The era of meaningful engagement

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From purchase decisions to causes, consumers want to be participants, not targets

It's still the Holy Grail. Along with effectiveness, efficiency, even entertainment (the big Es), engagement still reins supreme as the be-all and end-all of the marketer's craft. 

But as people have gone from being targets, to audiences, to participants in brand narratives, engagement has tended to become virtually a generic placeholder, meaning simultaneously everything and nothing. Despite the degree to which it serves as the ostensible gold standard for marketers, it's surprising that it still remains a highly undifferentiated concept.

In fact, there are countless shades of the art of engagement, and the most enlightened marketers recognize that not all of them are created equal. So let's start with the right question: What shade of engagement should your organization be striving for?

Emotion, of course, was the great marketing discovery of the last century. Marketing strategies, such as "Lovemarks" by Saatchi & Saatchi, reasoned that a brand able to inspire strong emotional attachments is able to generate the kind of loyalty that translates into that most coveted goal — sales. 

But when it comes to love, we easily recognize the various gradations that exist on the spectrum — from puppy love, to idolatry, to white-hot passion. Ditto for brand engagement. So, please, let’s not settle for simply saying we want "emotional engagement."

The next generation of engagement, still a toddler by industry standards, is being driven by a wave of customer empowerment shaped by the emergence of social media. To borrow from the vernacular of relationship advice manuals, customers today are looking to go beyond a mere emotional attraction to a brand; they want to become equal partners in a mutually supportive relationship — one that reflects their values as well as those of the brand. In other words, we’ve moved from emotion to empowerment.

As in all good relationships, companies must know who they are and what they stand for: What is their brand purpose? What is their mission? By knowing this, they attract the right partners — in this case, customers and employees and vendors and even investors who share the same values and want to accomplish the same things. This sense of identity — the kind that brands like Apple, Starbucks, Nike and Google exude — allows brands to build long-term relationships with their various constituencies.

This kind of engagement now requires the interactive communications that only social media affords and values brands by the degree to which they allow customers to participate in the brand narrative. This doesn’t just mean letting consumers comment or "like" something; it means actually letting them help shape it — as films give audiences a chance to weigh in on how a story should end. 

Today’s technology is now able to bring about the next big thing in engagement by allowing us to connect customer empowerment and brand purpose more completely. 

Interactive cause marketing is able to deliver what we can call Meaningful Engagement, because it gives customers a say in the ways brands express their mission or purpose. Simply put, consumers can exercise a new prerogative, by directing how and where companies "give back." 

It also harnesses customer purchasing power in a whole new way. By giving consumers the ability to name the charity that is to be helped through a purchase they make, brands not only become the enablers of good deeds; emotional engagement in turn becomes true advocacy, multiplied by the fact that the cause is something the person truly cares about.

Meaningful Engagement also delivers measurable return on investment. A Cone Communications and Duke University study demonstrated that 84% of customers want more control over how companies support causes. In turn, a Harvard Business School study showed that these more engaged customers generate, on average, five new referrals.

This makes the new bottom line in cause marketing: meaningful engagement as it delivers on the promise that being a caring, ethical and compassionate corporate citizen produces more business.

John McNeel is the CEO and co-founder of in/PACT, a technology solutions provider that connects purpose-driven brands to their customers.

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