkers are even inspired to move from the state of listening to the state of sharing. These acts of communication build up to engagement as it creates a chain of linear and cyclical communication where sending and receiving messages are at times simultaneous and sporadic, leading to what is a conversation.

The cyclical process of communication is best described as a conversation—a building block to engagement. Individuals involved in a conversation are active in a rhythmic pattern for sharing knowledge and developing a relationship. Engagement in this sense is not solely about obtaining feedback from individuals, but rather about participating in a conversation. The conversation should be beneficial to all parties who are a part of it, so they can walk away from it with additional perspectives or become more informed individuals. Conversations can be educational, entertaining, or informative. Conversations are very much in line with community building and online motivators where they afford a human connection. Without a doubt, it is that connection that summons engagement as it enables feelings of respect among discussants, creates the opportunity for growth, and answers the need to be heard.

To summarize, a few key points:

  • Engagement requires commitment from the source that desires reactions from its target audience.
  • Engagement’s three dimensions consist of people’s cognitive response, personal or emotional connection, and action.
  • The general rule of thumb is to engage people by educating them, entertaining them, and/or informing them.
  • Like any relationship, time invested in getting to know your person of interest helps build trust and credibility.
  • This is truly an exciting time to create audience outreach since so many are not only willing to listen—they are willing participate and talk back.

Maria M. Garcia is a doctorate candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has been working with 2010-2011 Reynolds Fellow Joy Mayer on community engagement in journalism. Once she graduates from the university in May 2011, she will be working as an Assistant Professor at the American University in Dubai, where she intends to gain a better understanding of social media’s role in the youth revolutions that are taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.


Anderson, D. (1992). Identifying and responding to activist publics: A case study. Journal of Public Relations Research, 4(3), 151-165.

Barry, F.  (April 28, 2010). 4 Ways One Non-Profit Uses Location to Increase Engagement. Retrieved from: mashable.com/2010/04/28/non-profit-location/

Campbell, S., & Kwak, N. (2010). Mobile communication and civic life: Linking patterns of use to civic and political engagement. Journal of Communication, 60(3), 536-555.

Carter, D. (2005). Living in virtual communities: An ethnography of human relationships in cyberspace. Information, Communication & Society, 8(2), 148-167.

Chadwick, A. (2006). “Internet Politics, Some Conceptual Tools,” in Internet Politics, States, Citizens, and New Communication Technologies, 17-37.

Christens, B. (2010). Public relationship building in grassroots community organizing: Relational intervention for individual and systems change. Journal of Community Psychology, 38(7), 886-900.

Cornwell, T., & Smith, R. (2001). The communications importance of consumer meaning in cause-linked events: findings from a US event for benefiting breast cancer research. Journal of Marketing Communications, 7(4), 213-229.

Crawford, K. (2009). Following you: Disciplines of listening in social media. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 23(4), 525-535.

Friedman, T. (2005). The World is Flat. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Hickerson, C., & Thompson, S. (2007). Dialogue through Wikis: A pilot exploration of dialogic public relations and Wiki websites. Proceedings from the 2007 National Communication Association.

Ng, E. (2010). Community-building: A strategy to address inequality of health in Australia. Journal of Health Psychology, 15(7), 1020-1029.

Rotolo, T., Wilson, J., & Hughes, M. (2010). Homeownership and volunteering: An alternative approach to studying social inequality and civic engagement. Sociological Forum, 25(3), 570-587.

Shah, D., Kwak, N., & Holbert, R.L. (2001). ‘Connecting’ and ‘disconnecting’ with civic life:  Patterns of Internet use and the production of social capital. Political Communication, 18, 141-162.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Onaga, M., & de Lardemelle, C. (2010). Promoting academic engagement among immigrant adolescents through school-family-community collaboration. Professional School Counseling, 14(1), 15-26.

Thackery, R., & Hunter, M. (2010). Empowering Youth: Use of Technology in Advocacy to Affect Social Change. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 15(4), 575- 591.

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Outstanding article and presentation

Enjoying your presentation right now at RJI - and this article is an outstanding resource for our work with online organizing for political campaigns. Thank you

Great start

This is a great start to understanding engagement. However, I would be cautious drawing too many conclusions based on a segment of academic research that is completely dependent on data representative of individuals' conscious perceptions of their own engagement and folk theories about why they engage in certain behaviors. What the research cited above calls "motivation" is really individuals' conscious explanation for why they "think" they behave a certain way. To truly understand engagement we certainly need data at that level of information processing but if we want to be able to identify practical strategies for increasing engagement in journalism or political campaigns for that matter, we also need an understanding of the deeper foundation of information processing in the mind, which ultimately is an evolutionarily developed brain equipped to mobilize biological motivational processes designed to help us thrive in our complex social world. These processes are the likely foundation of "engagement." There is a great, relevant body of literature in neuropsychology and affective social neuroscience which is where we need to turn if we are going to gain a foundational understanding of engagement that will ultimately produce practical strategies for journalism or any other related media industry capable of producing reliable desired results. There is huge opportunity here for work that crosses levels of analysis and will produce the insight the media industry needs! Thank you for your work on this!

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