Most companies understand customer engagement in a rather limited way which prevents them from excelling at it. It is time that they revisited and refined their understanding of engagement to maximise their results.
Many years ago, the great Leo Tolstoy said, “There are as many kinds of love as there are hearts”. I think it applies not just to love but also to customer engagement. Every company and even every marketing professional seems to view customer engagement in their own way. Most of these views have various proportions of personal or organizational bias, obsolete learnings and best practices, and industry tradition i.e. they are limited in one or more ways.
Also, to anyone who worked in customer engagement long enough it is apparent that most companies struggle to engage their customers. Though they spend enormous amounts of time and money in engagement initiatives that range from the creative to the downright bizarre, they don’t see the kind of results they’d love, and often end up placing the blame on the wrong thing, be it a technology platform they used or the skills of their team.
These two observations are not isolated. Through our work with a variety of companies on their customer engagement strategy and operations, we have learnt that a restricted understanding of engagement also leads to less than ideal results. Also, we have seen the contrary pattern—companies that have succeeded in creating moderate to high levels of engagement trace their success to a broader, more flexible understanding of customer engagement
In this article, the first in a series, I will share my take on customer engagement, which is made of two different perspectives that ultimately lead to a complete and wholistic picture, and I argue that companies need not choose between the two but can adopt both to drive stronger performance.
What actually is customer engagement?
We will begin by defining customer engagement.
According to us, it is a series of interactions between a customer and a company over time, as a result of which the customer becomes increasingly invested in the company cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally. In simpler terms, if a customer is highly engaged with a company, it shows in their thoughts, feelings and actions towards that company. They become its staunch fans, even advocates, showing a high degree of loyalty towards it.
Note that we are not referring to the momentary satisfaction or dissatisfaction after any one particular interaction, but an emotion, a state of mind and heart that is built over time.
A customer cannot fake their engagement with a company.
Two popular approaches to engagement
Our work has shown that companies try to create such engagement in two broad and mutually exclusive ways: push based and pull based engagement. Let us dive deep into each approach.
Push based approach
Push based engagement is all about reaching out to your customers where they are present and sharing messages that push them towards a decision you want them to take. Typically, this is done using communication channels such as mobile apps, mobile or desktop websites, phone calls, SMS or text messages, emails, or even face-to-face by sales reps in a physical store.
Nudging and behavioural messaging are two common names for this technique. You must have already experienced nudges in the form of push notifications through mobile apps on your smartphone, text messages, email newsletters, etc. that announce everything from a new product feature to time-sensitive discounts to the number of notifications that are waiting for you to see. Often, these nudges are based on your past behavior in terms of clicks or transactions. Platforms that offer nudging capabilities are usually called omni-channel marketing automation platforms or sometimes even omni-channel customer engagement platforms, and they are shipped with capabilities around analytics, customer segmentation, personalization and messaging.
With several vendors “pushing” (pun!) their platforms, nudging has become really easy these days. Maybe that’s why, among all the approaches to engagement that we have seen, this one is the clear favourite of many companies.
According to us, if it used in a business-centric way it has the potential to temporarily lift hard metrics like revenues, or soft, vanity metrics like sessions per day, but we frequently see companies overdoing it, causing message fatigue in their customers. Lack of sensitivity to a company’s messages quickly leads to a lack of engagement on part of the customer.
As it is done by most companies, nudging is a one-way communication started by them, and not a dialogue where the customer feels involved or engaged. The company initiates the monologue for obvious benefits to itself i.e the company is purely business-centric, and the customer knows and will eventually resent it. This is the fundamental flaw in one-way, business-centric nudging and the reason why it can never create an emotion in the customer.
Pull based approach
Pull based engagement, on the other hand, is about creating a pull effect that draws your potential or current customers towards the experiences you offer them. This is typically done using ad campaigns or product design, or sometimes both. To create this magnetic sort of pull, the ad message or the product itself must have an emotional appeal to some powerful underlying motivation or need. Examples of such needs are feeling special, feeling valued, being refreshed and energised, etc.
We have all seen some superb ad campaigns that make us want to go to a tourist location, donate to the poor and needy, buy the next iPhone, taste that juicy burger, invest in a particular mutual fund, etc. This type of engagement is done using mass media, such as TV, newspapers, YouTube, browser display and search ads, radio, and social media, of course.
The least used, and in our opinion the most powerful, approach to engagement is via product design and features. Facebook is a prime example of this approach. Depending on the type of person you are, its features hook into one or more of your underlying needs, starting from the need to feel connected with your near and dear ones, to the need for variety and hence to be part of new and interesting communities organised around an interest or hobby. LinkedIn, Instagram, WeChat, Tinder, WhatsApp, et al. also fall into this category of design-led engagement. None of these products need much nudging for people to open, use and engage with them—because for most users they are clearly useful or enjoyable (or both). They are attractive enough as they are. Perhaps you can think of more examples from your own experience.
Pull engagement calls for more creativity and does not yield to rules-based automation. It is still the domain of the creative storytellers, copywriters and product designers who draw inspiration from the core value or message of the brand or company.
Even among ad campaigns and product design, we have seen the latter give superior results because the customer derives value from a compelling product everytime they use it, which reinforces their positive emotions towards the product. The former usually creates a motivation to take a desired action, such as clicking on the ad and registering with a website, or picking up the phone and speaking to a contact center rep.
When we study the companies we worked with, we see pull engagement being done more in the form of ads but not much in the direction of compelling product design, maybe because the latter requires expertise in product building, especially using rapid, iterative design that does not begin as perfect, but quickly improves based on lots of statistical testing and insights generated by collecting and analysing Voice of Customer (VoC).
Between push and pull based approaches, by its very nature a pull will succeed better in creating emotions in the customer. This is more so when the pull uses compelling product design that accelerates adoption and usage of the product, and consequently contributes significantly to customer retention and stickiness.
On top of such a design which delivers immediate value in the form of relevance and utility, one can add even more value from outside the design—using a push approach by sending them extremely contextual and helpful information, alerts, tips, reminders, etc. This is especially useful or even necessary because once a product is released into the hands of the customer, its design remains fixed until it is updated or refreshed. In that situation any information or call to action that the customer needs but which the design cannot serve because it was not equipped to do so will have to be pushed to the customer from outside the design. It is one of the great customer-centric use cases of a push style of engagement.
A word of caution
In our experience, most companies are stuck in a rut of push based engagement—even when it does not work. To be sure, they don’t begin with a push approach, but in time they find themselves resorting to it in desperation. It is highly instructive to learn how this happens, so that you can avoid a similar fate.
This typically happens when a company is subject to a combination of constraints such as limited resources, an inadequate understanding of customer engagement, and tight market timelines, as a result of which they make the mistake of hurrying through product design. Having released a product with sub-optimal design, they now witness the obvious and unwelcome consequences: low adoption and usage, and a high rate of customer churn. At this point, they will do anything to make customers come back to the product, and this is where they succumb to the charms and promises of a business-centric push based engagement approach. The company uses their marketing automation platform to launch a series of business-centric campaigns meant to improve customer retention and product adoption, and these campaigns show a limited improvement in results. This motivates the company to continue running these campaigns, causing a biased perspective of customer engagement.
Closing recommendations on customer engagement
In this article, we saw how you can engage your customers using a push or a pull based approach. We learnt that due to a variety of reasons most companies end up over-relying on a business-centric i.e. a selfish push based approach, sending messages that do not add any value to their customers and are simply used to boost product usage and customer retention. This fails to generate positive emotions in their customers. Finally, we learnt how a pull based approach delivers a higher impact on customer engagement, with a customer-centric push based approach acting as an additional and a value-adding engagement option over and above compelling product design.
We recommend that you adopt a good mix of pull and push approaches—in that order. But most importantly, whatever you choose, don’t forget to be customer-centric, because customer engagement is all about generating positive emotions in your customers and you cannot do that by being business-centric.