Connect, Engage, Collaborate: People-Centric Engagement in a Digital World

Published in ClickZ on July 11, 2014.

New innovations in social and mobile are helping to change the way marketers can engage with consumers. How can we deliver a valuable, personalized experience?

In my marketing strategy role, I've been recently focusing on the idea of people-centric engagement because, as we all know, as social and mobile technologies become increasingly pervasive, the opportunity to engage people in new ways is profoundly changing the way we operate. Individuals empowered by technology expect to engage with brands when and how they want; organizations are tasked with encouraging and supporting collaboration for employees, customers, and citizens while keeping an unrelenting focus on user experience. How can they do this, while safeguarding the integrity of both the business and the brand?

It's a complicated challenge to deliver a personalized and valuable experience - one that is challenging brands to metamorphosis to truly engage with their customers and would-be customers through understanding what they want (through analytics), providing them what they want (through valuable content and storytelling), and when and where they want through a consistent omni-channel brand experience (mobile, Web, and physical).

It means putting people at the center, to create open and authentic ways of engaging with individuals instead of segments or categories. This is possible today like at no other time in history because of the convergence of technologies for social, mobile, cloud, and security. This convergence is giving organizations and brands the means to meet people where they are. It is arming them with the data and the expertise required to personalize every human-to-human interaction. And it is giving them the credibility that is the foundation of trust. In fact, 80 percent of individuals are willing to exchange personal information for a personalized offering (IBM 2013 Annual Report, page 21) with brands they trust to keep their information safe.

The wonders of technology are impressive, it's true, but in order to effectively engage with people we must look back to some of our intrinsic and ancient human qualities: storytelling, substance, empathy, and the value of specialized skills and talents. All of which is made most daunting to brands by the rapidity of the change and the fact that multiple shifts are occurring simultaneously...and the changes will keep coming!

As we know by the growing "buzzwordiness," storytelling is becoming an ever-increasingly important art for us all to engage with one another - person-to-person to cut through the barrage of messages we're presented with at every given moment. We now need to heighten our focus on creating an emotional connection. I love how Pilar Alessandra describes successful brand storytelling in an interview with Buddy Scalera:

Years back there was this wonderful commercial that always made me cry. In it, a grandfather affectionately holds his arms out to his granddaughter. She toddles toward him... then passes right through him. It was an anti-smoking ad. And it made its point by telling the story of a smoker who'd missed out on his life.

To me, that's when brands make their point best - by telling us stories. Rather than showcase the brand, tell a story about the need for or effect of a brand, and your audience will pay attention.

As a marketer, I believe the power of storytelling comes to life through the need to relate to your audience - it is true customer centricity. To do so, we must truly understand our audience. I've discussed how important analytics is to this understanding in the past (and will again); right now, however, I'd like to focus on the human-side of understanding (understand (ˌʌndəˈstænd): ( tr ) to be sympathetic to or compatible with: we understand each other): empathy. Because digital technology is increasingly transparent, it requires us all to be more authentic, sincere, and empathetic. It also allows us to be fun, personable, and relatable - both as individuals showing more of our true, full selves or as a brand that can create a more human persona.

Here's a fun content marketing #DearKitten video created by Friskies. It is brilliant content marketing. They completely understand their audience of cat owners and have created socially relevant (not sure if the tone was intentionally similar to Grumpy Cat) and viral video content. They have developed the characters, it's a longer format, and is ripe for episodic storytelling,which will only help further engagement and brand impressions with their audience over time. Friskies has created a community for their loyalists and increased engagement through the invitation to co-create content featuring their beloved pets.

IBM research shows that there are compelling reasons to foster this cooperation. Outperforming enterprises are 54 percent more likely than underperforming enterprises to collaborate extensively with their customers (see Figure 9). In fact, deep collaboration is a universal ambition: nine out of 10 CxOs foresee doing so in the near future (see Figure 10). (Exploring the Inner Circle: Insights from the Global C-Suite Study, IBM Institute of Business Value 2014.)

Of course, the crucial bridge between the organization and its customers is the workforce. The ability to engage, develop, recognize, and support employees is essential in the high-stakes battle for customer loyalty. It is these individuals who represent - and effectively are - the organization's brand in the market. They interact with customers on a daily basis. It is they who monitor and analyze changes in customer preferences and who develop and maintain the technologies that help connect the physical and digital worlds. This is why a motivated and properly prepared and engaged workforce will be indispensable for success in the customer-activated world. (New expectations for a new era: CHRO insights from the Global C-suite Study, IBM Institute of Business Value 2014.) And it is why organizations are recognizing the importance of employee engagement as part of the customer experience and are creating a workforce of brand ambassadors in their employees - "involving employees in spurring social sharing of happy customer moments," eloquently summarizes Kare Anderson of Cheryl and Mark Burgess' book The Social Employee.

It all comes full circle: customer experience -> employee engagement -> innovation.

The exciting future of all of this is that we truly have the opportunity to co-create and innovate as both employees and as customers, allowing us to connect, engage, and collaborate as people - together - to create value and invention.

Join my session on the same topic at ClickZ Live in San Francisco on Wednesday August 14 at 11:50 a.m. to learn more and see how some brands are successfully engaging customers.