While the goal of marketing is to improve customer's overall interactions with a brand, few organizations engage directly with their customer tribes or communities and therefore miss out on leveraging what is one of its most valuable assets.

Companies also have a hard time keeping up with the latest technology or vehicle for sharing information, rarely considering the types of networks and technologies people use to access the company's information. Probably the best example is the slow adoption by companies to optimize websites for the increasing number of mobile users. As Jacob Nielsen’s research shows, most don’t have much information or capabilities to support users (or even bother supporting users) who access sites via a smart phone. The current success rate of completing a task for mobile web use is about 64%, the same as Nielsen research measured for desktop web use in 1999. Note: the current desktop success rate is 84%.

Increasingly, customer engagement starts with the mobile device. Most people begin their online journey to learn about a company through Facebook, a company website or Google search. Companies need to rethink how to develop and manage their digital experiences. Even the most successful communities will need to be better designed for mobile and smart phones.

Talk to Your Customers

To truly create a better customer experience, not only do you have to talk directly to a customer in person, but you also need to understand the tasks they want to accomplish with your products and services. In the case of mobile devices, there’s only a small amount of real estate on a mobile device that a company can use to show off their functionality, so mobile engagement will have to focus on highlighting the critical few items people might want to know in order to take the next step to learn about your product or service.

Fortunately, it is easier to learn about people’s interests and needs and to understand their perspective than ever before. Even if you are hesitant to talk to a customer directly, you can always email them, send them a direct message on Twitter or LinkedIn, or participate in their niche communities or personal interest groups, such as Fiskateers.com, which is designed for people interested in scrap booking and other handcrafts.

Learning to Engage

It is the responsibility however, of every employee, from senior management to the front-line worker, to interact directly with customers. And today the job of most marketers is to shepherd this process along by:

  1. Providing guidelines and guardrails to employees via opt-in training programs.
  2. Setting up a feedback mechanism where employees can ask questions.
  3. Understanding their customers tribes -- who they spend time with, where they spend time, how they like to learn and how they use technology.
  4. Understanding the group dynamics of these tribes -- who are the leaders, the relevant influencers.
  5. Partnering with tribal leaders and the not so powerful to learn about how they use your products, services, etc.
  6. Developing customer engagement maps to highlight all the customer (and business partner) touch points involved when interacting with your product or your various channels.

Customer engagement needs to be part of every company’s DNA and culture! Customer interaction must be supported by and rewarded by senior management. They need to ensure that the proper mechanisms and processes needed to successfully interact with users are in place and can be modified if necessary to integrate those lessons back into the organization.

Customers = Staff?

In fact, I would recommend going one step further and integrating some of your customers into your company teams. At Intuit, for example, a few customers sat in on our staff meetings. This allowed them to better understand some of the development challenges we faced in delivering (on) all of their requests.

In 2012, engagement with customers can improve by integrating them into the different areas of your company. Consider some of these ideas:

  1. Invite customers into your product development process, such as the British Telecommunication site and Giffgaff, where product ideas are tested initially in Giffgaff labs and made available to all members for a short period. If they are popular, they may be incorporated into the main product (and are withdrawn if not). The labs' products are also beta tested by selected community members before release.
  2. Incorporate them into your customer service activities -- Intuit’s Small Business Community has 70% of the questions answered by users and their overall resolution rate is higher than the support website.
  3. Bring them into your marketing efforts -- when targeting your tribes, wouldn’t it be nice to have some help figuring out how to phrase a sentence or describe a product, or list out a how-to by someone who is actually using your product.
  4. Be sure to bring them into your partner programs. Constant Contact, traditionally an email provider, has built an effective partner program consisting of all the parties needed to assist a small business’s marketing organization, such as copywriter, designers, etc. Each company provides valuable feedback on how Constant Contact can improve their training program.

Other parts of the organization can also tap into the wisdom of the tribes. Human Resources, for example, can leverage a business such as Intern Match, which offers the largest database of college interns, to help find future employees for a company. People can get rewarded for recommending students to a company.

Perhaps most importantly, customer engagement should be embedded into a company’s products and services. General Motors’ OnStar could be a good example. Today, it mainly provides crash, roadside and emergency assistance. But imagine if GM reached out to drivers and obtained real-time feedback while they were driving via an opt-in ongoing survey with some sort of automatic diagnostic system that was part of the car. Why wait until there is an actual problem or crisis to leverage the OnStar system? Imagine, too, if OnStar leveraged its GPS system and provided information on special sales, such as Groupon or event sites, such as EventBrite.

Customer engagement does not have to take place on your company’s own branded website or via your own infrastructure. Companies can easily identify its relevant promoters -- ambassadors of a sort -- on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and have these individuals answer product or services related questions. And you don’t have to pay these ambassadors. Instead, you can help support their own businesses – tools, software and consulting – be successful.

As highlighted above, customer engagement can happen on different platforms, different social networks and among different groups of people in a company. It should be looked at as a journey that is always measured and improved upon. Some companies use NetPromoter Scores to measure their success in this area. Forrester Research scores engagement based on the level of involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence an individual has with a brand over time. The goal, in addition to scoring engagement, should be to listen carefully to what users are saying and how they are saying it. At the end of the day, walking in their shoes and listening carefully to their words will be more valuable then any single score or rating.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: