June 20

The Problem With Your Engagement Rate

Social Media, Stats

The concept of the engagement rate is pervasive and important. But it's also elusive, misleading, and misunderstood. 

Most content creators with a goal of creating professionally are familiar with the notion of engagement rates. They know people want to know what they are. And they understand that, apparently, the better your engagement rate is, the more your content is working for you. 

But here's the thing: kind of like "pre-saves" for musicians, engagement rates are a lot more elusive than you might think. So let's talk about what they are, why they matter, a huge problem with them, and how we might deal with it. 

What Is An Engagement Rate?

An engagement rate is a metric used to signify how often an audience “engages” with your content as a creator. Engagements include positive actions taken on a post, such as liking, commenting, sharing, reposting, saving, etc.

They do not include negative actions such as hiding, blocking, or reporting a post. Also, in most cases, negative comments still count as a “positive” action in this context. Some platforms are reportedly starting to assign value/weight to negatively perceived comments, but as of now there’s no real distinction (even if you as a creator choose to hide a comment from somebody else).

Engagement rates are calculated as a percentage and are intended to indicate what percentage of people who see your content interact with it (more on how accurate or inaccurate this is later).

Hold Up — Why Do Engagements Matter?

Engagements are very important to the success and longevity of content. Along with retention and watch time, engagements form the foundation of most social media platform discovery algorithms, meaning content with a higher engagement rate (along with other factors) has a much better chance of being “served” to a larger audience on these platforms. That in turn leads to more growth, more audience, more revenue opportunities etc.

Why Do People Want To Know Their Engagement Rate?

Engagement rates are used both for external and internal purposes. Internally, a creator may calculate their engagement rate in order to determine which of their posts or content seem to get the most interactions. This may help inform a content strategy.

When a creator can create a uniform way to personally identify their own engagement rates, it can also help them understand which platforms their content is currently resonating on the most. As we've said before, content performs differently on different platforms (and often at different times throughout the year). Having this data helps you both maximize effort and keep everything in perspective.

Externally, creators refer to engagement rates when trying to establish a value for their overall brand or content. Creators often use engagement rates when pitching brands or third parties on collaborations and sponsorship opportunities. Some brands may want to make sure a creator has what they may consider to be a "good" engagement rate over any other metric, including followers. 

There's A Huge Problem, Though

The biggest problem with engagement rates is that, while a lot of creators and companies who work with creators are aware of them, engagement rates aren’t really an official metric measured by most platforms. In other words, the backends of most platforms don’t have an “engagement rate” metric for users to see.

As such, there is no “standard” way to calculate an engagement rate across all platforms. This can lead to several issues, including misleading or incorrect data. Additionally, engagement rates out of context aren’t particularly helpful. Most people who may read their engagement rate is 3 percent might then immediately ask, “Ok, well is that good or bad?”

Further, there are dozens of platforms that allow anybody to enter in a social media handle for a specific user on a specific platform — that site then returns a calculated “engagement rate,” typically comprised of data the platform can scrape or access via a Public API.

In fact, you can test it yourself with your own account or one you follow. In the first instance we tested with a small/medium creator (about 27,000 followers on Instagram), four of the top sites that appeared in search results for "engagement rate calculator" returned four different results for an Instagram engagement rate: 4.67 percent, 0.66 percent, 1.07 percent, and 28.1 percent.  

Not good.

The Most Accurate Way To Calculate An Engagement Rate

The most accurate calculation for an engagement rate is, technically, (total engagements divided by reach) multiplied by 100. Reach is defined as how many unique individuals see your content. Because a unique individual can engage with a piece of content in multiple ways, this means that it is, in theory, possible to have an engagement rate that exceeds 100 percent. 

For instance, if one unique person sees a post and they like, comment, share, and save that post, that is technically a 400 percent engagement. This is not illogical, because each of those engagements should matter — after all, they signify a HIGHLY effective piece of content for this user. (Sure, we could get nit-picky and try to assign higher weights to certain types of engagements, like saying a comment should be weighted higher than a like, but that’s really getting in the weeds and even further away from creating some sort of standard). 

However, another acceptably accurate calculation of engagement rate is (total engagements divided by impressions) multiplied by 100. In this instance, impressions are the number of times a piece of content was seen — but not necessarily by a unique individual. So if one person saw the same piece of content 4 different times (let’s say they saw it every time they logged in) and they liked it once, that would be an engagement rate of 25 percent.

(If we were using reach, it would be an engagement rate of 100 percent because even though the person saw it four times, they were 1 unique view). If that person liked, commented, saved, and shared the post, then it would be an engagement rate of 100% when using this formula, because there were 4 total impressions and 4 total engagements. 

A Very Common (And Inaccurate) Way To Calculate Your Engagement Rate

Many platforms will use (total engagements divided by total followers) multiplied by 100. This method will almost always yield skewed results, showing very low rates for accounts with a larger number of followers, and a much higher rate for accounts with fewer followers.

This method is inaccurate because the number of followers is NOT indicative of the number of people who have a chance to engage with content. If somebody doesn’t see the content, they never have a chance to engage with it. As followers become a decreasingly reliable statistic for determining how much a piece of content will be seen, this method of engagement rate becomes even less useful. 

However, a lot of platforms will use this method because the data they need to make the calculation is largely publicly available via things like public APIs (or sometimes just scraping data). It is, in theory, a more readily “unifiable” way to calculate engagement rates because most platforms have some form of follower metric, and most platforms make them visible to others. The same can be said of ways to engage with content. But again, it’s still equally inaccurate, even if you can do it for multiple platforms and create a sense of uniformity.

There's No Guaranteed Way To Get A Standard Engagement Rate

Unfortunately, not every platform shares a creator’s stats the same way. Which means you may not be able to get a standardized “impressions” statistic for every platform, nor can you get a standardized “engagements” statistic for every platform, even when scouring the analytics side of platforms.

Basically, you just can't be guaranteed that every platform will have the same numbers you need to calculate your engagement rate for reliable one-to-one comparisons.

So What Do You Do About It?

So we're at this weird intersection where we know your engagement rate is something people care about. But we also know it's not an official metric a platform will just give you. We also know you may not always have access to the right stats in order to calculate an accurate engagement rate.

So what do you do about it? 

Well, first of, do NOT rely on any of these sites that supposedly calculate engagement rates for you. Some of them do help provide some context about average rates based on their methodology etc., but even that is just a very loose tentpole for understanding your stat. And you definitely don't want to take that number and then put it in your media kit when you're pitching brand sponsorships, because you have no idea what they're expecting to see or how they're calculating the metric. 

So, the best thing for now, is to be incredibly transparent. 

If you plan on using engagement rates internally, be diligent about what each platform offers you by way of stats. You could even make a spreadsheet of some of your posts and calculate your own engagement rates.

If you plan on including your engagement rate in a pitch to companies, be sure to include a disclaimer about how you calculated it. While you want to put your best foot forward, you also want to create realistic expectations for anybody who works with you, whether you're a huge account or a smaller one just starting to work with brands. 


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