Consumer Engagement: Getting Past Meh

[August 23, 2012]


Of all the reactions you hope your consumer engagement strategy will elicit, this is the one to avoid. Trust me, it’s far better to aggravate your customers than to leave them cold, indifferent, in a state beyond either praise or contempt. 

While I’m pretty sure most marketers agree with that in principle, it’s not clear from the facts on the ground that avoiding “Meh” is their top priority. There are surely many reasons for this, but I believe the simplest is an overabundance of self love. 

Take a look at a typical promotional effort in any medium. The subtext is clear: 

My brand is really special and I have the bullet points to prove it.

It’s the little white lie that just keeps on giving. But if your goal is to move the needle, know that talking about yourself is guaranteed to glue that sucker down for good. Even if you summon the Gods of Consumer Friendly Language and prostrate yourself before the altar of received opinion, your offering will go unheeded. Audience response is still liable to be:


Close the Marketing 101 textbook and look around you. In 2012—as in 2000, 1990 and 1980—consumers can already see through the advertising smoke screen. Doesn’t matter if you go Old School traditional or doll up your communication with the phrase “Like us on Facebook for more special offers.” They get it. They’re on to you. 

If I had to guess, in this Trust No One culture we’re brewing for ourselves, it won’t be long before the ability of any advertising medium to impact consumer behavior will be permanently compromised. Increasingly, if consumers buy your product, it will be for their own reasons.

But not because of questionable benny bullets, happy face stock art or a phallic staccato delivery. In this environment, your targets are more likely to buy because a favorite celebrity owns your product, endowing it with a cool factor no MBA degree holder can manufacture.

So where does that leave us, we who struggle to motivate consumer behavior?

Cause and “Affect”
Well, obviously, we’re doing something right, or there’d be no cool factor lift at all. Trouble is, the wellspring of cool, broadly defined, doesn’t reside where we’d like to think it does, in the realm of marketing theory. Instead, it resides in the emotional touch we sometimes manage to make—in those rare moments when we accurately reflect a trend rather than slavishly imitate one or arrogantly try to set one.

As I see it, that’s the crucial distinction. Be as clever as you like. Your efforts will fail—unless you have the humility to respect your customers. That is, a respect that stems from knowing them well enough to accurately articulate and validate their experience. 

Exhibit A: Those smiley-face families in a typical 30-second car commercial. The only way you can honestly produce imagery like that is if you’ve never taken a road trip with children under 12. That’s not to say a car campaign should depict the grim reality of changing diapers in the backseat at 60 miles an hour. But you might think to dial down the gloss and the smarmy nonsense about “what brings us all together.” 

That kind of insincerity? Meh. Tell consumers something that might help them on their road trip. Like how to plan a kid-friendly route or what to say when “Don’t make me turn this car around” doesn’t work anymore. Don’t be scared off by addressing Reality. Respecting consumers doesn’t mean sanitizing your communication to avoid anything objectionable. It means acknowledging what customers already know: Life is neither the pinnacle of hope only you can help them attain—nor the depth of despair only you can help them escape.

So go ahead, say something useful (“Fun Facts” don’t count). Your target just might look up from the latest episode of NCIS to give your product a second sniff. Reinforce that behavior by never, ever glossing over their unique selling proposition to get to yours. Reflect the sentiments, the values, the desires of your customers’ real-world selves and you might have a snowball’s chance of getting past their drop-dead boredom with off-the-shelf Consumer Engagement Strategy. 

Otherwise, it’s time to consider reinvesting your advertising dollars in the companies that build remote control devices. After all, your bland, formulaic communications have already done more than their share to ensure these companies never go out of business.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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