Most accounts of engagement suggest ways of encouraging or promoting a customer’s engagement with the brand/website. In a handful of cases however (e.g. Jim Novo and Erwin Ephron) one reads about preventing and reversing customer disengagement instead.

But is there a meaningful and valuable distinction between the two? Are the marketing techniques used to encourage our customers’ engagement with the brand/website different to those that are required in order to reverse their disengagement? Have most accounts of customer engagement overemphasized the former in the detriment of the later?

Is there a distinction?

It seems to me that the techniques involved in preventing disengagement must be different from those of encouraging engagement since the attitudes and behaviour of a customer that is disengaging are entirely different from those of someone who is already engaged. Disengagement, as Jim Novo warns, however is often masked by new customer acquisition.

Defining the disengaged

In order to be able to prevent disengagement it is necessary to be able to identify a customer who is disengaging from the brand/website.

We can identify a customer’s disengagement, when we witness a shift in his or her degree of engagement on the following scale:

degree-of-engagement.jpg

Given that the process of disengagement can begin no matter what a customer’s degree of engagement, it is important to look at both:

  1. Where a customer is in the Engagement lifecycle
  2. What the pattern of a customer’s movement along the continuum of Engagement is. Were they less engaged in the past couple of months?

Preventing disengagement therefore refers to the process of identifying a customer’s disengagement with the brand and attempting to reverse it.

Before we look at the types of disengaged customers it is important to distinguish them from former customers (i.e. non-customers). To do this one needs to define defection, and not count dead customers as ‘retained, but disengaged customers’. As Jim suggests although there is no reason you can’t use “24 month active” or “36 month active” or “5 year active”, it is imperative to define what retention is for your particular business and stick with it.

There are two kinds of disengaged customers.

  1. Customers whose engagement is above average but on a downward (right-ward) spiral. What Jim Novo refers to as High current value, Low potential value customers.
  2. Customers whose engagement has fallen below average and is now either stable or continues to decrease. (Jim’s low current – low potential value customers)

Both of these customers, that is, irrespective of their current value, are apathetic towards the brand. They continue to provide their custom due to lack of competitors, convenience of location, low prices but are nevertheless ready to defect.

The value of paying attention to disengagement

The customer insights that are gained by means of identifying disengagement can be used in the following ways:

  • Segmenting marketing communications. Although two customers may have the same degree of engagement, their degree of engagement may be growing or decreasing. Your communications should therefore not be identical to both.
  • Improving customer retention. By means of tracking the disengagement process and preventing or reversing it.
  • Marketing budget allocation. Should you spend money at the 2nd kind of disengaged customers? At what point should you stop? Read further on how the concept of disengagement can help in evaluating…
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If you have the time take a look at a post I ve written on measuring customer engagement, published in Avinash Kaushik’s ‘Occam’s Razor’ blog:

 http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/2008/01/measuring-online-engagement-what-role-does-web-analytics-play.html

(This post first appeared in the 2nd Online Customer Engagement Survey Report by cScape and E-consultancy which you can download for free, registration needed, here.)

“We need to engage with our customers to improve our conversion, loyalty and retention metrics”, says a keen young marketing consultant in an annual departmental brain-storming session. “Well, yes, I’ve heard that results in good ROI”, says the budget-manager. “So what technologies shall we invest in? Blogs, RSS, wiki, social networking or viral?”

The company launches a project scoping exercise, brings in an agency, builds a business case, tests and refines it. The marketing department soon delivers a marvel of customer engagement widgets, which the CEO delights in mentioning to journalists as evidence of his innovative cojones … until one sceptic visits the cutting-edge community only to discover he is its first and only customer.

The plan went wrong with the budget manager’s first question.  Because the hidden assumption was that customer engagement is merely a bolt-on, technical solution for meeting the big, hairy performance target of the year. Engagement strategies can undoubtedly realise such aims – but not if they’re your starting point. This is likely to deliver a platform about as authentic and alluring as a nightclub chat-up line.

It only gets worse when the solution is scoped out as a technical device, even an IT resource, rather than as an organisational commitment to forging more valuable relationships with your customer. That fetishism for projects and deliverables is precisely the corporate nightmare we all recoil at when experiencing it from the outside, as customers. It doesn’t require too keen a sense of irony to appreciate why a customer engagement plan developed in isolation from customers might run into trouble. Connect first, then develop.

Start from the customer

Any customer engagement strategy that starts from a channel marketing perspective tends to fail because it treats engagement as an add-on to the existing marketing suite rather than as an operational necessity. In fact, engagement is a priority for your customer.

Valuable customer relationships only form around organisations that demonstrate a rich understanding of its audience members, in ways that touch those members so persuasively that they are keen to experience the relationships again.

Effective engagements are internalised by us as customers, becoming tradable tokens of our identity, symbols we actively desire to share with our peers to confirm the sensibilities we have in common.

To attain that level of engagement, the organisation must first profoundly understand what needs its customers have; then decide which of those needs it makes sense for it to attempt to answer, as a brand; and last but not least, assess those options in light of the capacity available to mobilise departments around consistent delivery of that answer. The web 2.0 vehicle, whatever form it takes, is merely the “front end” for a much deeper organisational alignment around the customer.

Meaningful relationships

Few of us consider ourselves to be part of a determinate community, political or social group, with settled values and predictable discretionary tastes. Instead we participate, with varying degrees of engagement, and for varying periods, in a range of possibly overlapping social groups – only partially identifying with most of the people we get to know there.

This forces us to engage in conscious search behaviour, to construct the networks that were once handed to us by our un-chosen communities. Web technologies fit that need perfectly. New parents far from their immediate families for instance can go online to find others who are in a similar position. Online, I can search, find and meet a cycling buddy from my neighbourhood within minutes. Conversely, consider approaching random cyclists on the street and hoping to get along – it just can’t happen offline.

Another consequence is that we come to “know” many more people than was typical in the past. Online social networking allows us to link up with multiple others – those links will be of varying strengths, but there is always a chance that even a weak connection could suddenly prove decisive.

Strength in many weak ties

Indeed, weak ties arguably offer the greatest opportunities to receive the kind of information that might lead to a job offer or a rewarding personal relationship: their low maintenance requirements allow us to plug in to a mass of sources. Just consider typical Facebook activities where we join multiple online groups and exchange brief messages with a range of people.  The expectations of these interactions are lower, but can lead to many more opportunities for making new connections. By contrast, our relatively small network of close ties is much more high maintenance – and more predictable.

Realising the power of weak ties encourages us to extend our networks yet further. Social networking technology helps as it involves onward referrals and searches along multiple dimensions (the book you’re currently reading, your life stage, your physical location), while easing the psychological anxieties associated with offline introductions.

The shopfront of Me

B.J. Fogg, of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, has observed that groups on Facebook are not especially group-like – we simply use membership for badging ourselves, as a prop to express our identity, a passing solidarity or just sharing a joke. Such devices help us construct and enrich a highly controlled, even narcissistic, performance of ourselves – a profile – at once satisfying and infinitely, insatiably open to modification.

Even when we are not online our profile is interacting: It’s telling visitors what we think is great, asking them what they think of us, if they are interested in us, if they think we are hot … but above all, it is always on. While you sleep, work, or loaf, someone may encounter your online self, from any of a million different directions – and offer you a job, a date or their friendship.

Starting with the customer

The first questions for would be customer-engagers should not be “what technology should we deploy?”, nor “how can we engage our audience?”, but instead:
“What is it that our customers are currently doing, where are they doing it and what do they want to achieve.” And guess what –  the best person to ask is … your customer.

‘Engagement’ is a word with many meanings (vow, betrothal, involvement etc). In its use within marketing it can be boiled down to a single concept: one-way relation. If x is engaged with y, x is related to y, which is not to say that y is also related to x.

The concept of customer engagement furthermore deals with a particular kind of one-way relation. The kind of relation customer engagement refers to is delimited by the following:

  • Subject of engagement: The subject of engagement should not be limited to customers. Although ‘visitor engagement’ is better in that it takes into account non-customer visitors to your website/store, its focus on measuring people’s engagement with your brand on your own premises is too restrictive. It is important to measure the engagement of customers, prospective customers and detractors with our brand, in every space they choose to engage with it in.
  • Object of engagement: The subject’s relationship with a brand/company/ product/consumption topic.

Now that we have defined what kind of relationships customer engagement deals with let’s look at the criteria with which we can differentiate and classify the ways in which customers engage:

  • Kind: Positive or negative. Customers can be positively or negatively engaged with a company/product.
  • Degree: The degree of positive/negative engagement lies on a continuum that ranges from low involvement, namely, the psychological state of apathy, to high. An engaged person is someone with an above average involvement with his or her object of relatedness.
  Customer non-Customer
Positively Engaged

A1

B1

Non-engaged –Apathy

A2

B2

Negatively Engaged

A3

B3

A1 customers refer to what has been termed after McConnell and Huba as customer evangelists. These are your most valuable customers (not simply because of the recency/frequency of their custom but because they offer value that translates to revenue by means of a range of other behaviours such as advocacy).

A2 customers constitute the majority of most companies’ customers. These customers are not loyal to you – for whatever reason they are not really interested in your company/brand/product. They will defect if a competitor manages to interest them in their offering.

A3 customers are ready to defect. But that is not what is most troubling about them. They are keen to badmouth you whenever they get the chance.

The Chevy Tahoe viral ad spin-offs were a case of B3 engagement. All these people, creators and viewers alike, where passionately engaged with their fight against SUV’s.

Positively engaged non-customers involve all those people who for whatever reason cannot buy your product, be that a teenager love for a Lamborghini, or a 25 year old bachelor’s fondness of Mothercare products.

Apathetic non-customers are people who are aware of your brand but couldn’t really care less. Just imagine how many brands you know you are neither a customer of nor really have any feelings/thoughts towards.

Please tell me what you think.

web revolutionCustomers have always been knowledgeable about the products they consume. It is due to the widespread social adoption of the internet however that this type of knowledge is for the first time being transcribed and shared.

The volume of customer-created, product/company-related knowledge accessible to an individual customer has increased very little in the past due to medium through which this kind of knowledge was expressed, namely, word of mouth. By its very nature word-of-mouth communication prohibits the pooling and limits the sharing of its content.

Today, for the first time, the knowledge customers possess enjoys the objectification and permanence that derive from its transcription, which in turn allow both its pooling as well as its sharing and exchange. The reason that this kind of knowledge has not been transcribed up to now is obviously not that customers only recently learned to write. Rather it is the fact that transcribing this knowledge is for the first time actually valuable because it can be easily shared and accessed online. The customer’s newfound ability to transcribe, publish, share and pool knowledge about companies and products radically empowers him as a subject that creates and consumes a new, and from now on, ever-increasing body of knowledge: ‘customer knowledge’. Let’s look at what customer knowledge consists in by means of a rough classification of one kind of customer knowledge, namely, product-related knowledge:

  1. Product review: “I know exactly what the positive and negative features of my Giant FCR 3.0 bicycle are, and why I think it offers good value.”
  2. Product troubleshooting: “I know why my laptop suddenly shuts down without a warning: overheating. I know how to repair it myself: clean the CPU heatsink. I know how to notice the problem before my laptop shuts down: the keyboard and the bottom of the laptop are very hot.”
  3. Product hack: “I bought a bunk bed for my 2 boys a few years back but we ve since moved house and now each has his own room. I turned their bunk bed into 2 single beds and a garden bench!”

(A blog post that offers a more holistic classification of customer knowledge will follow.)


This knowledge is valuable for our customers because it is…

·         free

·         credible

·         relevant to their needs

·         easy to find 

 

For marketers it is valuable because it is (in decreasing order of importance)

·         valuable our customers: by facilitating the pooling and sharing of this knowledge we increase the value we offer to our customers.

·         persuasive: the persuasiveness of this kind of knowledge is a lot higher than that of our own marketing communications.

·         available: whether in our customers minds or blogs this knowledge has already been created.

·         free: while it would not have been cost effective for organisations to create this knowledge (this is a hypothesis open to doubt – please comment) customers are happy to contribute it for free.

·         relevant – relevant to our customers most specific needs.

…in short, it is an invaluable resource. 


Here are two things we can do to take advantage of our customer’s knowledge:
 

A.      Create the facilities that allow your customers to contribute their knowledge:

1.       Give the ability to your customers to rate your products, write product reviews and recommend your products in both your own and other sites. Provide them with the information and/or allow them to trial your products in order to be able to do so to the best of their ability.

·         Gain a customers word of mouth recommendation, rating or review, especially when there is a number of them has very high persuasive potential.

2.       Create a moderated wiki-based customer service or customer FAQ section.

·         Greatly improve your customer service for free.

3.       Create a section, a social network etc where they can post these. Reward the best hacks. Incorporate the best hack into new product development/redevelopment.

·         Increase the value of your products and the degree of your customer’s engagement with them. Your customers customise your products to their needs themselves. This, believe it or not, makes them happy.

B.      Stimulate the target customer’s motives for contributing their knowledge:

·         Loves the brand: show that you recognise his love and love him back.

·         Seeks public recognition through expertise: allow him to publicly establish himself as an expert.

·         Wants to contribute to the community: allow him to do so and show him how his contributions helped make a difference. Thank and reward him further on those grounds.


In conclusion, customer knowledge far from being detrimental to companies can be utilised for their as well as their target customers’ benefit.

I would like to thank Ron Shevlin for publishing this post in his blog while I didnt have one.

I would like to address two related issues: 1) The metaphysics of engagement: Does customer engagement exist? and 2) The possibility of a uniform definition of customer engagement.

First off, metrics do not exist in the human-independent way that a tree does. If there was no human race, a mountain would still exist, but the metric called ‘customer engagement’ would not.

The only justification for creating a metric is to measure the property of something that really exists – e.g., the height of a particular tree (presuming, of course, that that property exists).

Second, engagement is a bipartite relation, i.e., X is engaged with Y. Indeed, it denotes the very fact of the relation. Any relation is an engagement and vice versa. The use of the word engagement in marketing is best expressed as the degree or intensity of a person’s psychological investment and involvement with an object (I don’t mean physical object – it can be anything).

Engagement is, hence, not a psychological state, but the degree of a person’s psychological investment in some object. This investment involves psychological states, such as — in the case of positive engagement — sympathy, love, pleasure, pride, happiness, gratitude, empathy, affection etc. Each of these states induce, in turn, a physiological state that is characterised by cognitive, somatic, emotional and behavioural components. The somatic effects of fear, for example, involve the tightening and priming with oxygen of muscles used for physical movement, increased heartbeat, etc.

For marketing purposes, however, measuring the somatic effects of certain states is rarely undertaken. Instead the more easily measurable behavioural effects of psychological states are the target of customer research. Although the behavioural effects of a psychological state are subject to culturally-specific variation and hence are not as universal as the somatic effects, they are closer to the final object of customer research, i.e., understanding and predicting customer behaviour for the purpose of improving ROI. Try to get likelihood to perform target action from data such as an increase in adrenaline release along with 10 other somatic symptoms.

Although the behavioural manifestations of psychological states are culturally constructed, the strength of social conventions commands a high enough degree of uniformity that any skepticism regarding their predictive value based on some form of radical cultural relativism (linguistic or other) is largely unfounded.

So although the behavioural manifestations of an engaged human being will vary — depending on whether it is a positive or negative engagement, as well as across different objects of engagement and media through which these behaviours are/can be expressed — engagement understood as the degree/intensity of the subject’s psychological investment, does not vary.

In so far as the psychological states that constitute positive or negative engagement are objective, their degree or intensity, manifest via public behavioural symptoms, will also be objective and measurable. Finally, if measuring that intensity is useful for predicting behaviour then the metric is also useful. Although I believe the answer is a resounding yes, it’s another topic altogether.