Creating The Engagement Experience

Engagement may be the most overused word in email marketing. Contested only by "relevance," perhaps. In this morning's keynote of the Email Insider Summit from Mediapost, Ken Greer, CMO of loyalty marketing firm Augeo Marketing, urged us to think about the subscriber. To consider the impact of one email message, and the potential it has to literally change someone's life.

Really?! Life changing email marketing?! That feels a little Zen, right?

Yet, I think Ken is onto something. A self-described "engagement engineer," his challenge to digital marketers is seductive. Our eyes open wide. Our hearts race a little faster. Me?! Could I really be that influential? Could I make a difference in people's lives? Could I really be the hero of my team?

What Ken is advocating is an evolution of what we have long known as brand advocacy. The simple concept that engaged consumers will participate in a brand community, be loyal and become advocates. The goal is to have engaged customers who together, have a sustainable impact on business performance.

Yet, the truth is that most email marketing is well intentioned, but not engaging. Look at your own inbox (or look at the number of people who haven't opened or clicked on anything from you in a long time). It's irrelevant. It's ill timed. It's poorly formatted.

Greer suggested that most email marketing does one of two things: Tell me something or Sell me something.  He finds nothing wrong with that, and notes that most consumers are actually pretty receptive to information and product offers that are helpful to them. The problem, he says, is that email marketing is ubiquitous among brands - and, as a result, too high volume. It's not that there is inherently wrong with the approach. The problem is that there are too many marketers doing it at the same time. Our subscribers' inboxes overflow.

How can we break out of the pile? Engage.  We've heard all this before, sure. However, I think if we have to be reminded of it, then we likely aren't doing it very well.

1. Greer's advice on how to engage includes some good points: Ask for engagement, offer a reward (including monetary and emotional), provide group validation, or connect around shared values. 

2. Matt Caldwell, Senior Creative Director of Yesmail, offered a set of similar concepts in his opening presentation this morning around creative that helps boost response. He talked about applying the approaches of amusement, thanks and intrigue to your email program in order to engage. (Matt said he's got a great 2011 Lookbook - check out the Yesmail site for it).

3. Christopher Marriott, VP of Strategy Services for Strongmail, used his presentation to introduce the concept of a Marketing Democracy. Where consumers have a vote because they have access to information about brands from source (mostly other consumers!) who are not employed by the brands. "Consumers remain unaware until they inform themselves," he says. Which fundamentally shifts the control of the discovery process from marketer to customer.  Marriott says that "Marketing is undermined every day by the power for the consumer."  Yet, our customers are doing exactly what we ask them to do.... Engage with our brands.

I believe that the onus is indeed on the email marketer to create engagement and relevancy.  Which means we have to work harder to understand the needs and desires of the audience. Today's marketplace is fragmented, multi channel and influenced by consumers themselves more than by brands. This increases the complexity of how marketers must actually gather and understand multiple sources of data in order to match subscriber interest to their own products and services. That data is increasingly unstructured and multi structured (as opposed to structured data that fits neatly into rows and columns). Think social, clickstream and search/source data. In addition, we must embrace the multiple channels and sources of information about our brands, and collaborate, not try to control, those sources which are often outside the marketing department itself.

While this creates a totally new and somewhat fluid marketing environment, personally, I'm very excited by it.  I love working with data, always ensure that I can back up my statements, and never want to be in a battle of opinions. However, I'm becoming increasingly comfortable with "mushy ROI" from some of our digital channels. Email is pretty solid in terms of measurements and metrics. Yet, when we must consider other channels when we evaluate it and create experiences through it, then we must empower our subscribers to engage with us across a matrix of brand experiences - online and offline.

Bottom line: Engagement is not an event, it's a process. When we start to think about how to create a continuum of experience for our subscribers, that guides us toward better decisions on segmentation, frequency and cadence. What are you doing to create engagement with your own program?

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