Here are some old and new thoughts about "engagement" that surfaced in our work with clients, helping them to address challenges to growth, and some soul searching as I struggle with the last chapter of our book.
Even the most innovative leaders struggle with converting ideas into action. It is increasingly apparent to me that the obstacle is looking for answers in strategy, structures and processes rather than people and relationships. There is no business if you can't attract and retain customers and create the kind of value they will pay for. In the end, the core of success or failure is relationships. Reinventing relationships with members along tracks of increasing engagement is not a side activity but the entire focus of your organization.
True engagement is not about you. It does not depend on your ability to come up with fun activities, mission statements, awards or your idea of "opportunities" for volunteerism. It depends, instead, on your ability to see the world through your customers’ perspective so that the value you provide resonates exactly with what matters to them the most. And before you rush to counter with accounts of members who expressed deep gratitude for honors and awards they received, or committed and passionate volunteer leaders, I want to assure you that my point here is not to discourage any current activities or genuine appreciation of important stakeholders. The question is not about what will be of some interest to members or make them feel good but about what will engage them as in: one cannot put down a book because they are engrossed in it; or you cannot pull yourself away from a televised basketball game because you are deeply invested in the outcomes.
I wish we could come up with a different term since "engagement" has been co-opted to mean specific types of activities, purchase and participation pattern. Engagement, for example, is not a “feel good” experience. Unless you want to engage others to simply socialize and have fun at your party or in your Facebook page, you also want to engage them along paths that lead to actions and produce outcomes that are indispensable to their success. If your company’ success depends on, not only getting the right competitive market analysis but, on getting it faster than your competitors and your association does both, you will be motivated to engage. If your association understands what it takes for you to succeed and adds, for example, strategic advice for how to apply this information, and an interactive search mechanism that quickly sorts through the junk to extract what is the most relevant to you, you will be even more engaged. And if there were opportunities for you, as a member, to interact directly with potential customers to get first- hand knowledge and improve your advantage over competitors, nothing could tear you away from the company’s website and relevant resources.
In the end, “engagement” is neither a marketing tool nor a “make them happy” opportunity but a matter of building relationships of joint value creation by both parties. Forging, managing, developing, leveraging and creating value from relationships is the key to the new management and basis of competitiveness today.
In the first place, our world is endlessly networked and interconnected. No one piece can be addressed in isolation and no single provider can provide adequate value by relying only on its own resources. Companies form networks of suppliers, customers, cross-industry alliances that even include competitors to develop markets and increase their value; economic value is generated through exchanges of value among networks; individuals socialize, collaborate and look for answers through online social and professional networks.
Engagement today requires that you convert passive members into active participants around value rather than mere participation in activities. Helping members develop, access, and leverage the value of specialized networks of relationships from within your membership and other stakeholder relationships is perhaps the greatest and relatively untapped source of value and engagement that associations are well positioned to leverage.
At the heart of engagement is a simple, timeless ingredient: the ability and willingness to see the world through customers’ eyes; understanding, empathizing, motivating, engaging and co-developing with them in a continuous basis.
No organization that builds through the conventional inside-out perspective —more products, incentives and sales pitches—is positioned to grow and thrive in the knowledge age environment. This is why revisiting engagement and re-focusing all stakeholder relationships from the outside in are the most critical pieces of a new architecture.