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Brand Engagement: People and Passion, Part Two

1871 at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Photo by Antuany Smith, © Gensler.

In my first blog post I said that engagement is emotional, not transactional. And yet unfortunately I’ve seen too many companies try to measure customer engagement with transactional metrics like social media likes or follows, mobile downloads, and other online or digital interactions. These can certainly be signals of engagement, and fortunately are (relatively) easy to quantify, but they can’t define engagement on their own. We have to go deeper to truly understand what drives emotion – the foundation of real engagement.

The good news is that the use of social media and other tech-fueled tools is a successful way to open the door to two-way conversations with today’s consumers, and that’s the first step in giving customers a sense of ownership in your brand.

The social media phenomenon of the 21st century continues to expand with Facebook’s 1.1 billion global users leading the pack. Meanwhile a new breed of socially-driven retail platforms is emerging. In examples like The Hunt, users either help each other find items or they help to validate other users’ choices, and this kind of online camaraderie leads to advocacy which leads to sales. Brands have the opportunity to use these platforms to create communities, or join existing ones.

The Hunt is a U.S.-based online community where users post photos of items they want, and other members tell them where to find those, or similar, items. There are currently 250,000 community members (called hunters) and the site gets over one million unique hits a month. In this format it’s not common for a brand to join in the conversation, in fact doing so would threaten the authentic, organic nature of social networks. But what a great way to gain direct insight into what customers want and what customers are saying. Brands can not only respond to these wishes but also start to predict them and plan new initiatives accordingly.

Bloggers, long recognized as highly effective influencers, should similarly be considered as virtual stockists – access to an online distribution network that a brand is unlikely to reach on its own. Here you have an opportunity to partner up to penetrate the social exchanges that are already fueling sales. No brand is an island. To ensure visibility, relevance, and a place on your target market’s radar, you have to be an active member of the online community, too.

Last but not least, social media offers a unique window into customers’ personalities and passions. Paying attention to even casual, semi-anonymous messages on Twitter can offer insights into when, where, and why a customer is using your brand in more qualitative ways that traditional forms of research can’t offer. It also allows you to respond personally, and show that you’re listening, and that you care.

Connecting with customers on an individual, personal basis is often the missing piece in the engagement puzzle – only a few leading brands have mastered these human connections, even in the virtual world. Fortunately there are more and more tools that brands can quickly employ to join and start conversations. A focus on people and the relationships between them is the best way to add emotion to the mix and drive lifelong loyalty.

Jill Nickels has over 15 years of experience in the outdoor and fitness industry and has deep expertise around the active lifestyle consumer. As a senior strategist with Gensler, she works with companies from all industries to build brands and bring them to life at retail. Jill is a long time runner and athlete and in 2013 enjoyed completing a marathon, half ironman, and multiple trail races. Contact her at jill_nickels@gensler.com.

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