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What Comic-Con Taught Me About Engagement

Engagement is one of the most important concepts in our marketing profession. But lately I’ve been thinking about engagement from the point of view of the individual–the what-it-really-feels-like perspective.

At a recent Comic-Con event, I witnessed a new level of engagement–one more passionate, intense, joyous, and immersive than I ever imagined it could be. I’ve come to think it may be the future of engagement.

First a quick background: Comic-Con was founded in 1970 by a small group of comic book fans in a one-room basement in San Diego. It has since grown into the largest pop-culture convention of its kind in the world. (Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” know that even Sheldon could not get a ticket.) If the character only exists to feed your imagination, it’s at Comic-Con.

But the real show is the 150,000 fans from all over the world who plan and prepare all year to become their favorite superhero or character for a few days. There is nothing like waiting in a lunch line behind the Hulk and in front of Captain Kirk. Or finding yourself standing a few feet from Ben Affleck as he explains to a skeptical crowd how Batman really can defeat Superman in a fair fight. (I’m not convinced!)

I have never seen a group of people anywhere else who are so happy, so passionate, and yes, so engaged in doing anything as I have at Comic-Con. So I thought to myself: What can I learn?

What came to mind was a popular book written in 1950 by Harvard sociologist David Riesman. In “The Lonely Crowd,” he pointed out that human beings have a finite amount of attention with which to engage with the world and that greater demands would be made on this finite amount of attention. (Mind you, he wrote this before the internet, iPhones, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.) Our relationships with people and things, he said, would become a means to an end, more transactional, more compartmentalized, and more impermanent--what sociologist Charles Horton Cooley called “secondary” engagements.

Riesman also predicted that in response to “too much demand for too little attention,” we would develop a “psychological veil” that would screen out some engagements and screen in others. We would focus greater attention on fewer engagements, and our screened-in relationships would become deeper, lasting, and an end in themselves--what Cooley referred as primary engagements.

Secondary engagements are time- and place-bound. Primary engagements are always open, always alive, always mindful, always on--like a passionate collector of Pez dispensers or Star Wars baseball cards.

At Comic-Con, I witnessed this future of engagement: It’s all about the primary relationships in our lives, the ones that give life meaning, feeling, and emotion. Engagement is not part of life. It is life. It is where we find our bliss.

As marketers, we’ve traditionally measured engagement by how many clicks, likes, impressions, and eyeballs can we deliver. But tomorrow, engagement will be about transcending the web of life and becoming something greater than ourselves. The next generation of brands should understand that sharing, and wanting to share, will drive great marketing. And, crucially, it cannot feel like marketing. The fact that primary engagements no longer have to happen face to face shouldn’t be looked at as a problem. It should be looked at as an opportunity.

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