Suppose They Threw an Engagement Party…and Nobody Came
Why Engagement Marketing is So Powerful...and Why Almost Nobody's Doing It
Everybody’s talking about it. Everybody knows it’s important. Everybody wants to do it. Almost nobody does, or at least does it right.
Let’s establish right at the start that “engagement” is undeniably one of the buzziest of the current marketing buzz words. It is rapidly transitioning from being novel to annoying to cliché. Unfortunately, it is also a very convenient way to refer to an undeniably important shift in strategic marketing communications, one that we must understand, embrace and implement if we are going to continue to be effective at forging meaningful connections with audiences.
So wherever your opinion of the term happens to fall in the continuum – novel, annoying or cliché – please bear with me.
Today, not only is engaging your audience a good idea, it is crucial. Not because some exceptionally clever brand planner decided it is. Because the audience demands it.
THE SHIFT OF CONTROL
Years ago we marketers held all the cards. Just watch a few episodes of “Mad Men” and you’ll see how easy it was back in the sixties to come up with the “big idea” while downing a couple of scotches and sneaking out of the office for afternoon trysts.
In fact, until fairly recently, there were only a few channels through which to deliver messages to audiences. Print publications (magazines and newspapers primarily, and significantly fewer of those), outdoor (fewer choices there, too), promotional materials, through the mail (snail only), on television and radio, and face-to-face (although transportation limitations made this relatively impractical).
That was pretty much it.
On top of that, you had an audience that craved just about any sort of out-of-the-ordinary experience, as most every aspect of life was fairly ordinary. In most markets there were three or four TV stations (depending on the quality of your rabbit ears), a handful on radio, one local newspaper that might publish two editions. So any reasonably clever instance of communication inspired great interest.
We had them right where we wanted them back then. A hungry audience just waiting to gobble up our next flash of inspiration. A few minutes coming up with the latest Burma Shave slogan and we were off to the bar to refuel.
In short, our intrusion on the lives of our audiences was permitted; in fact, it was welcomed. This intrusion marketing provided much needed and keenly desired information in the midst of a communications landscape that was relatively barren.
Ad guy nirvana.
We were in control of the message and the media, and thus, the audience and its consumption behaviors. And it stayed that way for quite a long time.
While I admit that developing effective, memorable, differentiated, persuasive marketing communications was never actually easy, it was certainly less challenging in years past. Today’s audiences aren’t so obedient anymore. The world is totally transparent to anyone who cares to look inside, and as a result, audiences demand greater accountability from the companies they do business with.
And when it’s time for them to get their information, they have endless options. The aforementioned communication channels are all alive and well. Add to them the Internet and all its various opportunities, other interactive technologies, email, product placement, in-cinema, sponsorships, cell phones and PDAs, experiential, podcasts, guerrilla marketing of all kinds, blogging, vlogging, free postcards, in-restroom, in the names and on the walls of sports arenas and about a thousand other things I’m too weary to mention or that none of us has even heard of yet. People have even sold the rights to use their bodies as living billboards via tattoos and sculpted haircuts.
And pretty much all of these vehicles are available when communicating with any audience, consumers, internal or b2b. The options are staggering – to us, but not to our audiences. They like it. And why not? They can have whatever they want.
The reality is, we can no longer tell an audience how they will get their information. A clever TV spot or direct mail piece is no longer guaranteed to get us the results we desire, because there’s no guarantee our audience is ever going to see it, much less pay attention.
EVERYTHING WORKS, AND NOTHING DOES
Recently, a client asked me the following question: “You’re up on what’s going on in marketing. Tell me, what really works? Is radio still worthwhile? Is the Internet the best way to reach people? Does outdoor do anything anymore?”
My response to her? “It all works. And none of it works. It just… depends.”
It depends -- on the specific audience you're trying to connect with, when and under what circumstances you will encounter them, the brand, the message, the objective. It just depends.
And the tough part is, we don’t get to decide what’s going to work. The audience does. The only “right” way to communicate with any audience is the way that audience prefers to be communicated with. They decide.
And that is the critical, defining principle of engagement marketing.
The moment you attempt to tell someone how they will be engaged, they will more than likely go do something else. More than ever before, audiences today are the proverbial “moving target,” and like any good archer, you’d better be quick, accurate and have lots of arrows in your quiver if you’re going to hit them.
In the past, pretty much all we had to worry about was the message. How could we make it compelling, motivating, ownable? And how could we win an award or two in the process? As savvy marketers, we all understood that the most important thing to an audience is WIIFM? (What’s in it for me?). We knew how to craft a targeted message, sell the benefits rather than the features, leverage differentiating qualities, create communications that were consistent with and effectively reinforced the brand personality.
The media were generally fairly clear. Details had to be determined and plans formulated, of course. But as long as the message was strong, and the number of impressions was adequate and directed at the right demographic, we’d strike pay dirt.
Today, the media we choose has to be just as carefully scrutinized and tailored as the message. It must meet the enthusiastic approval of the audience we’re trying to not just reach, but engage.
REACHING MEANS NOTHING ANY MORE. ENGAGING MEANS EVERYTHING.
When we engage an audience, we open a dialog, a conversation in which we receive at least as much information as we deliver. Not just beforehand, when studying the demographics and psychographics and behaviors and whatever else we analyze before crafting a message… but throughout the process, at every step of the interaction.
Effective strategic marketing communications today is a dance, and the audience always leads. We must be in concert with our partner, sensitive to their subtlest move and ready to turn and spin and dip whenever they’re ready.
Too bad so many marketers are such lousy dancers.
The problem is, we marketers still want to lead. I said earlier that back in the day, we were the ones in control. That kind of power isn’t easy to give up. We get used to it. We enjoy it. It makes us comfortable. It's addictive. We all know about this engagement thing, but at the end of the day, we still think we know better than our audience what they really want.
The question we most often ask is, “How can we make our TV spots (or experiential marketing, website, insert your media of choice here) more engaging?”
Well, you can’t, not if the audience isn’t interested.
Sit around the brainstorm table at an ad agency and one thing is pretty certain; at the end of the session, you’ll have advertising. Same is true at a direct response agency, PR firm or event production company.
Audiences don’t think that way. To some extent they used to; they expected to receive information in very specific, defined ways, our ways – on television, radio, newspaper. But today, effective marketing communication is executed in an open architecture environment. It is fluid, immediate, fickle and 100% dictated by the audience. And they know it.
The seemingly endless (and endlessly growing) information and entertainment options available today give all the control to the audience. They simply don’t have to accept anything they don’t
want, need or enjoy. Because there is always something else, and if they like it better, that’s where they’ll go.
Today’s audiences demand that they be entertained, involved, challenged and provoked. They want to be active participants in a brand and a message, to be spoken with rather than talked to. They want a moving experience. They want to be fully and completely engaged.
WHAT’S A POOR MARKETER TO DO?
The good news is, strategic marketing works; it always has and probably always will. Just what effective marketing looks like will continue to evolve with its intended audiences. But remarkably, the very same overarching principles we all know and understand still apply today. It’s just that their specific application has expanded quite a bit.
For example, it has always been important to think like our audiences, understand where they’re coming from, and deliver the message they need to hear. And the same is true today.
If our audiences are in fact “media agnostic,” if they have no predetermined bias as to how they will receive communication, then we have to be equally versatile in our ability to deliver it. In other words, when we sit down at that brainstorm table, there are no more givens, except that whatever we develop will be the most effective means of engaging this audience with this brand and this message in this circumstance.
On the client side, this approach is somewhat easier to embrace. The marketing department has at their disposal any and all marcom capabilities represented by their agencies and any other prospective vendors. Any eclectic mix of media devised by a client can be parceled out to the most appropriate agencies, limited only by budget restraints. Of course, getting all those different entities talking and working together can be a challenge, but it is crucial if any initiative is going to be fully integrated, cohesive and effective.
On the agency side, it’s a bit more complicated. Most agencies are, by their nature, not media agnostic. They do have a preference, dictated by history, expertise and revenue forecasts. The only way an agency can effectively deliver the most engaging programs to its clients is by broadening its offering a much as possible -- expanding on its own capabilities; forging real, valuable strategic alliances with other agencies with complementary capabilities; being forever attuned to the latest developments in technology, information delivery and entertainment. And then, begin thinking bigger, longer-term, seeking to always deliver the most effective solution for the
client and their audience – and in the process, hopefully, forge longer, value-added relationships.
In other words, don’t try to get all the nickels for yourself every time you have the chance, and you just may have the chance a lot more often.
SURVIVING IN THE FACE OF CHANGE
Easier said than done, of course. But those who figure out how will survive. And those who don't?
They’ll go the way of the type shop. Many reading this article may not be old enough to remember type shops, those businesses that just a couple of decades ago produced beautiful, typeset sheets of copy before desktop computers were capable of performing that job. A great typesetter was an artist. And type shops were essential to the marketing communications industry. Many of them were very successful, lucrative businesses.
Today there are none, thanks to the birth of something amazing called desktop publishing. The businesses that survived the cataclysm reinvented themselves as service bureaus, or small creative services agencies. Those that were determined to remain type shops disappeared faster than you can say dodo bird, dinosaur or Mayan.
The marketing communications industry is in this same type of accelerated evolution, from what was, to what will be. There is no more “what is.” “What is” is already yesterday's news, and again, we don’t get to choose what the new new thing will be, our audience does.
If we can travel right alongside them in this rapidly shifting communication landscape, zigging and zagging where they lead us, only then will we be able to meet their expectations, and in doing so, continue to influence their choices.
Only then are they engaged. Only then do we succeed.