5 Principles Behind Great Customer Engagement

Graham Forsyth

Psychological principles are giving brands important behavioural insight which, when used correctly, can help drive great customer engagement.

At a time when customers are demanding more from the brands they engage with, and the sheer amount of content on social and digital channels is increasing, brands need to find ways to cut through this noise to deliver the experience their customers are asking for.

But what are the psychological drivers and how can we apply them to our social and digital strategies? Nathalie Nahai, web psychologist, author and speaker, shared 5 principles behind great customer engagement during Khoros' recent conferences in Paris and Cologne.

1. Be authentic and trustworthy

The majority of us make our decisions, including buying decisions, based on emotional rather than rational thought processes. At a time when the digital buyer journey has become even more complicated, with multiple devices and multiple channels, it becomes a challenge for brands to understand customer buyer journeys.

"If you want to create a positive mental state, then it helps if people trust you."

The key is to represent your brand and your brand story with authenticity. Trust is the cornerstone of happy relationships — and this is no different for brands. Nahai looked to brands like Netflix, who are demonstrating transparency in their customer communications to build trust. Whilst other brands might have chosen to be less transparent, Netflix were clear in their communication when they informed customers about subscription price increases.

"They [Netflix] respect me enough to tell me directly what I'm going to have to do, and then they give me a reason — the validation — as to why I should pay more. Importantly, they give me the route out and the clear path to cancel my subscription. Respectful and transparent."

2. Create messages which are relatable, authentic, & reflect experiences

Aligning your brand values with those of your customers continues the strategy of driving greater trust. It is known as homophily, where we have a tendency to associate and bond with similar people.

"A homophilous source is more likely to be perceived as credible, trustworthy, and reliable. And the effectiveness of communications may be greater." said Nahai. "Shared values between brand and customer means increased — and more authentic — engagement as the brand reflects our own experiences."

Nahai spoke of the importance for brands to mirror their audience — perhaps aligning to their demographics (age or sex, for example), understanding their customers' story or needs, or appreciating emotions like excitement, anxiety, or stress. But importantly, mirroring connects with another set of dynamics, and that is the idea of “social identity” and building a sense of community between brand and audience through shared values.

Nahai referenced the Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick and how Nike decided to join a community and support the message of Kaepernick. Perceived by many as an implicit endorsement of Kaerpernick’s values, this decision had the effect of alienating many people within Nike’s customer base, whose values did not align with those of the campaign. However, a risk such as this was probably well calculated, as people from younger generations are more likely to endorse public value signalling, and it is in this demographic that Nike would potentially find a whole new cohort of loyal customers.

Nahai concluded, "If you understand your audience, you can create content that reflects their experiences, builds trust, and moves them to action. If your brand can express its values, it's going to attract people who share those values, and it's going to be more persuasive in getting them to engage and potentially buy."

3. Minimise the mental effort your customers need to expend

Optimising your content and communications so that it is easy for your customers to process, is the next step for great customer engagement.

Cognitive load refers to the amount of effort required by our working memory to perform a task. Since the brain can only do so many things at once, we should be intentional about what we ask it to do. Making a cup of tea is a simple process and requires low mental effort. However, filing our tax returns takes more thought, more mental effort, and ultimately higher levels of cognitive load.

So are brands asking too much of their customers when it comes to performing tasks?

"If you want to encourage conversation or engagement, brands have to lower the mental effort. This means that you're reducing friction in that interaction and experience."

Nahai cites Instagram as a great example of a frictionless experience. When users see something of interest or relevance in their feed, the “shop now” feature means you can be taken to purchase in around three swipes.

4. Make your information easy to process

Following on from this, Nahai demonstrates the importance of processing fluency, the ease with which we process any type of information. Content which is easy to process will be perceived as more fluent and trustworthy.

Nahai demonstrates different techniques for achieving this ease of processing — perceptual fluency, for example, is keeping your content visually clear, something which is especially important for mobile experiences. Linguistic fluency looks at how to keep content phonologically simple. These principles and more, keep the user experience as frictionless and straightforward as possible.

"If your content is easy to understand and consume, it's more inherently rewarding, and this can increase engagement, purchase intent, and the likelihood customers will return," says Nahai.

To learn how you can measure these and other outcomes of engagement, read our tipsheet, Proving the ROI of Customer Engagement.

Nahai looks to platforms like Twitter or Bumble, which have created an environment which is simple for users to interact with, as great examples. While these processes and principle might seem simple and straightforward, there are other psychological dynamics at play.

"How do these brands and platforms make you feel?" Nahai asked the audience at both Paris and Cologne events with Khoros. "They all create a sense of anticipation, they condition us with the promise of reward so that we engage, and they all trigger our dopamine system."

5. Trigger dopamine loops and reward customer engagement

Dopamine is a neurochemical in the brain which plays a critical function in all manner of things including our mood, behaviour and cognition. But interestingly, in the context of customer engagement, it triggers pleasure-seeking behaviour.

The presence of dopamine can trigger the desire to seek out stimulation and ultimately uncover “rewards.” However, if the content or platform does not satisfy our want or desire, then we enter a 'dopamine loop' and find ourselves continually searching for that satisfaction.

"We typically find greater patterns of activity for reward in the brain when we are anticipating that great new promotion, update, or reward, as opposed to when we’re actually receiving it." says Nahai. "Dopamine loops also get queued up by external triggers, and we're conditioned to expect them. If the rewards are small and unpredictable, then this variable ratio reinforcement schedule encourages us to keep going - we don’t know when we’ll get a reward, or how big it will be, and it’s this sense of uncertainty and anticipation that compels us to keep going.”

Examples here include slot machines, spinning wheels on websites or apps to unlock codes or discounts for the exchange of your email address.

Whatever your brand goal, you have to understand the principles, biases and motivations that drive your customers to engage and, where appropriate, hope those “hits” of dopamine are triggered to create a more playful experience.

Keeping your customers All-Ways Connected

Nahai's principles behind great customer engagement were emphasised throughout the Paris and Cologne events from a multitude of speakers.

Julie Dayon, who is responsible for omnichannel communities at the French retailer, Cultura, discussed the power of building communities. She echoed Nahai's notion of “homophilous sources” by demonstrating the value of credible, trustworthy, and reliable content which is shared in peer-to-peer communities.

Christian Klemm, Social Media Manager — Content Lead, at German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, discussed the importance of trust as an "essential currency for communicators and also the world at large". The presentation took a closer look at the mechanisms of trust, and how Bayer is approaching the topic with a new campaign in Germany.

Katherine Calvert, Chief Marketing Officer, at Khoros closed both events in Paris and Cologne by discussing the extremely high expectations of modern customers, in a new normal where brands are either "loved, or left."

The principles, practices, and examples which were shared by the guest speakers, cannot be ignored. The demands of customers are high, and in the words of Nathalie Nahai, "We are both the architects and the users of our future web."

We are both the architects and the users of our future web.

Brands need to engage with customers in a meaningful way that shares values and creates trust. It's time to create the standards of best practice for customer engagement and our speakers at Paris and Cologne demonstrated how they are all ahead of the game.

Now that you’ve learned about the principles of customer engagement, check out the best ways to measure it in our tipsheet, Proving the ROI of Customer Engagement.

If you would like to get more information on the presentations at Khoros Engage Paris and Khoros Engage Cologne, please reach out to your Khoros representative.

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