5 Ways to Authentically Engage Your Customers
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Podcast | Insight Unpacked Season 1: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them
Marketing Apr 4, 2016

5 Ways to Authentically Engage Your Customers

To improve your customer engagement strategies, “Ask not how you can sell, but how you can help.”

Engagement marketing means asking how to help your customers.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

Mohanbir S. Sawhney

For decades, one-off marketing campaigns were the biggest game in town.

Since the rise of the Internet, however—and, in particular, the rise of social media— customer behavior has changed dramatically. Not only has social media become an essential tool for any marketing strategy (almost half of Facebook users have “recommended” a brand), customers today also expect their relationship with brands to go beyond the use value of their products.

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For Mohan Sawhney, clinical professor of marketing and McCormick Foundation Chair of Technology at the Kellogg School, that means it is time for marketing leaders to embrace a different approach.

Instead of the traditional “push” model of marketing campaigns, engagement marketing pulls people in by telling stories, driving conversations, and addressing customer needs and interests. The goal is to involve customers in a deeper, more sustained relationship with a given product or brand. “If you only talk to customers about what you sell them, they have the option of tuning out,” Sawhney says. “The motto for engagement marketing is, ‘Ask not how you can sell, but how you can help.’”

Here are five key tips for companies looking to authentically engage their customers:

1. Offer customers real value.

“Engagement marketing means leading with content, not products,” Sawhney says. And that content must be genuinely useful to your customers for it to be a meaningful engagement strategy.

“It’s advertising as a service, as opposed to advertising as interruption,” Sawhney says. “Essentially, you’re offering customers value in exchange for their attention.”

Marketo, a provider of marketing automation solutions, offers a comprehensive set of “Definitive Guides” to help marketers master topics like digital marketing, email marketing, social marketing, and marketing metrics. Instead of selling its platforms, Marketo seeks to advise and inform its customers and thereby earn the right to talk about its products. ConnectLIVE, an app created by Valspar Paint, offers virtual one-on-one paint consultations with a professional color consultant who creates a customized color scheme tailored to each participant’s space.

2. Build a community.

“A key part of engagement marketing is giving customers an opportunity for a dialogue—not only with your brand, but with each other,” Sawhney says. You can get the conversation started by asking for opinions and insights, weighing in on interesting trends, and bringing customers together in online social-sharing communities.

“It’s advertising as a service, as opposed to advertising as interruption. Essentially, you’re offering customers value in exchange for their attention.”

Nike traditionally relied on media advertising to promote its concept of “bringing out the athlete in you.” Recently it shifted towards personalized customer service. Rather than putting all of its resources into a single ad campaign for sneakers, Nike now advertises by giving customers workout advice and helping them build online communities around the theme of fitness. Nike +, a website meant to make it easy to track one’s fitness progress, is part of this new effort.

American Express has taken a similar approach to community building. The company created “OPEN Forum” in 2007, an online community to help business owners grow their business by offering insights, resources, and networking opportunities. By organizing this platform for a growing community of entrepreneurs, the company put itself at the forefront of social-media marketing—thousands of businesses participate, and many follow the forum on Twitter—and gave its brand a significant boost. OPEN Forum is now the top source of leads for new business card members for American Express.

“When customers engage with you on social media, you can leverage their loyalty to your brand,” Sawhney says. “Many of them will be the evangelists that will help spread the word.”

3. Inspire people.

“People value useful information and convenience,” Sawhney says, “but they also want to be inspired!”

One way to inspire customers is to share your brand’s vision. Corning, a glass company, put out a video called “A Day Made of Glass,” which showcases the inspiring possibilities of a day in the near future when the high-tech glass it produces is in the homes and offices of everyday customers. “You’re trying to paint a picture of the future that is inspiring and show that you play an important role in that future,” Sawhney says. This is especially relevant for companies who are trying to build next-generation technology.

Another way to inspire is to make your brand an agent of social impact. In 2013, Chipotle released “The Scarecrow,” an animated film that was highly critical of factory farming and sparked debate over food integrity. Starbucks has released similar videos promoting fair-trade coffee. And few marketing initiatives have been more successful than that of Toms, the e-commerce company that promises if you buy a pair of its shoes, it will give a pair to a poor child somewhere in the world.

4. Provide entertainment value.

In addition to being inspired, customers like to be entertained—a huge opportunity for engagement marketing.

Take the example of “Where’s My Wallet,” an interactive online game Commonwealth Bank used as a way to promote its new Cardless Cash Technology in Australia. The game, which was open to anyone, featured a panoramic map of Sydney; the objective was to find one of 100 “lost wallets” hidden in the city, each containing a $200 reward. Winners had to go to a Commonwealth ATM to claim their prize using the Cardless Cash product. During the first ten days of gameplay, “Where’s My Wallet” received 43,000 unique visitors who spent on average 12 minutes on the site.

Marriot International has also tapped into the passion for social-media gaming by launching “My Marriot Hotel,” a Facebook game that invites players to manage their own virtual hotel. For Marriot, this is both a marketing tool and human-resources strategy: in addition to generating interest in the Marriot brand, the game is meant to make hotel-staff positions more attractive, especially in countries where such jobs are considered menial.

5. Keep the conversation going.

Part of what it means to have an “always on” approach to marketing is that you are in constant dialogue with customers.

To do this well requires frequent innovation. It also means staying relevant and responsive to customer issues as they arise. Highly responsive companies are quick to nip service problems in the bud through tactful communications—heading off public relations blunders that can quickly go viral from well-connected customers.

If marketing works best when customers feel like they have a genuine relationship with a brand—one that is interesting, mutually beneficial, and steady—that relationship needs to be sustained.

“The ultimate goal of engagement is to build an emotional connection with the brand,” Sawhney says. “It’s a process that leads to intimacy and advocacy. It’s not a single transaction, but an ongoing conversation. You can’t expect customers to tune in only when you have a product to launch. You need to have a constant presence.”

Featured Faculty

McCormick Foundation Chair of Technology; Clinical Professor of Marketing; Director of the Center for Research in Technology & Innovation

About the Writer
Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.
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