Active Customer participation
PHOTO: Brooke Cagle

Many brands seek to enhance and increase customer engagement as customers progress through their journey across all of the brand’s channels. Recent studies, such as Deloitte’s 2021 Global Marketing Trends report, suggest that engagement is not enough, and the next logical step is for customers to actively participate with a brand.  

Customer participation has been a hot topic as far back as 2013, but the difference is that in 2021, the focus is on leading with empathy and understanding. As such, customer participation is beginning to be seen in a new light. The customer is more than a consumer of a product or service; they now have opportunities to shape, create, and define a brand, and to become brand advocates through direct participation with the brand.

How Do Customers Participate With Brands?

Traditional customer participation came in the form of customer surveys, marketing emails, cost calculators, customer service chatbots, branded games, and other interactive mechanisms that were usually presented on a brand’s website. Although these forms of participation can still be useful, many brands are interested in taking customer participation to a new level.

Dr. Gero Decker, CEO and co-founder of Signavio, a business process management solutions provider, spoke with CMSWire about how brands are moving to a more customer-obsessed approach. "2021 seems to be the year that we are shaking up our business models and, to that end, how brands engage with customers and vice versa. I believe incorporating the right customer participation processes as part of the design of a holistic customer experience journey will result in a symbiotic relationship for both the customer as well as the company, which at the end of the day is what affects the bottom line."

Another example that is often cited as participatory is live chat, which occur many times during a live streaming event. Take a look at a live chat during any big event and you will see many people making comments, but very rarely will you see those who are moderating or hosting the event having a conversation with those who are attending the event. While the attendees may be participating with each other, they are not participating with the moderator or host.

Occasionally, you may see an artist who is performing take a second to read the live chat, and they may respond to an attendee or even play a song the attendee has requested. That is participation, and when it happens, the attendee becomes a very happy participant. This isn’t limited to streaming entertainment — it can be applied to webinars, online conferences, presentations, and more. This is the difference between being an attendee and being a participant.

Customers, and consumers in general, appreciate being a part of the bigger picture. When a customer leaves feedback or a review about a product and provides feedback that can be used to improve the product, and the brand acknowledges the customer and uses the information to actually make improvements to the product, then the customer has participated by playing the role of co-creator in the design process. This is one of the types of customer participation that Deloitte is referring to in their report. In the co-creation model, brands build customer participation directly into the product development life cycle.

One example of the co-creation model is Remesh, an agile market research company that provides brands with access to its AI-powered platform which enables the brands to engage with up to 1000 customers at once through live, online conversations. “Remesh’s online platform enables companies to engage and empathize with consumers on a regular basis, integrating their voice directly into the innovation cycle. These live conversations are immediately analyzed once a conversation is completed, delivering qualitative insights at a quantitative scale so brands can make every decision based on what their core audience wants and needs,” explained Gary Ellis, president and co-founder of Remesh.

“Brands will need to go beyond traditional methods to encourage active customer participation, which looks different than your typical engagement. True participation requires brands to have open dialogue with customers as often as possible, giving those customers a voice and a seat at the decision making table,” Ellis related. “In this model, consumers are integrated into every stage of the innovation cycle.”

Other forms of customer participation include crowdfunding campaigns, which allows customers to play an active role in the development of new products, the creation of communities via social sites such as Reddit and Facebook, and user-generated content that is used to inform and support other customers at various stages of their own customer journey.

According to Wilson Raj, global director of customer intelligence at SAS, an Analytics Software and Solutions provider, the evolution of customer experience is now focused on the ever-changing needs of the customer. “‘Relevance as a service’ is the ultra-convenience of products, services and experiences that constantly adapt around the changing needs of the user–moving from purchasing from a brand to participating with a brand,” Raj suggested. He understands that there are many ways that immersive technologies can be used to increase the level of customer participation. “From building ‘design-and-test’ crowdfunding campaigns to co-creating products with new technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and 3D printing, there are key levers for brands to engage and build customer experience (CX) around customer participation.”

Raj sees more brands beginning to work with immersive technologies such as AR and VR to move the customer out of the screen and into their own environment, creating a whole new level of participation. “Immersive technologies will allow brands to engage with customer needs in real-time contexts, complementing apps on screens. Likewise, brands will use immersive tech to build a digital personality that embodies brand values for serving customers and empowering employees.”

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Many Forms of Participation Are Social

“When brands have conversations with their core audiences regularly, consumers are empowered to speak openly about what they want and need. This ultimately gives voice to the consumer and enables brands to better serve their core audiences, building stronger loyalty,” said Ellis. It’s been said that social media is the channel that most customers prefer to use to engage with brands that they are loyal to. It’s certainly where people feel comfortable being themselves, being honest about how they feel, and relating to their peers in a relaxed setting. That said, how do customers wish to be approached, and more specifically, how do they wish to be spoken to? It’s vital that brands understand where, how, and in what way their customers wish to be approached. This is where social listening plays a role in customer participation.

Dean Browell, PhD, owner of DiscoverFeedback, a market research firm specializing in digital ethnography, said that jumping into direct participation with customers is actually more about listening than it is about talking. He explained that it’s about “listening to how they interact with one another and figuring out how they want to interact with brands. This is where social listening is incredibly important, from the most popular channels to niche forums and message boards where they participate with peers in discussing products/services and their applications.”

Like most aspects of socialization and personal interaction, understanding how customers speak to their peers is a key to knowing how they would speak to and react to the brand, and why they are there to begin with. “Knowing how people speak to peers when you’re not around is crucial to understanding why some segment shows up at all on your digital doorstep. Otherwise, you end up in a Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids” scenario,” Browell said.

Another crucial element that many brands miss is recognizing their own brand’s voice. Does it translate well when it comes to direct participation with customers? “That may seem like a given, but how a brand communicates through everything from color to packaging to media to even how they might normally post on social doesn’t mean they automatically sound natural or have an angle to speak with or about consumers directly,” reiterated Browell.

On the one hand, a brand with a sassy Twitter personality can provide customers with a light-hearted connection with the brand. On the other hand, it probably would not be the best place to provide support for a manufacturing flaw, said Browell. The brand’s voice is not one that can easily or suddenly change, and it’s not socially acceptable “when social posts have been largely one-way news announcements for years and suddenly want to be best friends,” Browell explained. “So a reexamination and expansion of the brand voice are important.”

What Does Exceptional Customer Participation Look Like?

Getting customers to participate with brands is challenging to do in a way that customers will appreciate. Customers are generally happy to have a sales rep available if they have questions about a product or service while they are shopping, but they are not going to be happy to have that sales rep popping up in social settings where it is not appropriate. “Taking stock of what channels your customers are on is part one, but part two is then noting: where would they want us to be with them? A channel operating as a peer group may not want a brand barging in,” said Browell.

Essentially, customers that actively participate with a brand are doing so for one of several reasons: they either want to be entertained, educated, have a problem solved, or they hope to play a role in shaping or influencing a brand’s products, services, or solutions.

Once brands understand where participation with customers will be appreciated and accepted, the key is to create content that is actually useful, conversational, and genuinely interesting. “And that last point, ‘genuine’ is the hardest part,” said Browell. “The word, ‘authentic’ gets overused, but in this case, it’s important: being authentically down to earth in a way that represents the core of the brand and isn’t aloof or off-putting is so important. You simply can’t run in and start selling — you’ll prove to them you’re as cold and unapproachable as they feared you might be.”

Raj believes that it will come down to relevance, and that customers will not only expect it, they will demand it. “Primed by evolving digital technologies that are smart, immersive and mobile, consumers will expect ‘relevance as a service’ in ways that are more participatory, personalized, immediate and authentic. Consumers will demand ‘relevance-as-a service,’ expecting brands to anticipate their need, act on their behalf, and unleash the power of the consumer as a brand advocate.”

Decker said that it’s vital for brands to recognize where customer participation can go wrong or break down, and to be process-centric so they are able understand all of the touchpoints between the customer and the brand. “In doing so, there’s an opportunity to uncover where a customer could participate more, as well as how to leverage the resulting insights through the business more effectively.”

Final Thoughts

Participation is highly valued and desired by customers when it’s driven by authenticity and relevance, rather than ROI. If customers are able to  participate with a brand in the channels of their choice, those customers build a positive emotional connection, and become brand advocates and loyalists.