Since 1996, HTK has helped companies connect with their customers in a smarter and more personalized way, to grow profits and increase customer retention, focusing on engagement other than through a run-of-the-mill loyalty program, with an eye toward creating stronger customer relationships.
 
Loyalty360 discussed the topic with HTK CEO Marlon Bowser.
 
Can you talk about real-time engagement and what you believe the keys are to it?
Bowser: Real-time engagement means connecting with a customer in a way that’s relevant to where they are and what they’re doing at that moment, to prompt a desired action that creates value for both the customer and the business. It’s the peak of personalization, not just content tailored specifically for them, but specifically for them right now.

When we talk about the key to real-time engagement, it’s really two-fold. First, you need to understand what the customer has done so far—up to the minute. What content and products have they engaged with? What did they last read, click on or purchase? And of course, this also requires understanding their context—where they are, how they’re currently feeling about your business and so on. Whatever software or tools you’re using need to be able to pull this information in and process it in real-time, otherwise any action you take in response runs the risk of being outdated. That leads in to the second step in real-time engagement: taking that information and acting on it, using what you know about the customer’s needs right now to push the most relevant content, offer or call-to-action back to them.
 
How impactful is real-time engagement?
Bowser: Real-time engagement has the potential to have a significant impact on the customer relationship and, by extension, their loyalty, if done well. Real-time engagement implies a deeper level of personalization and relevance because it’s based on up-to-the-minute information about the customer’s needs and attitudes. That kind of personalization is essential to making the customer feel known and valued by the brand. Relevant engagement also creates value for the customer. It helps them in some way, whether that’s saving them time, saving them money, entertaining them, or giving them status among their peers. And it’s this combination of value and emotional affinity that is key to developing true loyalty.

For example, a retailer might recognize when a customer walks into their physical store through the use of a beacon or other proximity tech. This could trigger a limited-time, personalized offer to be sent to the customer’s mobile device, based on items that they’ve “favorited” on the retailer’s e-commerce site, which are currently in stock in that location. A touch of personalized service like this makes the customer feel recognized and cared for and increases the likelihood that they’ll make a purchase.
 
It seems like there are many moving parts related to executing seamless, real-time customer engagement. Can you talk about this?
Bowser: To be successful, real-time customer engagement requires data from lots of different systems, the ability to process this data, and the tools to push out relevant content on the right channel as a result. And with the rise in IoT devices, we’re seeing even more data sources—and interaction points—that need to be joined up in this real-time ecosystem. Whether it’s the POS in a coffee shop, a smart display in a retail outlet, or the customer’s own device, there’s a growing range of channels where the customer wants to interact and they expect a seamless experience.

That’s why it’s essential to have a single platform at the center, pulling information together, analyzing it and selecting the next best action, all within the same system. Using one “hub” to link everything up is much easier than trying to synchronize individual systems and data. That way, while there might be lots of different devices and platforms taking in data and carrying out actions, there’s one central “brain” that’s directing everything.
All the data is there, it just needs a platform to sync those real-time events, decide the next action, and follow through—and to inform other systems so that they can also be aware that a real-time engagement has taken place.
 
What is being done well in this area and where do the challenges lie?
Bowser: One of the key challenges on everyone’s mind at the moment is GDPR. Since data is at the heart of real-time engagement, it’s important to understand how your business will collect and use this data in a way that’s transparent, respects customers’ privacy and complies with the new regulations. Ultimately, success in the GDPR-era will be less about ticking boxes and more about a change in marketing mindset—going from batch campaigns to more fluid conversations, across channels.

Another challenge—one marketers are already dealing with in regard to personalization—is content. Engaging customers in real-time not only requires having the right data, but also having the right content ready to send in response. And creating enough variations of this content can be an overwhelming task, even for large marketing teams. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways new technology can help with this. For example, augmented decision-making software can proactively identify which customers to target and with what sort of campaign, freeing up time for actual content creation. 

Something that many brands are investing in at the moment is customer journey mapping—understanding how the customer moves from discovery of the brand to purchase, and where the highlights and pain points fall within that. This shows a move from brand-centric to customer-centric thinking, as businesses figure out how best to interact with customers at different points in the journey. Real-time engagement, then, is the “next step.” It takes the principle of journey mapping from pure analysis to action.
 
What do you foresee in 2018 and beyond as it relates to real-time customer engagement?
Bowser: One thing we’re already starting to see is that IoT is truly taking hold. In fact, a recent study from NPR and Edison Research found that smart speaker adoption has outpaced early smartphone adoption, which is pretty significant. According to the report, one in six U.S. adults now owns at least one of these devices.
This has a couple of implications for real-time customer engagement. For one thing, the use of these connected devices—from speakers to security systems—gives consumers greater control over the way they interact with their environment, and greater ability to tailor the products and services they use to suit their needs. With this increase in self-initiated personalization, consumers will come to expect greater relevance—and control—in the way they interact with businesses as well. That should change the way marketers think about customer engagement; again, it’s this idea of moving from rigid campaigns to fluid conversations.

The second thing to consider is how the proliferation of smart devices has opened up a new range of channels for real-time engagement, and how these channels should best be used. The personal nature of these devices means that a poorly executed interaction can be much more damaging to customer relationships here than on other channels. Thinly veiled advertising, poorly timed promotions, or overly invasive personalization will significantly impact trust, so marketers must be particularly thoughtful in their strategy.

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