Customer engagement has been broadly discussed and researched. Still our understanding of what customer engagement is and how it works is very limited because the old marketing communications models no longer explain how customers engage with brands. The historical models assume some kind of a linear customer journey, leading from exposure to a marketing stimulus, through a decision-making process to an action (i.e., purchase). However, today’s consumer doesn’t walk this linear path. Digitalization has created a new reality: always on, nonlinear and interconnected.

In this new reality, customers are no longer only receivers of communications, but active senders, influencers and participants in conversations between the brand, and one another, and other non-brand third parties. The traditional distinctions between the sender of a message and a recipient have become blurred. Brands are now receiving messages and consumers are sending them!

In this new marketing reality, marketers need to understand:

  • Whether the old engagement strategies are as effective in growing customer value?
  • Which types of customer engagement drive the most value?
  • How important are other customers and parties in driving awareness and engagement?
  • Whether their engagement strategies drive relevant interactions between customers and the brand?

In order to answer these questions, we propose a new customer engagement model—“the customer engagement ecosystem”, which can be illustrated as an engine. We suggest that in today’s marketing environment, engagement is no longer a linear journey with a beginning and an end, but rather a nonlinear process, initiated by either the brand, customers, or other parties, in which brands and consumers are synergistically interacting with each other in new ways that can have a powerful effect on customer value. Our engagement ecosystem subsumes various forms of engagement discussed in the literature and contains different objects, including the brand and its actions, customers and other parties (with their experiences, motivations, consumption, and purchase and non-purchase behaviors). We argue that the brand, customers, and other parties can all interact creating customer experiences, which motivate customer behavior.

Illustration of customer engagement ecosystem from IMC Spiegel Research CenterThe customer engagement ecosystem consists in five interlocking components: brand actions, customer motivations, purchase behaviors, brand consumption, and brand dialogue behaviors. These elements are interlocking, which means they all interact with and influence each other.

Traditionally it was the brand that initiated conversations with customers by distributing marketing messages. Today, customers are constantly being influenced by messages from friends, social networks, strangers, the media, and intermediaries. The brand no longer controls when and how customers engage. This means that brands are changing from being broadcasters to being listener-responders. Interactions within the ecosystem do not happen in a specific order anymore and can be bidirectional. As such, they can be initiated by the brand or other actors, including customers or the media. They can be joined at any point in time and they do not end. For example, a consumer inspired to purchase a new car by his/her friend on a social network site, may want to share experiences with other friends, join a car brand community or buy a branded T-Shirt. This example shows that messages are now being sent and delivered across numerous platforms and devices. Many of these interactions can now be tracked and measured, giving brands a powerful tool.

Customers can engage in various ways, of which purchases and brand consumption are the most obvious ones. Brand dialogue behaviors constitute another way. They comprise all brand-related non-purchase behaviors. These behaviors can be positive, negative or neutral; take place offline and online; be conducted with the use of none or different devices (e.g., laptop, smartphone, tablet); and be targeted at various audiences including self, other customers, the brand, general public, firm’s employees, etc. They do not include purchases, but they are growing in importance and can have a great impact on future engagement and customer lifetime value.

Common forms of brand dialogue behaviors include:

  • Viewing brand-focused videos
  • Liking a friend’s post about a brand
  • Posting a consumer review
  • Checking in at a store on a smartphone
  • Getting a brand tattoo
  • Participating in a brand-sponsored contest
  • Filling out a survey
  • Discussing a brand with a friend at a party
  • Downloading branded apps
  • Contacting a brand’s customer support
  • And many more

To better understand them and the opportunities they present, we build on the previous literature and categorize them into three distinct types, all of which have an increasing degree of interactivity and value for the brand: observation, participation, and co-creation.

Illustration of Categories of Brand Dialog BehavioursObservation represents the lowest level, and means being exposed or exposing oneself to a brand-related stimulus, for example, watching a commercial or reading a review. Participation involves a response to stimuli, such as, commenting on a picture posted by a brand or another consumer on Facebook. Co-creation means that consumers produce their own content or partake in creating something new, for example, they write a review.

Each of these three stages requires different levels of the customer’s initiative and resources. In addition, the three levels differ in their interactivity. We expect that when customers engage more actively and in activities that are connected to the brand in a relevant way in terms of the customer’s goals, levels of customer lifetime value increase. The reasoning behind is that such interactions stimulate positive and memorable experiences.

In summary, our model captures the dynamic nature of engagement and as such can more precisely inform marketing decisions. It stresses the brand’s new role, which involves listening and responding to customers’ behavior in order to enhance the customer experience. Experiences — whether good or bad — not only affect future purchases, but also inspire brand dialogue behaviors, which can play a substantial role. When positive (e.g., likes on Facebook), they are able to create positive experiences and stimulate purchases, but when negative (e.g., negative WOM), they can turn customers away from the brand. This brings up interesting implications for marketers and brands who should:

  1. Go beyond ROI and include brand dialogue behaviors in their measurements of marketing communications impact.
  2. Execute experiments to identify the impact of specific elements of the ecosystem on the brand.
  3. Understand how to use brand dialogue behaviors to create customer experiences.
  4. Stimulate only the types of engagement that create a relevant connection to the brand.

For a more detailed description of our model and different brand dialogue behaviors, as well as review of literature on customer engagement, please refer to the full article published in the special issue of the Journal of Marketing Management.

Read the original research article:  Maslowska, E., Malthouse, E.C., & Collinger, T. (2016). The customer engagement ecosystem. Journal of Marketing Management, 32.

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Ewa Maslowska

Ewa Maslowska

Ewa Maslowska is a post-doctoral research associate of the Medill IMC Spiegel Digital and Database Research Center, Northwestern University. She earned her Ph.D. in the Persuasive Communication program in the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam. Her dissertation explored how personalized marketing communication influences consumers. Prior to her studies at UvA, Ewa completed her M.A. in Psychology at Jagiellonian University. Her research is grounded in consumer behavior and focuses on consumer engagement, persuasive message processing and psychological aspects of new media use.

Edward C. Malthouse

Edward C. Malthouse

Edward C. Malthouse is the Theodore R and Annie Laurie Sills Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications and Industrial Engineering at Northwestern University and the Research director for the Spiegel Institute on digital and database marketing. He was the co-editor of the Journal of Interactive Marketing between 2005-2011. He earned his PhD in 1995 in computational statistics from Northwestern University and completed a post doc at the Kellogg marketing department. His research interests center on engagement, media marketing, new media, integrated marketing communications, customer lifetime value models, predictive analytics, and unsupervised learning. He is the author of Segmentation and Lifetime Value Models Using SAS and the co-editor of Medill on Media Engagement.

Tom Collinger

Tom Collinger

Tom Collinger, Executive Director Medill IMC Spiegel Digital and Database Research Center, Northwestern University—Tom joined the faculty at Northwestern University in January 1998, served as Associate Dean and Department Chair from 2005 to 2011, and now leads a research center linking consumer engagement across marketing communications platforms to purchase behavior. He also serves as senior director of distance learning. He is a widely recognized expert in the areas of integrated marketing communications, direct, database & e-commerce marketing management, customer loyalty, customer engagement, and channel integration.  He is a former Senior Vice President of The Leo Burnett Company; Former Vice President and General Manager of Ogilvy & Mather Direct/OgilvyOne, and former member of the editorial advisory board for the Journal of Consumer Marketing.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.