What is the future of customer engagement?

A few decades ago, the most effort that the average brand made to “engage” with its customers would be broadcasting a message at them via a billboard, magazine, or television ad.

The best way to persuade customers to buy products was thought to be by proclaiming their greatness, usually in a catchy or memorable way, to as wide an audience as possible.

But with the advent of the digital age and the new channels for communication that it has created – along with an influx in the sheer quantity of advertising that has turned many consumers off traditional ad messaging – brands are beginning to discover the potential for true customer engagement. For meeting their customers where they are, having conversations with them, telling stories, and inspiring them to spread the word about products – as well as buy them.

What are the trends currently shaping the ways that we engage with customers as marketers, as well as the new ways we could engage with them in the future?

In our recently-published report, The Future of Marketing, Econsultancy surveyed close to 500 advertisers, client-side marketers, media owners and agencies, along with speaking to a number of senior marketing professionals, to get their insights into where marketing is headed and what their objectives and priorities will be over the next five years.

Here are three emerging trends the report identified which look set to determine the future of customer engagement in marketing.

Story-driven, inspirational content marketing

As consumers have increasingly become desensitised to, and disengaged from, direct advertising, content marketing has evolved as a softer, more persuasive means of attracting consumers’ attention.

Brands have recognised that some sort of value exchange needs to take place: rather than simply directing consumers towards their product, they need to provide insight, inspiration, and an informative message – something that customers can take away besides “Buy our product”. Respondents to Econsultancy’s research report an ever-increasing demand in this area, with 50% confirming that they request more content marketing compared to two years ago.

Story-driven marketing has been one of the predominant trends to emerge from this revelation, with brands and marketers making an effort to create a narrative that draws the reader in, and immerses them in an experience. 89% of respondents noted that their companies are increasingly adopting a more personalised and story-driven across to content across a variety of media.

We can expect new types of technology like augmented and virtual reality to expand and build on this trend, as they give marketers the tools to tell even more immersive and impactful stories.

“Anyone with a modern mindset is turned off by advertising,” William Douglas, Chief Marketing Officer at JLL EMEA told Econsultancy’s research team. “The purpose of content marketing is to inform and inspire so marketers have to work hard not to sell. Brands need a content-driven engagement strategy and need to execute this in innovative ways.”

Alison Lancaster, former interim Marketing Director at House of Fraser, believes that marketers can forge a more genuine connection with consumers through referrals, recommendations and demonstrating a cause that aligns with their passions.

“No one cares about buying more stuff, but if there’s an interesting story behind the item or service or it connects with their tribe or their community, and is more homegrown and relevant to their interests and their passions, then I think the brand preference will come from that,” she said. “Brand owners are going to have to really think about differentiation – but on multi-dimensions, rather than just pushing out an ad or message.”

Delivering creative product and brand experiences

An overwhelming majority of marketers surveyed by Econsultancy – 93% – believe that customers increasingly want to buy experiences, not just products.

This trend stems from much the same place as the consumer desire for storytelling. Just as customers expect marketing to do more than just sell to them, they expect more from brands than just a product.

Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964 that “the medium is the message”. As The Future of Marketing’s author observes, “This has never been truer in the digital era when the way the product is delivered is a form of creative marketing.”

What that means is not necessarily as elaborate as it sounds. While some larger brands have been delving into experiential marketing and employing technologies like AR and VR to create novel digital experiences, a good product experience can be something as simple as a well-designed and visually appealing website interface, or a loyalty programme that seamlessly joins up online and offline touchpoints, with tailored discounts and personalised messaging.

At the end of the day, creating a great “experience” with a brand is no substitute for a poor-quality product, but the experience that brands can offer their customers will increasingly differentiate them in a competitive marketplace. Personalisation will be a key factor in this, with new innovations like Content as a Service delivering real-time personalised experiences to customers as they browse a website, or guiding them towards content that will suit their needs.

The Future of Marketing report highlights “becoming an experience business” as a huge future opportunity for brands, asserting that “brand experience will be a critical success factor for organisations in the years to come.”

From one-to-many to many-to-many

I’ve previously alluded in this article to the shift away from “traditional” mass audience advertising towards a more direct form of customer engagement. This can be summed up as a move from “one-to-many” to “many-to-many” marketing, in which companies aim to spark conversations among their customers about their brand or product instead of simply broadcasting at them.

Alessandra di Lorenzo, Chief Commercial Officer (Media and Partnerships) at lastminute.com group, describes the shift in this way:

“The social influencer place is one example of the new forms of evolved marketing that we are going to see… Marketing when it was born was about ‘one-to-many’ and now we are moving to the concept of ‘many-to-many’, which is about people talking to people rather than companies talking to people and that’s where the future of marketing is going.

“It’s about companies understanding that if they want their products sold, they need to endorse the many-to-many paradigm, and that’s a massive shift in the way we communicate.”

As the Future of Marketing report author notes, “People crave human connection and being part of a community, and this is part of the reason we will continue to see customers socialising their experiences.”

Mary Meeker’s 2018 Internet Trends Report highlighted the increasing influence of social sharing and discovery on ecommerce, particularly among the 18-34 age group. In a survey of 1,000 US consumers carried out by Curalate in 2017, 78% of 18-34-year-olds said they had discovered products on Facebook within the last three months that they were interested in buying.

And according to data gathered by Adobe, the percentage of ecommerce referrals coming from social networks has risen four percentage points over the past three years: from 2% in Q1 2015 to 6% in Q1 2018.

Chinese ecommerce company Pinduoduo is an excellent recent example of the potential of “many to many” customer engagement to build a business and spread the word about a brand. Socialisation is embedded in the concept of the business, which incentivises shoppers to share products with their friends and buy in groups to qualify for discounts.

This setup, when combined with the universal popularity of China’s main social app, WeChat, has enabled Pinduoduo to grow at a record rate, gaining more than 300 million users and becoming the second-most popular ecommerce app in China in just three years.

While not every brand needs to have social sharing baked into its business model in order to succeed, brands will increasingly need to find ways to employ “many-to-many” marketing and incentivise customers to share, start conversations, and recommend their products to friends and family, in order to engage current and future customers at scale.

Download the full Future of Marketing report for more data and expert opinions about what’s in store for the marketing industry.