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Digital Tonto: Brand engagement and value exchange

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Feb. 22, 2012, 2:08 p.m. | Op-ed — by Greg Satell

Greg Satell

Brand engagement, much like a distinguished jurist once said about pornography, is easy to recognize but hard to define. Marketers have been talking about it for a long time, but nobody can really say what it is.

I think that’s because when people speak about definitions in marketing circles, what they really mean is metrics. Engagement comes in many forms and simply doesn’t doesn’t lend itself to simple quantitative measures. What it does represent is a value exchange.

Consumers engage with a brand they see as providing superior value. That has been, historically, derived mainly through product performance. More recently, however, marketers have been able to provide superior value in creative ways that go beyond product specifications. And that, is where it gets really interesting.


Product value exchange

Steve Jobs was famous for insisting on full control of his product, which is why he invested in Apple stores. Buy Apple anyplace else and you get the same product, sometimes even at a lower price. However, the chances are that you simply get the box, take it home and hope for the best.

Apple stores extend the selling past the cash register. Once you make a purchase, someone will walk you through how to use it. You can take free classes later on to help you further and set up an appointment at the Genius Bar if something goes wrong. Apple doesn’t want you to just buy their products, they want you to love them.

Apple isn’t the only one either. Nike + iPod transforms running shoes into diagnostic devices. Many bookstores host readings and book clubs. Restaurants hold wine and food tastings. Who would pay the freight at Starbucks, after all, if it wasn’t for the cool music and atmosphere?

So the first step towards engagement is creating value beyond the basic transaction of payment for a product or service.

Content value exchange

Content marketing has become hot and, as I’ve written before, the idea of content strategy has created a lot of excitement in marketing circles. However, many marketers treat content much like an ad, just in longer form. That’s a grave mistake. Content marketing only becomes powerful if it facilitates a value exchange.

The oldest and probably best example are the Michelin Guides, which co-founder André Michelin first published in 1900. They began as simple handbooks with useful suggestions about where to stop for gas, lodging and food, but have evolved into the most prestigious restaurant rating system in the world. As of today there are only 86 3-star Michelin rated restaurants in the world.

Michelin is exceptional, but not at all unique. Red Bull’s longstanding association with extreme sports is enhanced by Red Bull TV. L’Oreal Paris’ Destination Beauty has become a wildly successful channel on YouTube by dispensing helpful beauty tips. Mailchimp, an e-mail marketing service, sends you tutorial videos after you sign up. The list goes on.

Content only delivers engagement if it confers value over and above simply promoting the brand that generates it. If it can’t do that, it’s simply an ad. Nothing more.

Social value exchange

Social strategies have become another active area of engagement. However, they can backfire if they only serve to promote, like when brands automatically send tweets after a consumer completes an action. Rather than conferring engagement, brands run the risk of offending users. Using social tactics in that manner is, in effect, a form of identity theft.

As Harvard professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorsky points out in this HBR article, social strategies only work if the deliver a social value exchange and some brands have become amazingly effective at doing just that.

American Express Open Forum built on its content value exchange by launching a members-only social network for small business owners. Zynga has become one of the most successful businesses on the web not just by making games, but by helping friends stay in touch through exchanging game value. Expedia exploits the friendship paradox by offering trips to consumers who recruit their friends.

Delivering engagement through social value exchange doesn’t have to be online either. Harley Davidson has engaged their consumers for decades through Harley Clubs. eBay has supercharged their business through their On Location events and Fortune magazine has even developed a new revenue stream with Fortune Live Media conferences.

From making contacts to building assets

Brand value exchange has become a crucial component of the post-promotional paradigm. Brands, if they are to gain share of synapse, must create connections that transcend a purchase. That will entail a paradigm shift from the old model of making contacts to a new model of building assets in the marketplace.

That doesn’t mean, as many say, that paid media doesn’t still have an important role to play. In fact, old standards like TV and banner ads are essential to activating brand value exchange. While every brand engagement is important, numbers matter. In fact, they are crucial.

Eyeballs, however, are fickle organs. They dart here and there, always searching for something new and different. They fixate only when engaged and they engage with that which confers value.


Greg Satell is a U.S.-based independent media analyst.You can read his blog entries athttp://www.digitaltonto.com.
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