Ten to 20 years from now, the year 2012 will be defined as the year that social took over all things media. We as consumers had the two-way communication tools available to break news stories, crowdsource previously unheard-of innovations, and galvanize our local and national communities.
If 2012 is measured as the year of social, then we are heading into a new-age renaissance of engagement marketing. Sometimes called experiential marketing or event marketing, engagement marketing is about encouraging consumers to participate in the creation and evolution of a brand campaign. Much like social media, it is a two-way conversation that excels because humans by nature desire interaction, and want to shape and customize their experiences based on their personal preferences.
Marketers have realized the importance of social media in their brands' promotional strategy and (for the most part) are no longer naïve to the basic assets needed to communicate their product or service socially. The good news is that many of those same principles are applicable as we look to extend our brand's circle of influence from the digital grid to the real world.
1. Create a two-way dialogue. This is a fact that traditional media outlets have learned the hard way and have either adapted and flourished (e.g. Forbes) or perished (e.g. Newsweek). It's our job as marketers to interact with consumers in a dialogue setting. We can no longer speak TO them but must speak with them, and allow them the opportunity to dictate the terms and speed of that conversation.
Nike is a perfect example of a brand that has adapted their brand essence to today’s social age. They shifted from the iconic one-way storytelling campaigns with superstar athletes that worked so well in the 80s and 90s, to a modern-day mix of the aspirational with the attainable. Their three-legged stool combining brand positioning, consumer communication, and technology breakthrough has, no pun intended, fueled the launch of their FuelBand, the activity-tracking wristband that lets users measure their activity levels and convert them into Nike Fuel points. And that unique blend has created an everyday active interaction between the brand and the consumer.
2. Let consumers create their own brand experience. Don Draper would kill me for saying this, but a lot has changed since Sterling Cooper ruled Madison Avenue. Whether it's through their digital experience or real-world interaction with the brand, consumers want and need to create their own path to the brand.
Bonobos, the one-time e-commerce only apparel company, realized this philosophy and created nontraditional brick and mortar retail stores to allow their customers to touch and feel the products they were buying, while at the same time tweaking the typical retail formula to suit their e-commerce based business. In lieu of carrying heavy merchandise inventory and paying for prime ground-floor real estate, they’ve implemented a strategy of leasing centrally located office spaces and converting them into what they are calling Guideshops.
Customers make appointments to try the merchandise, which is carried in limited quantities on-site, and employees place an online order that is then delivered to the customer for free. All of a sudden e-commerce doesn’t seem that scary.
3. Stay in touch. They say that communication is one of the most important things to keep a healthy relationship. Today, there is no reason why a consumer should not be able to communicate with your brand with a question, comment or concern--and receive human feedback within a reasonable time period.
As marketers, we must leverage the same two-way communication tools that we use as shoppers to stay in touch with our consumers. Facebook, tweets, Tumblr and Wordpress blog posts, on-site brand ambassadors, live chats, newsletters…all tools that we should be carrying in our brand communication tool boxes.
If there is anyone we emulate, it should be the online retailer Zappos. Employing over 500 employees in a Las Vegas call center, they all receive weeks of customer service training prior to engaging with customers. But it’s not the number of employees and sheer scale that is relevant here--it’s the focus that the brand puts on communicating with its customers. This focus allowed them to grow the business almost singlehandedly based on word-of-mouth buzz, an underrated form of engagement marketing, in a time when social media was nothing more than a poor play on words.
It's a mindset, not a tactic.
At the beginning of this piece I said that engagement marketing is sometimes called experiential marketing or event marketing. I take that back. Engagement marketing, in 2013, should be redefined as "marketing."
If you're not engaging your consumer, then you aren't really marketing at all.
--Alex Frias has spent the last decade blending Fortune 500 brands with entertainment and lifestyle programming and is cofounder of Track Marketing  Group, a brand experience agency based in New York City. Prior to Track Marketing, Alex founded nocheLatina.com, the first Latin event and entertainment city guide targeting second- and third-generation Latinos in the U.S.
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[Image: Flickr user Julajp ]