Back to the Future: Engagement in the Omni-Media World

Engagement is the holy grail of today's digital dominated world. The brands that can figure out how to effectively connect with consumers in relevant ways have a real chance of winning.

Engagement is not something new, its just morphed into something much more complicated to master.

Humankind began with one-on-one engagement. Engagement was people in close proximities connecting directly, driven by the need to trade for food, clothing, hunting tools, the elements to create fire and heat, and of course, information. The advent of the printing press gave those with access and control of this technology the means to communicate ideas and information to the masses. The printing and mass distribution of the Bible, in a world with few books, is one of the first examples of effective, one-to-many engagement.

In more recent centuries, newspapers ushered in the age of advertising. Newspapers were the medium of choice and could deliver to a wide audience – with the eventual ability to target consumers based on class, interests, economics and demographic characteristics.

Radio and television took mass engagement to the stratosphere. Creative, media engagement consultants (ad agencies) refined the methods used to efficiently and effectively connect brands with millions of consumers in order to persuade and hopefully activate them. It worked.

Success was in large part due the limited amount of mass media distribution channels and access points. In the early days of radio and TV, there were only a handful of national broadcasters and mainstream newspapers. When consumers wanted their news and information, they tuned-in to established national or regional sources to deliver it to them at a pre-defined time. The broadcasters formatted programming in a manner intended to maximize the reach and effectiveness of the ads. Remember how integral TV Guide was to the TV watching experience? The idea that all TV channels and shows could be detailed in one little weekly magazine seems unimaginable today.

Globalization, satellite technology, and the cable revolution championed by the likes of CNN’s Ted Turner, changed everything. It was the beginning of media fragmentation – media distribution’s democratization and of the gradual decline of mass engagement effectiveness. And then guys like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates ushered in the age of personal computers. With the combination of computing and the Internet, mass engagement effectiveness took another blow. Fast forward to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, 500+ cable channels, Netflix, iPads, and in-store digital screens, the limited mass distribution channels of old have been replaced by an explosion of digital channels, accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

So how has engagement evolved to address what I would call the on-demand consumer media landscape? A world where consumers decide how and when they will consume media, choosing their engagement experience.

We’ve really gone back to one-on-one engagement but on a massive scale. Engagement today is enabled by digital communications and technologies that have given consumers control. Although consumers do not technically control the media distribution channels, they choose how and when they consume it. Watching recorded TV, retrieving information online 24/7, or accessing content on a mobile device anywhere they may be in the world.

So how can brands win in this free for all, omni-channel world where the consumer holds the power to engage or not?

From my perspective, it begins with finding a way to become or remain relevant to the target audience. If you can add value to the consumer’s life, be it from a utility or entertainment standpoint, they will allow you to engage. Achieving this is harder said then done. Each demographic audience has their own biases as to how they choose to be engaged, but for the most part, engagement happens because consumers resonate with some form of consumable content made available to them in their preferred format and place. No one wants to be sold to – at least overtly.

Yes, it can be as simple as a cat video on YouTube that millions of people watch, but what I am talking about is a deeper level of engagement that leads to activation.

My personal experience with Netflix is a good example. I had heard friends south of the border raving about Netflix and its wide selection of movies and TV shows. I love movies so I thought that with Netflix coming to Canada, this might be a good service for my family and me, especially since we were considering buying Apple TV. The $8/month fee sounded reasonable and fit into our entertainment budget.

Getting Netflix wasn't a priority until Netflix convinced me that it was. I learned (via Facebook) about its plans to release a new political drama called House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. I am a big Kevin Spacey fan and am politically engaged. It would be the first Netflix produced show and best of all they would release the entire season all at once. Sold. I signed up and watched the entire first season in 1-week and season two in 3-days.

Netflix has kept me engaged because it provides both relevant entertainment and utility – an amazing library of shows and movies that keep my two-year-old happy, and a low cost entertainment service that works seamlessly with my Apple TV home system. And of course, Netflix continues to engage me by recommending content based on my previous viewing habits and preferences – essentially helping me curate my media experiences at home.

No matter if it’s video content that entertains, an app that adds utility to your life, or a compelling story link on Facebook, consumers will engage if they believe it has relevance to their lives. If the engagement delivers on the promise, brands are more likely to turn this relevant consumer connection into some form of activation.

Simple right? Actually, it’s more complicated than ever to connect the dots in today's Omni-media world.

I believe this is the most challenging and exciting era in the history of engagement. Engagement today is more direct and personal, and the complexity in getting it right requires brands to do more thinking to deliver value to consumers.

Strategic planning for developing relevant engagement is critical today. Defining the right mix of content, distribution channels, technology platforms, and finding the right timing for it to come together and meet business objectives, is all part of connecting the dots. To achieve this, you need all the key stakeholders at the table early – media technologist, sales and marketing experts, business strategists and creatives.

For those engaging consumers via digital-out-of-home experiences, there are unique strategic considerations that come into play. For the most part, where and how the consumer can engage with a screen is predictable. Getting them to engage is less predictable and developing the right mix of content and experiences, that is relevant and that can ultimately deliver to key objectives, is where the heavy lifting must be done. Finally, ensuring the in-store digital experience is integrated with the brands' other media channels including social media, websites and mobile devices is critical. So there’s a lot to consider and plan for.

The winners, in my opinion, will be those who assemble collaborative teams made up of experts across multiple disciplines in order to develop and deploy programs that deliver the drivers of successful engagement. For brands, getting engagement right is critical for growth and success and as such, investing the time and resources to develop on-mark strategies should be job one.