The 5 Most Important Commandments of Customer Engagement

Marketers know that customer engagement tools have endless benefits, but few have grasped how to use them effectively. Keep these rules in mind

Evan F.P.
November 03 2018

Most businesses are fully aware of the benefits from real-time engagement tools. Yet despite their prominence and importance, few of us are entirely comfortable with them. One eMarketer survey found that 78% of B2B professionals in North America and the UK consider it challenging to develop 1-to-1 customer engagement strategies at scale. Another Convero study determined that 58% of businesses don’t have a formal customer engagement program, despite knowing their retention value.

It seems that while businesses know cultivating customer engagement is a great idea, developing it in effective ways is something we still struggle with. While the specifics of real-time engagement will vary depending on your brand and platform, following these key principles will ensure you’re moving in the right direction.

Engagement tools are great, but you need a formal engagement policy

Between social media services and loyalty programs, there are more customer engagement options than ever before. It’s tempting to just use them right away, but that’s like diving into the deep end of a pool before you’ve learned how to swim. Sure, it might be fine, but the more likely outcome is you’ll need a lifeguard to drag you back out.

The first thing you should do is establish a formal policy on how tools will be used and what benefits can be expected from them. This seems self-evident, but as we’ve established, most businesses neglect this crucial step.

What’s more, there are measurable benefits to establishing a plan early. Companies that use a formal engagement program often rank their retention efforts as “very effective” at almost twice the rate as companies without one. These companies are also twice as likely to know exactly how many customers they’d lost within a year and adjust strategies accordingly.

Take the time to craft an official policy. Consider it in relation to your brand and general customer service practices. If possible, research the engagement practices of similar businesses and find ways to improve upon them. It’s easier to have a plan in advance than correcting course after the fact.

Context is just as important as data

One major benefit of real-time engagement programs is the ability to collect consumer data. Companies have been able to use demographics and past purchase history to create consumer profiles and improve their services.

But there’s a catch: data alone isn’t enough. Consumer data is a series of facts that require human insights and understanding before they become useful. As data collection methods improve, this is a difficult but crucial step in creating an effective engagement platform. 80% of B2B professionals find developing actionable insights to be a challenge. 82% face obstacles in sharing those insights across business areas.

According to a report from CMO Council, marketers tend to focus on behavior at the cost of emotion and context. Businesses have become quite effective at compiling consumer data such as customer demographics, search histories, and past purchases, yet only 11% develop an intent analysis while 22% consider psychographic data for segmentation.

“Hyper-relevance requires an ingredient that traditional personalization methods have typically lacked, and that’s context,” Accenture Strategy managing director Kevin Quiring told eMarketer. “That’s a deep understanding of the reason that a customer is shopping, is evaluating, is requiring service around a product, and that context is very difficult to get to because it means understanding the circumstances [of the consumer].”

Data is important, but your customers are still people. Context-driven insights are what help you get beyond data to engage with your audience on a personal level.

Engagement is about storytelling, not advertising

Customer engagement is typically managed by marketers, but it is not strictly an advertisement. The goal is not to sell a product or service, but to cultivate a connection between customers and a brand. As such, returns on investment aren’t always as tangible or objective as profits – although that can be inferred – but can be measured as an emotional response. In other words, it is best to think of engagement in terms of storytelling.

“People naturally think along the lines of stories or metaphors,” James M. Barry and John Gironda write in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice. “If told effectively, stories enable personal revelations of complex visions – often to the point of creating a self-identity – but in the context of a collective mindset.”

Emotional responses are tricky to measure without a specific context, but they can bear results. 44% of senior marketers find storytelling skills encourage growth in their departments. Barry and Gironda also note that story has a closer relationship to memory than facts, which makes them easier to remember compared to standard advertisements. An otherwise standard ad campaign for something like Old Spice Body Wash can have such an engaging presentation that even people who aren’t customers will remember the product.

On a practical level, Barry and Gironda determined that visual presentations – including photography, illustrations, and video – are better tools for engaging with an audience than text based campaigns. That said, articles that make use of video and text still gained 94% more views than text articles alone.

The most engaging voice is funny and empathic

Marketers should also consider the narrative voice they will use to deliver their messages. You could have prepared an excellent customer engagement strategy, only for it to fall apart if the delivery is tone-deaf or offensive. While making sure a narrative voice lines up with your overall brand, you should also consider which traits will make it more engaging to your audience.

Something as simple as empathy tends to be effective on this front. Barry and Gironda note that psychologically, engagement itself is a kind of empathetic interaction. When influencers show they are responsive to an audience’s needs, it allows them to cultivate a social community among their followers. This is turn generates loyalty and social capital for your organization. Empathetic interactions can be exhibited by working a crowd during an on-stage TED talk, answering questions during interviews, hosting live chats and Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” or crafting personalized responses via social media.

By the same token, humor is an immensely powerful engagement tool. Jokes and laughter create a sense of group cohesion, even in professional settings. According to one 2013 study, when popular commercials were recast on YouTube, over two-thirds of the highest performing videos relied on humor. Barry and Gironda also looked at LinkedIn’s top 100 social media experts and determined that many had reputations for being lighthearted.

Bringing empathy and humor to customer engagement isn’t necessarily easy. It requires knowing your audience and understanding what kind of messages will resonate with them. Context will be as key here as interpreting consumer data. But if handled effectively, it will make your messaging that much more meaningful.

Engagement is a long-term investment

One of the primary goals of customer engagement is retention. By association, that means engagement is an ongoing task, and not a one-off event or promotion. It’s all well and good to offer a free iPad promotion or a loyalty program sign-up discount, but that’s not actually customer engagement by most definitions – that’s a single interaction.

This can be a tricky step. According to eMarketer, only 10% of marketers saw engagement have an impact on their bottom line. Roughly 29% saw financial benefits in specific channels during 2018, which is actually a drop from 36% in 2017. Another 33% struggle to tie engagement channels to financial impact at all. From a purely transactional perspective, those numbers make it hard to justify investing in engagement.

That’s why it’s important to remember that engagement isn’t transactional, it’s about establishing a long-term relationship. If you want customers to have an emotional investment with your company, you need to show their investment is worthwhile on a regular basis. From the consumer’s perspective, engagement should be a positive relationship with your brand. The goal is to develop ongoing interactions with customers where they are active and willing participants. If you can present your brand as something that cultivates those connections, your business will be in a far better position to reap the benefits over the long-term.


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