Photo: mukund76/Flickr (Creative Commons)All over, you hear the social media chatter about engagement. It isn’t about the number of followers you have anymore, it is about the number of engagements you have every day, week, or month. Engagement is an easy word to throw out there. It sounds great, but what is it really?

Real engagement draws a crowd and builds a tribe.

Is Engagement a retweet? Is it a comment on your blog? Is it a passing dialog on Twitter?

These are the things that we use to calculate our engagement scores. These are how we define our return on investment. But, are they really engagement? Are they worth the time and money?

Defining Engagement

Dictionary.com starts by defining engagement this way: to occupy the attention or efforts of (a person or persons). So, sure – if someone retweets your post you have successfully captured their attention. But look at that definition again. That is only half of the battle.

Engagement isn’t only commanding the attention of a follower, but it is also capturing their efforts. Dictionary.com goes on to say that engaging means that they have become engaged to the point that they are willing to become involved. A retweet may symbolize effort and action, but does it really insinuate real involvement?

Building Tribes

A few years back Seth Godin wrote a great book called Tribes. The entire premise of the book was a wake-up call for us all. His point, we can all create a Tribe of our own. We can all create a following of engaged tribe members. These are people that will make our cause their cause. They will become involved to an extreme degree.

But, here’s the thing. People don’t usually engage around other people. They engage around ideas. Think of the most famous Twitter user there is. Take a Justin Bieber or a Lady Gaga. Is it really the actual person that we are enamored by or is it the idea of who they are? Is it what they symbolize?

Easy to Fake

Social media engagement is easy to fake. I mean, any blogger knows exactly which kind of posts will get them retweets, and more blog traffic. My most popular blog posts have generated hundreds of tweets in a day, but almost no real value. Other posts merely catch five tweets but actually develop some sort of relationship.

Is that engagement? I am not sure. It is too easy to fake it.

In social media, we count everything. Retweets, comments, replies, followers, and subscribers. Sometimes we even add them together to make an engagement score. Klout.com is famous for making social media a single number. But what does that really tell us? There are a million ways to influence this score without creating TRUE engagement. In his post, today, Chris Brogan outlines this very problem.

So, if all of this isn’t really engagement, then what is it? How about just interactions?

Counting Interactions

The web provides us with a continuous stream of interactions. We get emails, direct messages, comments, and impromptu conversations. In a given day, we can literally interact with millions of people without leaving our keyboard. Interactions can be sublime, but they aren’t engagement.

It’s like the difference between and acquaintance and a friend. We have many acquaintances. People we know from work, or from a conference or an association. We know them, but we don’t REALLY know them. And then we have friends. We invite them over to watch the Super Bowl, or go bowling together. These are two separate kinds of relationships.

The thing of it is, that we have substituted acquaintances for friendships and it is making our interactions hollow. It is making our numbers empty. Sure, we have the numbers, but do we have the tribe? Do you have those that drink your Kool-Aid and take your message as their own?

Real engagement is difficult to measure in numbers. It is really just the stuff that you know is there. You can feel it more than you can see it, and that is what makes all of this so worth-while. So, what is your rally cry? Remember, tribes are built on ideas, not on people and certainly not on companies. Apple doesn’t have a tribe because they are a good company, they have a tribe because they represent the idea of thinking differently. What do you represent? Who are you engaging?