Taking customer engagement to the next level requires getting all four gears of customer engagement moving in sync PHOTO: Christopher A. Dominic

Digital transformation may be experiencing a heyday in the enterprise buzzword landscape, but it's nothing new. 

If you examine the history of technology's impact on business operations, you will find a very interesting pattern: Businesses come and go depending on their ability to leverage new technologies effectively. 

History of Technology-Driven Business Transformation

At first businesses only needed to focus on one thing — go to market and sell. Engagement wasn't a concern, nor was marketing at that point. 

This sole focus on monetization is what I call the 1-gear model. It worked well until new technologies emerged. 

Technology advancements in transportation and communication disrupted this primary way of doing business by allowing companies to do more. Marketing allowed companies to reach a much wider audience and businesses had to adapt to take advantage of these technologies in order to move beyond the focus on monetization.

Companies learned how to incorporate these technologies into the way they did business, which brought them into the 2-gears model, which involved marketing and sales.

two gear model

Nearly every enterprise today is organized to spin both of these gears — the acquisition gear (marketing) and monetization gear (sales/transaction) — synchronously. Very few companies can do without a marketing or a sales team. The 2-gears model has become the new norm. 

And as history confirms, companies that leveraged and implemented new technology gained a substantial competitive edge in the market. Businesses that didn’t effectively take advantage of technology to market to consumers for the most part disappeared.

Moving Past the Acquire and Monetize Model

Businesses have had over a century of practice spinning these two gears. But history is repeating itself as digital and social media disrupts the market again. 

The attention economy has rendered the traditional 2-gears model ineffective. Marketers are struggling to grasp the ever-shortening attention span of consumers. Additionally, while new media gives brands the opportunity to do more, it's an opportunity they must take action on.  

That means brands can no longer just focus on the acquire and monetize gears. Two new gears — engage and enlist customers — are imperative to the success of a business today.

Businesses must learn how to operate under this 4-gears model and simultaneously spin them all in synchrony:

  1. Acquire: the acquisition of consumers’ attention — essentially marketing.
  2. Engage: the ongoing interaction between brands and their customers to build stronger customers relationships. Brands who succeed here host conversations with their audience on multiple digital channels to build customer relationships by addressing their inquiries along the customer journey.
  3. Monetize: the exchange of your product/service offering for a price — essentially sales. 
  4. Enlist: the invitation of your customers to participate in your business to increase efficiency, effectiveness and/or reduce cost. Brands who succeed here enlist their customers to help support other customers, drive marketing and co-create new products and services.

After more than a century of focusing only on marketing and sales, how should brands approach engagement and enlistment?

4 gear model

A Deeper Look at Customer Engagement

Customer engagement is no longer a foreign concept to brands. However, many of them fail to understand one crucial point about engagement: that it has two dimensions — both breadth (how many) and depth (how deep).

This is very different from acquisition, where the only dimension of concern is breadth. Many practitioners today still quantify engagement using only the breadth measurement. That's missing half the story. Moreover, the depth of engagement is arguably even more important than the breadth of engagement. Let’s try to understand why.

In the 4-gears model, the engagement gear feeds into the monetization gear, which means the ultimate purpose of engagement should be to help you sustain monetization by capturing the consumer’s attention longer. In practice, the most important outcome of engaging your customers is to build stronger relationships with them. Stronger customer relationships imply customer loyalty which manifests in more repeat business — hence helping you sustain monetization.

Now, given the importance of both the breadth and the depth of engagement, which of these dimensions help brands build stronger relationships with their customers? The answer should be clear: it’s depth. Engaging with millions of customers with no depth is useless, because it won't sustain monetization. 

The contrary is also true: engaging deeply with only a few will not have a deep impact on your monetization either. Brands must learn to balance these two dimensions of engagement to optimize its long-term impact on monetization. 

More importantly, brands must gain sophistication with spinning the engagement gear, and not just blindly follow other’s engagement tactics. Engagement that doesn’t build stronger relationships and customer loyalty is a waste of resources.

A Very Brief History of Engagement

Digitally savvy brands are getting the hang of social engagement, but few have perfected it to an art form. 

Brands can’t master engagement when they can’t measure it accurately due to lack of a metric for engagement depth. Who should you engage? Do you engage influencers or all customers? How do you prioritize them? What's the most effective form of engagement? When and where should you engage, which channels? What’s the ROI of engagement?

Despite the unknowns and uncertainties around customer engagement, every company agrees they need to do it. 

It took about a decade for the laggards to recognize the importance of customer engagement, and it will probably take a few more years before brands master it. Although this sounds like a long time, it’s relatively short compared to the business transformation created by the transportation and communication revolution (where companies switched from a 1- to 2-gear operation).

But for the innovators and visionaries who understand how to engage with their customers, the natural question is, “what's next?”

From Engagement to Enlistment

The fourth gear brands must learn to spin is enlistment, the art of leveraging your customers to help you do work normally done within your enterprise. 

Unlike engagement, customer enlistment is still a foreign concept to many brands. Enlistment today is where engagement was a decade ago: brands don’t know what it is or why they need it. However, this gear is crucial because it closes the feedback loop, and it’s what makes this model scalable and sustainable in the digital age.

While enlistment may play an important role for the business, customers are not obligated to help brands in any way, and — no surprise — they are not going to help just because you want to enlist them. 

So how do you spin the enlistment gear?

To answer this, we need to understand the relationship between engagement and enlistment. The way to think about these two new gears is that they are simply the two extremes of a continuous engagement spectrum. Since engagement is any ongoing interaction between the consumer and the brand, it covers everything consumers do that touches the brand. Whether it’s visiting the brand’s store, watching an ad about their new product, liking/sharing a video they published or getting help from their support agent, all are valid forms of engagement. 

all gears in motion

The key is to recognize that every engagement with a brand has a different depth. Which means engagement is a spectrum of interactions ranging from the shallowest (passive engagement) to the deepest (active engagement). The depth of engagement correlates with the amount of consumer resources required (e.g. time, effort, etc.). 

So the engagement spectrum starts with activities that require little effort: consume, share, curate, to create, before it finally moves on to co-create, which requires a lot of time, effort and even mental resources.

When customers are co-creating with you, they collaborate with your product or design teams to help create a better product. Since customers are under no obligation to collaborate or help you do anything, when they are co-creating with you, they are enlisted. But enlistment starts much earlier on the engagement spectrum. When customers voluntarily share your content, they are helping you market your product (something typically done by your marketing team). In this instance, sharing can be viewed as a light form of enlistment.

Moving Down the Path to Enlistment

Engage and enlist are two ends of the same spectrum. Enlistment is the deepest form of engagement, while engagement is a very shallow form of enlistment. 

If you are a savvy brand, already engaging customers digitally, you are on the right path. You just need to continue engaging your customers deeper and deeper, to the point that they become willing and want to help your employees and other customers.