True Customer Engagement: the Leap Beyond User Experience

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In a recent post in the Demand Perspective blog, I wrote about Michael Schrage’s post in Harvard Business Review Blogs called Don’t Confuse Engagement with User Experience.  To make the case for the difference between the two, he brings up the example of the so called “Android Engagement Mystery.”  Simply put:

The Android operating system has been outselling Apple’s iOS by nearly a 5:1 ratio… Yet by virtually every meaningful metric that matters, Apple’s users are reliably, revealingly and remarkably more engaged in ecommerce, browsing and apps than their Android counterparts.”

Hmm! Does it ring any bells?  I could easily paraphrase it to fit many of the associations I have researched and worked with over the years: “the X association’s membership benefits package has been outselling the targeted, custom services of the “Y” company…yet by any value metric the “Y” company’s customers use it as their go-to resource for solving their most critical business problems through its customized services, and get so much value out of them that they are willing to pay for them 10 or 20 times the amount they pay for X’s benefit package.”

The reason for this disparity? “The mystery shouldn’t be a mystery,” the author concludes. “Designing a great device is not the same as designing a great user experience. Designing a great user experience is not the same as designing greater engagement.”

Associations are equally caught up in a similar engagement conundrum, confusing engagement with mere participation and utilization of benefits. “Engagement,” by their definition, is measured by numbers: the events members attend per year; volunteer activities they participated in; number of years they have been members etc.  I am not claiming that these numbers have no use or that they do not provide some indication of who is likely to renew. They do. However they say nothing about the value this participation has for members or the association. Do members who participate use the association as their go-to resource for the challenges that matter to them the most? If not, their membership may be the first thing to go when faced with a hardship or better alternatives. When members find other providers or informal, peer networks that offer resources and solutions that are tailored to their needs and indispensable to their success, while their membership in their association remains marginal, they are not reliable foundations for future growth.  The focus of my previous blog was on the implications this confusion had for association leadership and management. When the driver of strategy and operations is the pursuit of more members and increased participation, rather than value,  relationships with, and knowledge of, members remain on a superficial level and growth is limited to “more of the same.”

For social media architects and community designers, this confusion has a somewhat different tilt.  The danger is in falling in love with designing the perfect experience for its own sake. Communities can develop increasingly complex codes of behavior and their own value compass, outside the larger organization and without measures of success such as outcomes for the user, thus keeping members in an insulated, self-sufficient universe.  Some community advocates, eschew any notion of subscription fees or meeting any business objectives, equating community with altruistic values. Ironically, such concepts and practices reinforce the status quo that treats the use of social media as a marginal, token gesture.  When community platforms are at the heart of the core business of an organization, experience cannot be an end unto itself.   It must drive toward specific member outcomes and the organization’s business objectives. Purpose is what differentiates engagement from experience and strategic vs. social use of communities.

Schrage defines engagement in terms of “how people choose to get value from the user experiences their devices enable. Engagement represents the purposeful choices users make to get what they want. Engagement is smack at the intersection of commanding attention and taking action.”

Engagement, therefore, is not defined by members’ participation or utilization experiences but by the way they choose to make use of these experiences to achieve a purpose—solve key challenges and addressing specific needs. The more purposeful and strategic the interaction, the higher its value for the member; the higher the perceived value, the greater the level of member engagement!

To clarify the difference between social participation and engagement, the author brings up the examples of Twitter, LinkedIn &  Facebook: “Twitter (or LinkedIn) may represent a less enjoyable user experience than, say, Facebook but the nature of the engagement they facilitate might mean users spend more time, thought and care with them.”

If social media-enabled mechanisms are to be used as core pieces of an organization’s strategy and operations and mechanisms for re-orienting it toward customers, they cannot be ends unto themselves. They must be transparent vehicles for integrating and delivering all the pieces that contribute to customers’ success and addressing what matters to them the most. This requires that social media strategists and developers, like every other member of an organization, understand what matters to members the most and how value must be delivered to make a difference. It means that every aspect of the organization is focused on developing rather than just recruiting members—constantly producing new, measurable value and specific outcomes for all stages of career and/or organizational development. Engagement is not in the community experience itself, but in how the experience leads to options for essential solutions outside the community that every part of the organization collaborates to develop.

“When engagement is treated like a UX feature or function instead of a defining sensibility,”Michael Schrage concludes, “you get less of it. At risk of sounding “meta,” one of the great design challenges innovators increasingly confront in increasingly competitive markets is how to get their best people to engage around engagement. You need to devote as much creativity and ingenuity around designing for engagement as you do for the entire user experience. A decade ago, companies hurt themselves by treating “interface design” as what you slapped on to your finished product. Today, innovators hurt themselves by treating “engagement” as a subset of the total UX. Don’t make that mistake. Re-engage with engagement.”

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