The dawn of the era of engagement is upon us. Consumers have long understood the appeal of an immersive experience, be it Starbucks or Niketown. Now advertisers and marketers have begun to think about how to catch and hold fast to an audience, but the true transformation will only take place when those in the boardroom formulate business models that capitalize on engagement.
In gauging customer relationships, I believe engagement is superior to satisfaction. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on a few companies that are effectively engaging their customers online and how this can build a framework for measurement.
Look who's getting engaged
So which brands are capitalizing on this phenomenon? Well, as you can imagine, letting go of complete brand control is a scary prospect to most businesses. As a result, we see simple participatory activities masquerading as engagement. The much-discussed Chevrolet campaign that teamed up with NBC's "The Apprentice" allowed users to create a Chevy Tahoe commercial is an example of this. Not surprisingly, Chevrolet's results were mixed, with several unflattering commercials making their way around the internet. While a step in the right direction, this approach does not allow for a true connection with the product as the question remains whether the consumer is "engaged" or merely a participant.
Amazon and Google: Unlocking customer creativity
Google and Amazon extend customer engagement beyond ad campaigns and allow customers to have a hand in dictating research and development via open access to their application programming interfaces (APIs).
For instance, not long after Google launched Google Maps, an enterprising programmer created www.housingmaps.com, which scraped the apartment and housing listings on Craigslist.org and displayed them on a Google Map. The benefit to Google? Countless variations have since sprung up, and with each one Google's brand footprint increases in size.
Similarly, when Amazon opened up its search portal, A9.com, one of the results was a customer-created application that allows anyone with a cell phone to punch in a book's ID number and quickly see how much the book sells for on Amazon. Now the internet retailing behemoth is able to compete with brick-and-mortar stores on their own turf-- at the point of purchase itself. According to Business 2.0, one third of Amazon's 65,000 subscribers to its free database have developed their own programs.
But what about customers who aren't programming geeks? Brands can use the passion and creativity of their customers to extend their image. This can comprise artwork, photographs, video, blogs, RSS and wikis.
Clear Admit, an educational counseling firm that guides academic candidates through the grueling process of applying to top MBA programs, is a great example of a company that uses wikis to tap into the collective knowledge of its customers. The Clear Admit MBA Admissions Wiki is composed of actual user insight and experiences at each step in the admissions process, from the interview to the application stage. Instead of a costly top-down approach of providing static wisdom to users, Clear Admit can leverage an inexpensive bottom-up approach based on recent customer experience.
The great thing about customer engagement is the wealth of ways in which it can take shape. Unfortunately, this fact is also what makes engagement so difficult to define and measure. Depending on the medium and the purpose, the success criteria for a customer engagement interaction vary and are occasionally in conflict. For instance, does the length of visit online indicate an engaged customer or just someone who was unsuccessful in navigating the website?
Here then, is a framework for beginning to measure customer engagement online:
1. Benchmark engagement activities against pre-engagement performance. The Shaumburg Flyers, a real professional baseball team, is letting their fans manage the club for the second half of the 2006 season. By allowing engaged fans to vote on key decisions such as batting order and pitching roster, the Flyers management will be able to measure the "wisdom of crowds" via the win column (not to mention gate receipts, merchandising and concession sales) over the performance of the first half.
2. Have clearly defined goals for the interaction. Is your goal acquisition or furthering brand loyalty with existing customers? Tailor your approach to identifying success metrics to the appropriate goal.
3. Remember that one size does not fit all. Media sites that capture "most emailed" and "most blogged" might find a discrepancy between the two lists due to the different degrees of engagement. It's much easier to email an article to someone, but blogging about it requires time for reflection and response. To gauge success, determine the commitment level required on the part of users for your scenario.
4. Explore the use of tools that measure user-generated content. For example, Measure Map allows bloggers to see who is linking to and interacting with their blogs.
5. Employ user experience best practices in any online campaign or website feature designed to create an engaged customer. Are users resistant to the brand or simply unable to use the website? Even your most passionate and engaged customers will be stymied by a poor user experience. Usability barriers will limit your ability to effectively measure the success of the effort and your brand will suffer as a result.
The point of this exercise is to put some rigorous analysis around a notoriously fuzzy and very important event: the exchange of ideas between you and your consumer. In short, end your myopic focus on satisfaction and instead build the infrastructure and tools that allow you to track how your customers are actually engaging with your brand.
Brian Manning is a user experience consultant at Molecular, where he specializes in architecting front-end user interfaces and conducting usability tests to provide solutions that seamlessly meet both business and user goals. .