Ben Kunz of Mediassociates recently ran a thoughtful post on understanding when engagement is, or isn’t, the answer. I highly recommend reading it in full, but in a broad summary, Kunz posits that:
- Information represents a fourth pillar of competitive advantage – alongside product, customer service, and operational efficiency. As Kunz says, “if we want information as badly as products, service, and low prices, then information can be laid on a new grid as a focal point for competitive advantage”.
- Within the “Information Ecosystem”, Kunz details four information approaches oriented along two axes – flow and scale. Flow indicates the flow of information and whether it is primarily inbound or outbound. Scale refers to whether the information is directed toward a few, or many.
On the one hand, I find this framework fascinating. Content and information strategy so often gets pulled into the weeds of tactics and executions that it’s refreshing to see something that steps back to approaches, intent and, well, strategy.
On the other, this framework strikes me as too defined.
Engagement does not fit neatly into this model because it is, by its very nature, a two-way flow of information.
Engagement is a brand-customer connection. It is action and reaction. Of the four approaches Kunz highlights in the Information Ecosystem, it is the only one that requires the active participation of both the brand and the customer.
And engagement varies in intensity and volume. It’s popular to bash on the Facebook “like” these days, but it is a form of engagement all the same, albeit a low-intensity one. Hundreds or thousands of “likes” represent a broad, if shallow, engagement – the Internet equivalent of the “wave” at a sporting event.
On the other end of the spectrum, you find instances of brands engaging intensely with one or a few customers. Audi, for example, making up for a customer’s poor experience at the Chicago Auto Show by bringing the show to him, at his house, for a private viewing.
Engagement can also blur into other information approaches. Broadcast messages turn into engagement vehicles when they garner comments – from the high-quality, lower-volume back-and-forth of blog comments to the high-volume, lower-level engagement of responses to a Facebook update.
On the flip side, engagement done well – or done poorly – can quickly jump into broadcast territory. My colleague Clare White posted one recent example, where Kellogg’s partnered with The Charlatans’ frontman, Tim Burgess, to create a one-off cereal inspired by an offhand tweet. The level and creativity of the engagement – working with Burgess to make his suggestion for a cereal called “Totes Amazeballs” a reality – are noteworthy, but so is the broadcast “halo”, in which the ensuing slew of articles, blog posts, tweets and other coverage have burnished the cereal giant’s reputation and generated significant consumer interest.
In all its myriad forms, however, engagement always comes back to that brand-customer connection.
How can your organization best orient itself toward successful engagement?
- Define your goals and strategy up front. What outcomes do you want your engagement activities to achieve?
- Know your audience. Who are you talking to? Where do they congregate? How do they communicate? What are they passionate about? When are they most open to engagement?
- Understand the level of engagement you’re going after. There’s engagement, and then there’s engagement. Is your strategy better served broader, shallower fan support, or a deeper and more intimate connection with a few key influencers? Or both? The answer will depend on your strategic goals and your audience.
- Stick with it. The internet is a graveyard of abandoned brand presences. Twitter feeds with a dozen updates. Flickr profiles with pictures from one event two years ago. Relationships – whether with broad fan communities or a small cadre of influencers – require sustained effort over time. Be sure you can devote the resources to nurture and grow your relationships over the long haul. And if you can’t justify that kind of investment, perhaps revisiting your strategy is in order.
- Maintain tactical flexibility. Rigid processes and a boxed-in team can suck the life out of engagement activities and throw up obstacles to unexpected opportunities. There is no way Kellogg’s had a process for partnering with a celebrity to create a one-off cereal, or that Audi had a project plan for delivering a private auto show experience. Give your team the support and freedom to be creative and proactive in their engagement activities.
Engagement is a frustratingly vague term, and one that’s unfortunately been “buzzwordized” and abused time and again. But in its purest sense – a brand-customer connection – engagement remains a very powerful tool for building affinity, rewarding loyalty, and turning fans into passionate advocates. By starting with strategy and with a strong understanding of your audience, you can build an engagement program that works best for your brand – and for your customers.