We Need to Define "Customer Engagement"

Posted by Josh Weissburg on Oct 1, 2015

First of all, I have to confess something: the phrase “customer engagement” triggers an immediate gag reflex in me. I associate it with buzzwords like “big data” and “growth hacking” that serve as a mushy catch-all, phrases that people generally use when straightforward language isn’t available. But the thing is, I think the idea of customer engagement actually represents a significant shift in thinking about how businesses should talk to their customers. Building a messaging product like Outbound gives me many opportunities to see this shift play out.

In this post, my aim is to reclaim “customer engagement” as a specific, definable approach. I’ll start with what I think customer engagement is and why it’s powerful when it’s done well, then I’ll share what I’ve seen about how to adopt it as a way of communicating.

What is customer engagement?

Engagement is actually attention. The people who use your product will treat communication from you in one of two ways: it’s part of the noise that they have to sift through to get to the worthwhile signal; or it’s the signal, and they need to tune other noise out to listen to you. Either way, this is a question of attention: you’re getting it or you’re not. So if you want one concrete thing to think about when you wonder if your customers are “engaged” with your product, ask yourself the hard question: “Do I honestly believe this is worth paying attention to?"

Why is customer engagement important?

Attention is such a strong signal that your product, brand and company are headed in the right direction! If people are willing to stop, tune other things out, and pay attention to you, you have a direct line to your customers — you can explain your ideas, your products, your vision; and when you ask them questions, you will get real answers.

How do you create customer engagement?

Imagine a conversation you’re having with a good friend, someone you truly enjoy spending time with. Those conversations look like this:


Your first and most important job is to understand what is going on with the other person. I’m not going to pretend that each customer interaction you have needs to play out like a conversation with your best friend. But all human relationships are based on reciprocation; you need to set the tone by showing that you’re not a pushy, self-absorbed company who plans to beat your customers into submission with a steady stream of generic calls to action.

Tactically, this means that you need to collect data. In a conversation, you would collect this data by paying close attention to your friend’s words, tone and body language. If you’re trying to build engagement in a website or app, you need to pay attention to how customers react as they navigate your flow. Do they go down the path you thought they would? How quickly? Where do they slow down? What do they do when they slow down? Do they come back? If they do come back, what are they coming back to do? (I've written more here about how really good mobile apps roll this data up to figure out whether customers have experienced discovery and payoff.) But the key takeaway is: build a customer history out of events — that’s how you listen well.


You know the strong impulse to offer immediate advice ten seconds after your friend started explaining her problem? Fight it! It might be time to make an ask right away IF the other person, in this case your customer, is ready. But remember that even the best “Best Practice" is only an average — what works best for the largest number of people. It’s much better to segment your users down to very specific situations and test what information they need in that specific situation. The key takeaway here is that, at first, you don’t know the best thing to say to your customer in every situation. You need to formulate hypotheses — make some educated guesses — and test how people respond.


Now that you’ve paid close attention to your customer’s situation and considered several different things you might say, it’s time to communicate. The good news is, you’ve already done the hard work at this point. You don’t have to worry about getting the copy exactly right or making the call to action the right color and font. You will make those tweaks over time because you’re most concerned with capturing and maintaining attention. The key thing to remember when you do speak is to have a clear goal: what is the indicator that the customer is paying attention? Because the situation is different for every communication, the goal will be different too. Good goals are usually actions that customers take inside your product. For the blogging platform Medium, an opened email is a weak signal, a clicked email is a weak signal, even a long page view is a weak signal. But a read is a strong signal. The customer is actually engaged.

In a recent article by MIT professor Sherry Turkle about what happens to the “always connected” human brain, she lays down a challenge: "What if the communications industry began to measure the success of devices not by how much time consumers spend on them but by whether it is time well spent?" For marketing and product people who care enough, there’s a big opportunity to learn from the way our brains actually work to create real customer engagement through attention.