We’re surrounded by so much hype about how today’s marketing must be all about a relentless pursuit of ‘customer engagement’ through online channels.

Much sense lurks in this, but it’s often wildly exaggerated. So it’s interesting to see a different perspective from the Harvard Business Review—even if this overstates the opposite case …

Having conducted a study of what 7,000 consumers say they want, the HBR authors conclude that most companies have “dangerously wrong ideas about how best to engage with customers.” And that engagement is not the best route to customer loyalty in any case.

They tear into three big ‘myths’:

1. That consumers want relationships with brands: 77% in their study say they don’t (what they really want are discounts)

2. That brand loyalty comes from interaction: 64% say it comes from shared values instead

3. That the more customer interaction, the better: they found no link between amount of contact and sales or recommendation

It’s true these beliefs are pervasive: too many companies are jumping on the customer engagement bandwagon without thinking critically enough about why, what and how.

It reminds me of the marketing director from a large firm who recently told me: “We need a social media campaign. I don’t know what social media is (sic), but I’m sure we need it.”

The HBR injects a healthy dose of sanity into the subject. No, customers aren’t queuing up slavishly to bond with your organisation.

And they’re certainly not crying out for the onslaught of communication many companies seem to think they are—like the retailers that send customers over 500 emails a year. We all suffer information overload and few of us want to be bombarded with more trivia. The right quality and quantity of contact are vital.

But before we write off customer engagement as the latest management fad, take a closer look past HBR’s conclusions to what else their study tells us. If 77% of consumers don’t want relationships with companies, that means a hugely significant quarter (well, almost) actually do.

Many, even amongst the 77%, may be open to connections that could nurture brand loyalty, even if they naturally don’t regard these as ‘relationships’ of the kind they have with their friends and family: they may be up for brand engagement without knowing it.  More than that, in my view it’s impossible to avoid a relationship of some kind with most companies people encounter. It’s down to the company to ensure it’s a good one.

And brand loyalty may well be best cemented by shared values—but, handled well, interaction can be a powerful way to foster such values.

So, as with many things in life, the truth lies between the extremes. It’s not a simplistic, ‘yes/no’ question of whether customers want relationships and interaction with companies. It’s about how organisations can intelligently manage their customer connections so that people will embrace their brands.

The marketing cornerstones remain conceptually simple: excellent products, great service, clear customer insight and clever communications.

Delivering these in practice is where the real skill is needed.

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