Last week, I started a series of posts (here, here, and here), on great marketing, with the proposition that a great marketer is essentially a great storyteller.

Today I want to discuss engagement; how to do it, and how not to do it.

You share photos with friends. You ask colleagues for professional help. You seek recommendations from trusted sources for a product you’re interested in. We all seek validation, support, help, guidance from people we know, love, and trust.

Engagement is the feedback loop, that will either reinforce these trusted connections – or will amplify all that is already wrong with your existing relationships.

I want to speak more generally about engagement, to probe it at its essence, rather than simply concentrate on the social media tools being used to drive engagement. Some of the following examples that I will use will certainly reference particular social media platforms, but this discussion isn’t meant to be a Pinterest “how to”, or a Facebook “how to”, or a Twitter “how to.”

I want to think about the thinking that did – or didn’t –  go into attempts at engaging customers.

Crisis Communications

Often, when engagement is discussed, it’s couched in a conversation about outreach to customers.

But what happens when your customers are reaching out to you? Or more specifically, what happens when your customers are reaching out to you in the midst of a major PR storm, or an on campus emergency, or a significant crisis, in which your brand is the responsible party?

One has to look no further than recent events in the NFL to know that crisis communications, handled ineptly, can sink the public perception of a brand.

But they aren’t the first to mishandle crisis communications.

I think most would agree that British Petroleum made a fair mess of their communications during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Domino’s Pizza did a less than stellar job handling the PR disaster following the release of videos showing employees doing disgusting things to food to be served to customers. And, arguably, the largest crisis communication debacle in recent memory has to be the case of the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight over the Indian Ocean earlier this year.

Crisis communications never come when expected (hence, crisis communications) – all the more reason to prepare a plan for engaging a crisis, before it’s needed.

Every crisis will be unique. But in almost every case, to be effective and successful, a good crisis communication plan needs the following:

  • Accountability
  • Contacts to be Reached, First
  • Publicizing and Providing Access to Official Communication Channels
  • Timely Information Release
  • Transparency and Accuracy in Reporting Information
  • A Plan for Ongoing Updates until the Crisis Passes

Of these, keep the following attributes in mind: access, timeliness, accuracy, and transparency. You’ll be seeing them again.

Where you have seen major breakdowns in crisis communications, it almost always involves an absence of information, or conflicting information being released, or blatantly false information publicized.

PR Debacles

PR debacles are themselves, crisis communications. To be handled successfully, PR disasters should be addressed timely, accurately, and transparently. And, access to authorized spokespeople should be relatively straightforward.

The NFL over the past few weeks has failed on number fronts with this approach. The crisis there is still unravelling, with seemingly daily stories of how the league and the Ravens have tried to cover up the facts of the original incident, and the lack of proper oversight, judgement, and responsibility applied.

And, not meaning to continue bashing football culture, but Jameis Winston has been a one-man PR disaster machine for Florida State this past year. In an already overly long post, I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to further dive into this story of police corruption, administrators intent on keeping their Heisman Trophy winner playing at all costs, and a general don’t-care-as-long-as-we-win attitude.

Even big PR firms, that should know better, get it wrong – very wrong.

Again, a dose of authentic, timely, and accountable voice in a developing dialog means the difference between being viewed as sincerely speaking to the effects and aftermath of negative news, or being phony and untrustworthy. The failure for doing so is devastating to a brand.

Happy Thoughts

Let’s turn our thoughts to something lighter – how does one positively engage one’s customers, to best effect?

The answer, as it turns out, is precisely identical to how you handle crisis communications – by being authentic, timely, transparent, and accurate in your communications.

I will add two additional, vital ingredients: knowing your audience. And: never, ever, communicate on autopilot.

Let’s take a few more examples, from social media, showing how not knowing your audience, and putting your messaging in zombie mode, are recipes for disaster.

Back in 2012, McDonald’s paid for a Twitter promoted hashtag – #McDStories – that turned into a promotional nightmare. Instead of great stories about the brand, it turned into a litany of brand bashing and culinary calumny. Who could have predicted this would happen (hint: anyone who has been on the internet).

On the day of the Aurora, CO shooting, the NRA Twitter account tweeted “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”

And just this week, the Instagram account of Joan Rivers (who passed away September 4th), seemingly posted from beyond the grave, raving about what a badass her iPhone was.

Wait – Where are the Happy Thoughts Again?

Sorry – I got distracted. Long post fatigue is a thing.

The unquestioned champion of positive engagement is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The campaign connected friends, family members, colleague, and frenemies in a viral challenge that raised millions, and vital awareness, for their organization. It was positive, it leveraged latent support for social cause, and used video to push virality past all seen-to-date limits. How successful was it? About $100 million additional funds raised in the U.S.

Why was this campaign so successful, when so many other social media attempts at engagement are just – well – horrible?

Because it was personal. And it touched people, individually, by calling them out by name.

You don’t engage audiences. You engage people.

We become so enveloped with the idea of scale and reliable reach, that we forget that we are trying to influence individuals, not masses. Crowds are indeterminate – but individuals are identifiable, and reachable.

In short, you can’t shortcut your way to great engagement. It is a high-touch, and a high-cost, endeavor. Some may claim otherwise, but it’s not.

Otherwise, you’d have scores of Nordstrom’s, with their fiercely loyal customer base.

Costco seems also to be a company with it’s business heart in the right place, with regard to customers and employees.

So – What Makes Great Engagement?

I spoke last week about the need to be authentic, to build trust between our audience and ourselves.

Engagement is the mechanism by which digital trust is built, because it constitutes the very actions that our customers judge us by.

That’s it.

And I’m sorry I made you read so much, just to say it.

Tomorrow, I plan to wrap this series, with a (hopefully, much shorter) post on measurement.

3 thoughts on “Engage!

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