Will the Real Engagement Marketing Please Stand Up

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Engagement marketing, if we are to believe the current hype, is a new and powerful way for sellers to create and sustain demand for their products and services. Seen in marketing literature since around 2007, this approach holds that shoppers buy more and will buy from the same vendor more often if they feel some connection to that vendor.

That’s probably accurate -- but does it really herald major changes in the way we should do marketing?

Figuring out what “Engagement Marketing” means is more difficult than you might expect. Wikipedia uses five different aliases to describe it. And Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact, in her book "Engagement Marketing" tells us we must: deliver a WOW experience, entice customers to keep in touch, and engage customers on a regular basis.

As I read all this, I had the feeling of having been here before. As Dave Charest, also of Constant Contact, said in a recent interview: “Engagement Marketing is really about getting back to marketing basics.”

To complicate things further, much of what is written about engagement marketing ties it securely to social media. We are told to use blogs, wikis and sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their ilk to create the kind of engagement we seek. But the increasingly complex electronic marketplace also brings with it a growing degree of distance between vendors and their target audiences. Without a considerable degree of finesse, doing more social media to increase engagement could be like fighting the fire by throwing gasoline on it.

There’s no doubt that engaging with customers is important, and doing it well should be, as it has always been, an important part of how we run and market our businesses and products. But social media and other electronic fascinations aside, if we are to be successful at it we must get down to some core realities and opportunities in today’s marketplace. Here are a few thoughts that might help.

Know Your Customers

While we might deal with our target customers en masse, they deal with us one on one. Engaging customers is not a mass process but an individual one ideally repeated many times across populations with certain shared characteristics. Sellers, if they are to successfully engage their marketplace, must understand the motivations, preferences and habits of their customers, current and hoped for.

One analysis laments the loss of customer understanding in the new online world, suggesting that unless we know more about our customers as individuals, we cannot successfully engage them. This is particularly important in an age that puts mass activities at the forefront of marketing strategy. Go with the crowd and you may find yourself moving away from your customers in ways that make engagement difficult.

Tailor Your Approach

In a world of electronic media, person-to-person interaction is by nature highly constrained. You must identify populations of customers, current and prospective, and focus on the common characteristics key to engaging them and, perhaps most important, helping them to feel engaged.

Some approaches are obvious

USAA, for example, serves only military members and veterans, so it’s pretty straightforward to identify and leverage the characteristics that will bind that audience together in a meaningful way. Other sellers aim, with varying degrees of success, at the same kind of direct engagement with messages like: “I’m not an actor, I’m a user of…” -- suggesting that the speaker is just like the viewer.

Some approaches are more difficult

Amazon has no specific brand identification based on product -- it sells everything. So the firm created a “point of sale” basis for engagement around Amazon Prime under which, having paid a yearly fee, customers are reinforced as special every time they select a product displaying the Prime logo and get free shipping. When you think of it, getting your customers to pay you to engage them is marketing genius.

Some approaches are tangible

Stihl sells its equipment and tools only through dealers that are required to start and test every product before it goes out the door, ensuring that when you buy a Stihl product, you will get to know the field representatives. In an age of buying things on the Internet and sometimes finding it difficult to get them serviced when they break, this is a powerful engagement vehicle and has helped keep Stihl at the top of its market.

Others are ephemeral

Apparel retailers show their products being worn by beautiful, hip models or personalities, with the subliminal message that if you wear their clothes, you will be hip as well. More than half a century ago, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes showed you their “Marlboro Man” so men could enjoy the vicarious thrill of being a strong, virile cowhand with a square jaw and ten-gallon hat. 

Tacky? Yes. But it worked because it engaged a hidden desire in a wide swath of their target market.

Virginia Slims’ “You’ve come a long way, baby!” slogan offered the same type of engagement to an increasingly feminist female population in the late 1960s. Whatever your views of promotions like this, they were based on the sellers’ largely successful attempts to isolate characteristics in their target markets and to base engaging messages on them using the media available at the time.

Broaden Your Toolkit

Social media have grabbed much of the spotlight, but, while wikis, blogs and the like can support and sustain engagement, they seldom generate engagement in themselves. In fact, everyone does -- and has always done -- engagement marketing at some level. The trick, especially in today’s rapidly evolving world, is to understand what your target customers will respond to and then to use every channel available to you, and them, to support and strengthen that response.

The tools may have changed, but people’s needs have not. People will respond to engagement marketing in the same ways they always have, and carefully planned connection with them, while communicated in different ways, will work now as it has in the past. In fact, the growing level of isolation in the culture may actually be increasing peoples’ need for engagement, potentially making the thoughtful marketer’s job easier. The most important ingredient in any successful effort is to start with the target consumer and work from there.

If you can update the medium without losing the message, you can be an engagement marketer, and your customers can be a loyal and enduring part of your world.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Roberto Trm