Redefining Engagement in the Social Age

Traditional customer engagement appears disconnected from today's reality. Organizations hire experts—employees, agencies, vendors, consultants, and the like—who don't come from the buyers' world, yet are expected to develop products and services for them, and then convince them to buy.

Such an approach depends on controlling the message as well as the solution. In today's social media–infused reality, that looks increasingly impossible for corporations to do. Buyers are often checking you and your competitors out long before they ever engage with you, and they increasingly want to participate in creating the solutions you provide. Many organizations view this as a threat to their existence. In fact, it's only a threat to the traditional approach of customer engagement.

In particular, buyers won't easily accept your attempts to convince them to buy. But in their "awakening," they're very much open to the opinions, experiences, and recommendations of their peers—and other buyers like themselves—and increasingly expect access to those. Those "other buyers" include your customers.

Companies that are mastering these dynamics are sloughing off the old approach to marketing and sales and becoming proficient at getting customers to generate peer gravity. Here are four key strategies they are using, and that you can use too.

Let the audience participate in the solution.

Among the most powerful demonstrations of this comes from the state of Florida, which became the first organization of any kind to figure out how to get teens to stop smoking. How? By bringing influential teens into the solution. Officials reached out not to convince them to do anything, but instead to ask for their advice and input in addressing the problem. With that rather startling new approach—how many times do adult authority figures ask teens for advice?—600 teens from around the state attended a teen smoking summit.

On the spot, they brainstormed a new antismoking approach that wound up breaking the monopoly tobacco companies had on the minds of teenagers throughout the United States. They organized SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco), set up chapters in every county around the state, and put together whistle-stop train tours and workshops, complete with T-shirts and bling, to take their message into local communities.

In just 10 years, teen smoking in Florida dropped by 50 percent, despite a fierce battle by tobacco companies. Officials in New York and South Carolina, adopting a similar approach, achieved similar results. And the simple explanation is that Florida stopped lecturing kids and got them to participate in the solution by creating peer gravity.

If your marketing and sales efforts to convince buyers are falling increasingly short, it may be time to ask, how could we get our customers involved in them?

Rebel against the established order with humor.

Nothing creates revolution—or wins buyers from entrenched competitors—like providing a better alternative to an oppressive reality. The winning antismoking formula that Florida teens developed, for example, had nothing to do with benefits (or avoiding dangers) touted by experts for years. Rather, they rebelled against documented efforts by tobacco companies to aggressively recruit new teen smokers.

Marc Benioff, who built upstart cloud-based software firm Salesforce.com, mastered this approach. He successfully challenged much bigger, better-funded firms like Oracle, SAP, and Siebel Systems by "rebelling" against their widely used but problematic enterprise software systems.

For example, he declared the "end of software," developed a logo with the word software crossed out, and hired people to "picket" the company's customer conferences with "No More Software" signs. The campaign was outlandish and fun, which is why it helped get the message across. When he combined that with highly creative programs bringing customers into the firm's product development, sales, and marketing efforts, the result was irresistible: a billion-dollar firm that successfully fomented the revolution in software from computer-based to cloud-based operations.

What established order can your organization rebel against? If there is none—if you can't present a compelling alternative to the status quo—why are you in business?

Find and develop powerful customer influencers.

It's becoming increasingly common for companies and other organizations to look for influencers "out there" on blogs and other social media platforms. But this does little to help them regain a measure of control over the conversation. Forward-thinking organizations are finding and developing customer influencers.

When SAS Canada faced a crisis in customer defections several years ago, it eschewed the usual approach of ginning up a marketing and advertising campaign to convince buyers to stay. Instead, a three-person SAS group began identifying and engaging with potential customer influencers (they used the term "Customer Champions") to get the word out. They engaged more than 300 Customer Champions in the effort, who formed an executive committee to address the issue, organized local customer events in 21 cities, lined up speakers, spoke themselves, and contributed comments and articles in an online forum and e-newsletter that went to more than 5,000 people. The result: Defecting buyers were convinced not to by their peers, and retention rates bounced back to anywhere from 85 percent to 98 percent.

If you're busy looking for outside "influencers" to take your message to your market, give some thought to developing influencers from within your existing customer base.

Partner with customers to become the thought leader.

Buyers today aren't interested in sales and marketing pitches. But with the help and involvement of customers, they will listen to your internal content experts. For example, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) was looking for ways to get the word out about its data storage solutions against a much bigger, better-funded competitor. It is now making substantial headway by positioning its talented and visionary chief technology officer, Hu Yoshida, as a thought leader in the industry.

The keys to Yoshida's success are twofold: He doesn't write about HDS's products and solutions; he writes about industry trends of great interest to HDS's market, such as the future of cloud computing, business analytics, and virtualization. Second, he regularly illustrates the points he makes using customer examples and successes.

That's a combination that wannabe thought leaders outside the firm can't come close to matching: Hu Yoshida's expertise, honed daily by regular interaction with customers using the products and services he writes about.

In today's world, it's become much too hard to control your message or to convince buyers of anything. It's too easy for them to check you out with their peers. You can continue fighting this with traditional marketing approaches. Or you can capitalize on it—as Salesforce.com, the state of Florida, SAS Canada, and others have done—by engaging with your customers to generate far more motivating peer gravity.

Bill Lee is president of the Lee Consulting Group, executive director of the Summit on Customer Engagement, and author of The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most Important Asset.

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