Op-ed: Digital engagement matters to companies – and their investors – in a post-pandemic world

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One of my favorite movie quotes comes from “Gladiator,” as Maximus calls out to the crowd, “Are you not entertained?” In this new pandemic-focused world, it appears that we should be changing that to “Are you not engaged?”

The topic of engagement is everywhere.

At home, parents are seeking to maximize engagement with their children in ways that their parents and grandparents would have never imagined. At work, employee engagement is a focus for human resources professionals as well as a metric on which to base manager performance and determine the efficacy of programs and communications designed to strengthen employee loyalty. A lack of customer engagement can torpedo an entire business line. Engagement scores may even be used to persuade top talent to join an organization.

But engagement is most in focus within the digital world – a world that we have all been more engrossed in during the last twelve months than ever before.

Earnings calls point to a variety of metrics that measure this engagement: digital ad revenues, new subscribers, and average revenue per user are just a few examples.

Impressive results for many companies in the technology and communication services sectors are directly attributed to stronger customer engagement over the last year, which is hardly surprising given the shift in our leisure time activities during the pandemic.

So where do we go from here? How does a re-opening of the economy change engagement in a post-pandemic world?

One of the rallying cries for bulls has been the idea that vaccines will spur a massive unleashing of pent-up demand as American consumers reconnect with friends and communities, resume previous shopping patterns, and perhaps most importantly for cyclical consumer companies such as lodging and airlines, travel again.

The American consumer has become a captive audience over the last 12 months, as the producers of “Tiger King” and TikTok influencers can attest. One could argue there is risk that our attention will be diverted back to more traditional forms of engagement, and the desire to get out and live life again, unfettered by explicit or behavior-based restrictions will diminish the level of digital engagement companies have come to count on.

If the last decade is any indication, the likelihood of that happening is slim.

The growth of digital ad spend, which has been directly correlated with the rising values of companies such as Alphabet and Facebook, has continued virtually unabated because the targeted advertising offered by these companies works.

There is no better way to capture an audience for a product or service than by employing an algorithm that allows you to target consumers who have indicated, even in a subtle way, that they are more likely to make a purchase.

Amazon has created an entire ecosystem of sellers vying for the opportunity to appear in the ribbon of top picks on any given day. New streaming services are launching weekly, responding to consumer desires to curate their viewing experience, and existing services are rewarded with new subscribers with every new binge-worthy series.

The fear of missing out is real. The desire to remain culturally relevant may be attributed to millennials and Gen Y, but it extends well beyond that.

The maturation of an extraordinary digital delivery system is not without its challenges. The data that underpins the effectiveness of digital advertising is the target of privacy concerns from regulators, consumer groups and government agencies. Disruption is always a threat, and competition amongst platforms is fierce.

Investors looking to add exposure to long-term trends should consider the end-to-end beneficiaries of this trend – from chips to chats to charismatic consumer brands. Branding and marketing are more important than ever, and companies that consult and provide tools to enhance their customers’ experiences can benefit from growth in the market, rather than just how well a particular platform is faring in the current competitive environment.

While we may malign the pull of the digital world and the time it detracts from more organic forms of personal connection, one cannot deny that companies delivering the digital experience must be doing something right to keep us coming back.

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