'Net Engagement Considerations for the Relationship Age

In the Web world, the term "engagement" is one of those loosely defined buzzwords that can elicit a collective scratch of the head from digital newbies and seasoned 'Net professionals alike.


While there is no single, undisputed definition, today's enterprises know they must still pursue engagement rigorously. So, what is it exactly, and how can brands create experiences worthy of the time, attention and investment of their audience of existing customers and future prospects? Further, how do they develop experiences that still manage to benefit the bottom line of their enterprise? Simple; focus on forging better relationships.


The issue for most companies is that engagement is a moving target and it means something different for each individual and within each individual moment. What's more, consumers' expectations and habits change rapidly and it can seem impossible for brands to keep up. Undertaking an engagement initiative should not be overwhelming, however, because in the end, it is all about finding ways to build a better relationship with an audience. That is something that can and should be enjoyed because it will inspire professionals, provide valuable insights and make a positive difference to Web success.


Establish a Formal Definition


Engagement is traditionally defined as an agreement, a promise if you will, to be present at a particular place and time. It's no different really in the digital realm where engagement requires just as much emotional investment and a commitment from both brands and consumers. That's not always easy to draw out or manage, of course, but it's most certainly possible (access a list of today's most engaging digital brands and discover their secrets to success) and as might be imagined, dollars are flowing rapidly toward these initiatives.


While the benefits of improving consumer engagement are quite obvious - upticks in customer retention and conversion, increases in the quantity and quality of data capture, additional website traffic and general digital participation - it's definitely not a new notion.


Way back in March 2006, for example, the Advertising Research Foundation defined engagement as "turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context."


Today's brands, digital brands in particular, are still focused on achieving that elusive state of being. Enterprises - and the marketers, analysts and designers they employ - are responsible for developing experiences that spark a near-obsessive level of engagement from consumers, rather than an ambiguous detachment (arguably the fate of most brands today particularly with low interactions on social pages, unopened email messages and dismal levels of website traffic).


What change will ultimately make the biggest difference? How can today's digital brands make a genuine connection, and further, elicit a formal commitment from their digital counterpart - the consumer - to forge a meaningful relationship?


It starts by shifting mindset from conversion to the instances leading up to, during and after that conversion happens (read "Stop Being a Greedy Marketer").


'Net Engagement Success Factors


As any successful enterprise can attest, there is a long list of opportunities to engage end-users, including personalized email communications, entertaining social media participation, compelling design features, in-depth content, as well as interactive on-site experiences and branded communities and forums (more on those later). Yet, there's so much more to the practice of digital engagement than just fulfilling that list and it starts by delving in the mind of the consumer and understanding their needs, wants and motivations. In fact, we find ourselves in the optimal time to reach out to those human elements because, as Keith Ferrazzi wrote in 2009, "Emotion, empathy and cooperation are critical to success at a time when technology and human interaction are intersecting in new ways. Trust and conversation are crucial in this new economy;" all of which he termed the "Relationship Age."


Blending this, however, with the "Digital Age" means brands can truly understand who their users are, which gives them a head start on the road to better engagement.


User Insights


Pursuing engagement from an audience (or individual) can be a very nuanced undertaking; there is no single, specific approach to achieving success with an initiative of this nature.


Understanding a little about human psychology, however, can provide the edge most enterprises are looking for if greater engagement is the aim. There are numerous tactics the Web's most successful brands employ to improve engagement - including their choice of color in design elements, taking a more scientific approach to copywriting and many others (learn more about the psychology of copywriting, and discover several practical yet simple tactics).


Once enterprises recognize that every decision made by a consumer is an emotional one (rather than rational) and based on numerous cognitive functions, they are better positioned to drive a greater quantity and quality of interaction. Thanks to significant advances in technology, it might soon be possible to use physical cues about users' psychological state in order to drive the necessary levels of commitment required for genuine engagement.


Apple, for example, recently purchased Emotient Inc., a startup that uses artificial-intelligence (AI) technology to read a person's emotions by analyzing facial expressions (see a list of emotion KPIs Emotiont uses).


While Apple hasn't actually revealed its plans for Emotient's technology, which was primarily sold to advertisers to help assess viewer reactions to advertising, it's not outside the realm of possibility that AI and related technologies will make their way to the Web and help enterprises design experiences for users that help forge stronger and more meaningful relationships.


Once brands understand what motivates current and prospective customers, and pick up all the available cues to influence their design and marketing approach, they'll need to make quite a few other important considerations in order to develop their relationship with users.


In much the same way as real-word relationships work, in order to build trust, and have two-way conversations with a digital audience, an enterprise's success with engagement campaigns depends on numerous factors and a variety of initial considerations - none more important than the methods used to understand the level of user engagement and the means that are used to acquire it. So what factors and considerations will most influence engagement initiatives? It depends on how brands answer the following questions:


Analytics: In what way do enterprises measure engagement and customer activity, satisfaction and loyalty specifically? What are the KPIs (key performance indicators) that will be used to control the engagement program?


The mistake most make when it comes to beginning an engagement initiative is that they believe engagement is synonymous with conversion - when nothing could be further from the truth.


Conversions, of course, are immensely important and enterprise would not exist without them, but there is more going on - much more in fact - in the experience of consumers.


What engagement initiatives provide is an opportunity to put conversions into a broader and more strategic context. Where conversion is about one interaction, engagement is about repeated interaction, which improve and strengthen the emotional, psychological and near physical investment a customer has with an enterprise and its products and services. Focusing exclusively on conversions in some instances could actually decrease the likelihood of generating repeat conversions.


Imagine an overly pushy sales person - you might buy from them once, but would you repeat that purchase if the experience didn't meet your expectations? And further, would you recommend that product or solution to a friend or colleague? Unlikely.


Engagement emphasizes the creation of genuine relationships that are mutually beneficial. Consumption patterns by Web users have shifted, of course (it's a moving target), and so it requires a near perfect blend of channel penetration, media type (as well as quality and quantity of media) and timing.


Channels: Which outlets (weblogs, email, social, apps) should be considered; which have the highest rate of return on your engagement dollar as evident in analytics solutions?


Content/Blogs: For engagement marketing purposes, companies can share content on their own digital properties and participate actively in the surrounding discussions that emerge. Fortunately, there are plenty of powerful software systems to support this, and myriad offerings that enable brands to optimize their content development and participation. Discover some of the most popular tools for content development and fostering participation.


Social networking: Social sites (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora and Twitter) are ideal for engagement marketing because they provide a way for users to interact with brands, presenting an opportunity to create a two-way dialogue between customers and companies. Most already maintain a presence on several of these sites so concentrating on developing creative ways to interact is of immense importance - and sometimes, it's just about when the brand participates.


Email campaigns: One of the earliest online engagement marketing tools, email marketing requires target audiences to opt-in to directly receive a marketer's emails.


Companies can also encourage individuals to share their messages virally, via the forwarding of emails to colleagues, friends and family.


Referrals: B2B companies are more likely to achieve revenue goals when they have a marketing-led referral program according to new research from Influitive. The company found that B2B companies are three times more likely to reach revenue targets when the marketing department has primary responsibility for a formalized referral program (or when referral tools or software are used). The research also revealed that formal referral programs help B2B companies generate two times more high-quality referrals, yet only one in three enterprises have a formalized referral program and less than one quarter have programs managed by marketing or supported by technology.


Personalization: The Secret to Engagement


There's simply no faster way to improve engagement and achieve 'Net success than ensuring that the experience developed is personalized. According to a recent Aberdeen Group study, 75 percent of consumers say they prefer personalized offers and 61 percent say they are even willing to give up some level of privacy to enable personalization on a continuous basis.


Consumers have a growing preference of personalization and marketers that don't take advantage are limiting their potential.


How can today's digital enterprises deliver personalized communication to an audience of thousands or millions of customers or prospects with some degree of accuracy? The very first step should be to combine offline and online channels (social, email, etc.) with customer relationship management (CRM) data. Match a current CRM system or email data with data collected from all social media channels.


Several tools on the market, and even some within platforms, allow plug-and-play options to sync such data, and any of those options are well worth the investment. By combining traditional datasets with more authentic pieces of data, such as data discovered from social media profiles, email addresses can be transformed into records of real people with lives and jobs, families and friends, interests and passions.


Harnessing that magnitude of customer insight allows marketers to trigger communications when customers' interests most intersect with specific marketing campaigns. The next step is to aggregate customers' personal preferences - and that goes beyond surveys, feedback forms and focus groups. What's so powerful about big data is that it presents the ability to analyze (often in real-time) what customers are thinking, feeling and are interested in. By listening to the conversations and reacting with predetermined triggers, marketers are putting their brands on the fast track to a more successful engagement initiative. It's not enough just to know what an audience's (or an individual's) preferences are, brands also need to deliver.


While creating audience segments and affinity groups is important, it matters little if Web professionals are not sharing the insights they've gained and the strategy in place across their enterprise in order to deepen and improve the relationship they have with users. No marketer, analyst or the like will argue that personalization doesn't work, but companies aren't as advanced in this regard as their customers think or expect.


A new study by Forrester, commissioned by SAP Hybris, compared the perspective of 200 marketers with those of 1,200 consumers, finding that while two-thirds of marketers rate their personalization efforts as "very good" or "excellent," just 31 percent of consumers reported companies delivered on their expectation of a personalized experience. So, what's the reason for the gap?


The report revealed that most companies still don't have the unified view of their customer that is required for personalization, but that's starting to change.


Omnichannel demand management solutions provider JustEnough Software, for example, recently unveiled a new Customer Insights module that aims to help retailers analyze customer data and turn it into actionable insights for optimizing assortments, promotions and pricing.


With JustEnough's Customer Insights solution, retailers can switch from traditional product-centric planning to customer-centric planning. The solution helps users analyze customer behavior to understand which customers are the most important to their business, as well as segment and cluster customers to localize and personalize assortments.


What's more, Customer Insights can be leveraged to identify which promotions are the most successful, and to personalize and target promotions. Personalization is where digital relationship marketing gets really interesting.


"Adobe's State of Content: Rules of Engagement for 2016" report indicates that 75 percent of consumers are willing to share at least one piece of personal information to improve content recommendations from brands. Forty percent of those not comfortable sharing believe companies could do something to ease concerns, and 25 percent said simply asking permission to access data would be sufficient.


Essential Considerations for Engagement Initiatives


Achieving engagement is really about how tactics are leveraged, tactics that foster conversations, loyalty, sales and learning (for both brand and customer/prospect). Those serious about improving engagement should ask the following: What do we know about existing customers?


Harness the insights an audience has about an enterprise and its products and services, and marketers will be able to craft messaging, content and offers that compels similar prospects to engage.


What is most engaging to different audience types?


Identify the optimal triggers for each user group and discover data to solve pretty much any problem.


Let's say that an online retailer has previously published hundreds of product videos but is not getting any measurable return from the effort (such as a low click-to-conversion ratio).


A solution like SundaySky's SmartVideo platform, for example, could enable the brand to deliver personalized videos to consumers in real-time that are custom to a consumer's profile, leveraging both historical and situational data attributes specific to that user.


Which tools can be used to help enterprises prioritize engagement?


From social media solutions to content management and e-commerce systems, there is, in every offering, an opportunity to optimize consumer engagement. Customer experience management (CEM) provider Vital Insights, for example, recently unveiled three new voice-of-customer (VOC) modules for its Foresight product - a CEM platform for the automotive industry that helps dealers gather valuable customer insights and take action on customer feedback.


Foresight's new Compass module provides automated goal setting and goal-achieving monitoring, enabling dealers to initiate their own self-improvement action plans. Another of the company's new modules, Foresight BI, offers integrated business intelligence that enables enterprise users to develop customized multi-level reports and interactive analytics.


The module provides useful insights for managing, analyzing and visualizing data, consolidating insights from multiple sources in one centralized (and customizable) dashboard.


How will engagement initiatives be measured?


From increases to time on site to improvements in customer lifetime value, there is always a metric or key performance indicator that can be associated with engagement. Remember; if you can't measure it, you can't manage it - or monetize it. Marketers, for example, are increasing their investment in video, but many still lack the tools to understand who is watching what and how assets are engaging users or contributing to the bottom line. Fortunately, that's beginning to change.


Video and marketing analytics platform Vidyard recently announced that hundreds of its customers are using its integration with the Marketo engagement and marketing platform, providing an opportunity to identify viewers across their digital properties and use "second-by-second" video engagement data to generate new leads, quality prospects and provide sales team with context to close more deals.


Let's Get Engaged


The key to engagement initiatives is that people (consumers; customers and prospects) come first. When enterprises can deliver experiences that consumers find engaging, they'll find the secret to mastering engagement. Understand that an enterprise's digital troubles can't be resolved without getting into the often messy side of human relationships, and then you'll be on the fast track to success.