WHERE'S THE BEEF?
It's now a brand marketing truism that customer experience is key.
But is experience marketing in fact, when we look closer, a tautology, a self-evident truth that tells us about nothing more than itself?
Beyond the obvious imperative of actively avoiding poor brand encounters, and appreciating that service expectations are being driven up every day, what are the meaningful brand benefits of prioritising investment in better customer experience?
How often - or rather how very rarely - do we in fact succeed in making the great leap from "Meh ..." to "Wow!"?
And if it's so self-evident that experience is "a good thing", why do we continue to struggle to put a satisfactory value on it?
Let's dig a little into these questions and see where we end up.
A brand's CX journey typically begins with enabling and delivering customised and / or personalised content, manifesting on website, emails, apps, ecommerce purchases, and let's not forget direct mail.
We evolve from this point, over time and naturally, to focus on context. This moves us to incorporate information about, for example, adjacent media, time and place, a user's social media actions, and so on.
One of the most commonly declared goals here is relevance. And this nebulous concept continues to be held up as a primary KPI, even if, of course, its evaluation and measurement remain elusive.
Who wouldn't choose to be less irrelevant? Again, it's more or less tautological that relevance is an essential quality of any brand encounter. Or is it?
I'm not sure I buy this, at least not without a struggle.
If we focus on outbound brand communications, relevance feels like where you get to when you take media planning to its logical, and in fact not all that exciting conclusion. Do we end up at a point where every piece of communications see is, more or less, about me?
It seems that what we're really talking about here is not so much about delivered value, more about "minimal waste" ... waste of both brand media budget and, that most precious of current commodities, consumer attention.
My challenge, at its root, is this. While relevance is, it seems, central to information-enabled service, the notion of a marketing message or any other kind of brand-driven customer encounter being proportionately more valuable by being "more relevant" to the recipient, i.e. in some way more granular in its focus, is far from convincing.
To place too much emphasis on relevance as a driver of brand communications is to claim that you need hot water to make good coffee. True, but not a useful addition to the argument.
Let's turn our attention to engagement.
It's a little like art, in that we can't seem to define it (or still, annoyingly, put a commercial value on it), but we sure know it when we see it.
If a respectable definition is best derived from the current usage of a word, there are in fact two forms of engagement, one for media and one for brands.
Engagement for media is, at its most basic, a flip from quantity of impression to quality of encounter. It's a "retro-metric", which typically describes a combination of consumer time spent vs depth of attention allocated. This is about an encounter that happened in the past.
Where attention, as so often now, is splintered - TV on in the corner, kids supposedly on a laptop doing their homework but in fact updating their Facebook page, while texting friends about something that relates to none of the above - this is quite useful. Did we get (will we get) the attention we thought we'd get from a campaign or tactic therein?
But when a brand briefs its agency for engagement, it's asking for more than just consumer attention, or even depth thereof. Engagement for a brand usually implies a "two-way" connection with the consumer, also one that extends beyond the actual communication.
Engagement for brands is best viewed as a future-focused measure of consumer predisposition to participate in contact and communication with brands. When I'm truly engaged with a brand - and let's face it, that's rare today - I'm receptive to further communications, further encounters.
Looked at this way, degrees of brand engagement are, in fact, degrees of intimacy.
Intimacy speaks of a relative warmth of attitude, an attitude of trust, a shared or partially-shared set of cultural references, and above all, in terms of this discussion, a willingness to, at some future time, prioritise attention paid to the person, object or idea (or brand) in question, above the myriad demands of others.
Intimacy, in other words, is about a quality of brand><consumer connection that has some continuity to it. This is not, I believe, impacted by relevance, or perhaps only in a negative sense, so far as utter irrelevance - frequently achieved in spades, paradoxically, by some of the most efficiently targeting messaging - is bound to fragment any kind of intimacy.
Relevance, in any kind of direct brand communication with a customer, is table stakes. Engagement is an outcome that is best viewed in terms of a future predisposition of that customer to accept future encounters with the brand. This, in turn, is expressed and ultimately measured I hope, in relative degrees of intimacy.
There's one more step we need to take in correcting the terms of experience marketing, and hopefully equipping us to build more confidently and intelligently going forwards.
What we really appreciate, and continue to value highly in communications from any brand in any medium, is recognition. This manifests as a relatively powerful shared, and above all, meaningfully personal encounter between brand and customer.
It's a two-way phenomenon. The brand sees me, and I see myself in the brand.
SO THIS MEANS?
Many of our most skilled experience strategists and designers emerged from ecommerce, where their impact - on both basket value and, to perhaps a lesser degree these days, brand equity - has been undeniable.
However, these skills, while in themselves critical to the hygiene elements of online experience, rarely provide the value that transforms the way we perceive a brand.
Recognition, in these demanding times, constitutes far more than a "Welcome back, Michael" from a database, a slick journey to execute my purpose, with a cluster of relevant offers cheering, or at least whispering, from the sidelines.
The paradox of brand experience is that it never, in fact, belongs to an individual brand.
It's a very slim sliver of the much larger pizza that is the connected, powerful and rather cranky consumer's experience of everything they touch.
Including, most importantly, their experience of being themselves.