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May 15, 2008
N-way Engagement Marketing

It’s all about reach, right? Not really. If a million people get your message but don’t do anything as a result of it then you just lost your job. But if only 10,000 people hear your message, 4,000 tell their friends and 1,000 buy your product? You’re a hero. Welcome to N-way engagement marketing.

The scale of reach issue is something that we all struggle with. We hear that the blogosphere has a bajillion people in it, social networks a bajillion more. These statements of scale tempt us to think in these terms.

Let’s step back through marketing history. The first marketing ever was done when Paul Ignatius of Crete walked out of his pottery hut and across the dirt road to talk to Hembrect Uller. They shook hands, talked about their families and discussed pottery a bit. In marketing terms it was a solid engagement. And Paul’s family grew the business well over the next few centuries using this sort of marketing.

Eventually they realized that sending out a person to talk to every potential sale was expensive. They had heard about this new technology called the Gutenberg press and decided to print some descriptions of their product, distributing it throughout local towns. The printed marketing wasn’t very effective… most people ignored it and kids made paper airplanes (oh, wait, they didn’t have airplanes back then… but you get the picture)… and even when people read it they didn’t really want to buy pottery immediately. But because it was distributed far and wide it helped the business grow.

Radio increased the engagement of the message and also increased the reach. Television did the same because you could now essentially talk to millions of people at once. Online banner ads stepped engagement down but added tracking… you could finally see how many people were seeing your marketing. And as online marketing vehicles developed the tracking has grown.

So while reach is tempting, engagement and tracking are two very important elements of marketing campaigns. And let’s not forget about cost. Television, while intimate and far-reaching, is expensive. In a slowing economy people focus on more than reach.

Blogs and social networks aren’t anywhere near the bajillion person size. Hyperconnected superstars of Facebook have a maximum of 5,000 friends, for example. Most people have around 150 friends. These smaller spheres of influence overlap and are built on high levels of trust, credibility and engagement. That’s where you really want to play.

What does it mean to engage? Engagement marketing means that you openly invite your customers to participate in your brand campaign. This doesn’t just mean that you let them play an online game or comment on a blog. It means that you let them interpret the brand for themselves and carry it forward from there.

Core to engagement marketing is trust. Instead of controlling every nuance of your message, you need to be able to trust that what your customers have to say about you is valid and important. Most companies say they trust their customers but it’s clear they don’t. The excuses come hot n’ heavy as soon as you recommend engagement marketing techniques. “My product is complex.” “My customers can’t present it as well as we do.” “We have years of investment tied up in a carefully controlled brand.”

Hogwash. Your customers are already talking about your stuff. At work. In the car. On airplanes. By the water cooler. That you decide to define the bounds of your job so that they conveniently end when the customer gets involved doesn’t change this fact. Engagement marketing makes the argument that you need to jump across the barrier because real decisions are made once your message gets interpreted, mutated and shared.

By creating vehicles that help your customer share the brand you can gain a little of what your old-school reptilian brain craves: control. But it’s not really control. It’s more like shaping. Or involvement.

Engagement marketing must be N-way. What does this mean?

1-way: Traditional marketing’s one-way… you shout a message from the mountain tops. Pre-web.

2-way: Something like a survey is two-way… you ask a question and your customers respond. Web 1.0.

N-way: True engagement marketing is N-way… information flows back and forth between you and your customers many times. Web 2.0/3.0+

Simple concept. Hard to execute. There are plenty of options and technologies. The tricky part is that you have to change the way you think about producing campaigns. You have to save resources for the ongoing engagement that happens when you’re successful. That’s a big shift from message n’ run. Now you have to message, engage, measure, engage some more, etc. Most marketing firms aren’t structured for the ongoing delivery piece.

N-way engagement marketing is here in the minds of your customers. Go read cluetrain.org. They’re demanding more and more that as a company you actually process and respond intelligently to their feedback. N-way marketing is here in the minds of marketers. Most firms are using terms like “conversational” to describe their programs. And N-way marketing is even here in the real world. Campaigns do exist that clearly show a lot of back-and-forth N-way engagement.

What isn’t (yet) here are best practices and roadmaps… things you can do without putting your job at risk to some degree or another. But just as early banner campaigns have slowly become the norm, so too will N-way campaigns. Take some risk. Trust your customer. I know, easy for me to say.

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Joe Reger Jr. has been blogging for the better part of the last decade while helping companies leverage the power of the blogosphere. As the creator of datablogging, he opened a new realm of data-centric blogging to runners, bikers and other hobbyists. Now, as the creator and CEO of dNeero.com, he’s giving companies a way to engage their users in blogs and social networks by igniting thousands of conversations at once.

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