Engagement: Hold the Eggs, Please

The current era of marketing, advertising, and branding presents an exciting frontier filled with opportunities and challenges. Newer media like the Web and mobile devices mesh nicely with more traditional media, creating well-rounded campaigns and strengthening relationships between brands and consumers. E-commerce has become the true third leg of the multichannel retail mix, allowing consumers to transact however and wherever they want, and helping retailers provide service in new ways.

But the combination of new media and commerce models represents more than just the creation of new places to advertise and new ways to sell things. It represents a chance to deeply engage consumers and build much stronger relationships.

True, today's consumers may be busier, more mobile, more distracted, and less loyal (in the aggregate) to media and brands than ever before. They may be difficult to reach and skeptical of overt marketing messages. At the same time, they are raising their hands as never before and opening themselves up to creating mutually beneficial relationships with brands.

User-created content, branded RSS feeds, mobile and portable content, and straight-up membership in CRM/eCRM programs are just a few examples. Reaching consumers today may require a bigger bag of tricks than 30-second primetime spots and full-page magazine ads, but it's also more interesting, more exciting, and more rewarding. These benefits come from truly engaging with the target audience  connecting with consumers in an interactive, mutually beneficial way.

Reach alone means nothing; engagement means everything. Relationships are the new marketing currency. Marketing activities will be measured more in terms of relationship or engagement points than gross ratings points (GRP).

While many find the new age of engagement exciting and inspiring, others find themselves plunged into fear and utter confusion. Take, for example, two of the big advertising stories of the summer. News outlets around the world carried the story about CBS' plans to advertise its network and its programming on eggshells. CBS plans to emboss its logo and clever little program promotions, such as "Crack the Case With CBS" and "The Amazing Race: Scramble to Win on CBS," on some 35 million eggs at grocery stores this fall. Eggs get "cracked," just like the cases on "CSI." Or so went the logic.

Soon after that news, us Airways declared that it too would take advantage of a blank canvas by offering advertising space on its airsickness bags. This came on the heels of America West's announcing it would the first in the industry to sell ad space on tray tables. (It seems that no real estate these days is safe from marketers.)

While the eggs, motion sickness bags, and tray tables get reach, not to mention news coverage, they fail to meet the new criteria of successful relationship-based branding: balance, relevance, and connection. They aggressively push marketing in the faces of consumers in a very one-sided way. There is no real option for creating relevance other than making a pun about eggs (or, God forbid, a pun about vomit). They do not open up any opportunity for a connection, and actually have the potential to create negative relationships.

What's more, these ads appear on products or in places for which consumers pay a full rate. Consumers get a good deal with newspapers and magazines because these media are partly subsidized by print ads. TV ads subsidize network television programming. Anyone can pick up the Yellow Pages  the big book of ads  for free. But eggs and airplane tickets cost consumers money, and these ad placements do not subsidize any of the costs. This is imbalanced and even disrespectful, and it is likely that consumers will begin to raise their hands for a different reason  to object to the advertising, the messages, and even the advertisers.

Filling up blank spaces, particularly those blank spaces that consumers cannot ignore, with advertising may seem like a good way to get in front of those busy, distracted, and hard-to-reach eyeballs. But it is a short-term, gimmicky strategy, and it lets marketers and advertisers shirk the task of truly engaging consumers and building meaningful, long-term relationships.

Michael Koziol is the executive vice president of Nurun/Ant Farm Interactive. (michael.koziol@nurun.com)

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