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If It Involves People (And What Doesn't?), Start with a Powerful Engagement Strategy

Image credit: Stori

What single success driver do branding, design, innovation, sustainability, public policy, product development, sales, social sector program management and organizational change have in common? The answer is simple: engagement. Whenever we do something for people or involving people, engagement must be at the center. If we leave out engagement we’ll quickly become cut off from the very people whose benefit we are working for, and separated from the people we need to help forward our objectives. Then we’ll be left wondering what went wrong.

Sadly, too many approaches to engagement are incomplete. They tend to focus on creating action without knowing what actually drives that action or why. Or they focus on very narrow frameworks of experience, such as user experience or opinions. This has the result of making engagement a crap shoot, not unlike the hope that something goes viral. Furthermore, it risks focusing on those pet aspects of engagement that individual leaders, managers or creators are most comfortable with. When it comes to engagement, herding people can be as hard as herding cats, but it can be done (with people, not cats).

The Skin

To overcome these limitations, I’ve created a comprehensive model for engagement strategy to ensure that we have all the bases covered (see graphic above). It's simple: The model maps out the five key drivers of experience (red), and then considers how these show up in a person’s private and public experience or, put another way, their internal experience (green) and external experience (yellow). Together these are the things every engagement strategist should learn and then deliver to developers, designers, managers, etc. filtered as information, insights and ideas (tan). These can be applied to a range of initiatives, from products to causes (blue). With this model for engagement in hand, we have a chance to turbo-charge our success.

The Flesh

Let’s look below the surface and get into the details — first, the five Experience Drivers (red):

Rational refers to how customers, audiences and beneficiaries think about products and programs. These are propositions that we consider, before we express our conclusions in words or in actions. This, the rational dimension, is where most professionals start and too often where they end. But I’ve come to believe that this is the least important driver of experience for the simple reasons that most decisions are not particularly rational, and many are barely conscious. Worse, focusing on rational drivers gives us the false impression that rational conclusions from clear data are sufficient, when they are anything but; while everyone likes the clarity of a straightforward survey supported by detailed analysis, this is a false idol that can undermine success. We need two additional things: 1. a broader understanding of the other engagement dimensions and 2. insights and ideas that build upon these analytical conclusions.

Emotional refers to how our people feel. Sometimes they tell us directly, but often we have to discover this by other, more indirect means. When we experience positive emotions, we make attachments, and these get expressed as commitments. In the past twenty or years or so, emotions have increasingly become important in marketing and communications circles. But they have a long way to go elsewhere.

Cultural refers to our experience in the broader context of society, the space of shared or inherited meaning and collective experience. It provides a framework for us to process experience that then gets expressed through commonalities with others. Culture is where we hold and experience our shared narratives.

Social refers to our contacts. These take place in our networks and take the form of conversations. As we become more wired and connected, the social dimension of experience becomes more prominent. As we develop our skills in social listening and other technology-enabled capabilities, it is crucial to incorporate this experience formally into our approach to engagement.

Ethical refers to our values. People have always had values, but as the social dimension increases and informs the cultural dimension, values move to the front. They must be included in any consideration of engagement, regardless of whether the brand, product or program is explicitly in the “good” space or not. In the ethical dimension, we make judgments that get expressed in codes.

In practice, it is good to identify the external expressions of experience (yellow: conclusions, commitments, commonalities, conversations and codes) and then explore what experiences are driving them (Green: considerations, attachments, frameworks, networks, and judgements). This gives us a comprehensive, necessary and valuable window into experience.

The Tasks of the Strategist

Now what? What do we do with it? Take a look at the tan circle, which summarizes the three tasks of engagement strategy and strategists. Data is not enough. Analyses, observations and conclusions are not enough. Strategy and development begin when comprehensive information about experience is translated into insight, and then into ideas that can be uniquely leveraged into the work of creating things for people or that invite the participation and acceptance of people. Anyone working to engage other people for any reason must either do or find someone else to do engagement strategy as a first step in action planning.

Engagement Strategy

With information, insight and ideas mapped back to the five dimensions of experience, we are in a great place to do successful and even world class engagement. The rest is up to developers and designers: from products to messaging, from user experience to program design, from culture change to human impact, from software to social. But beware — if we skip the step of creating a comprehensive engagement strategy, we reduce our changes of success to a crap shoot, the hope of going viral, a series of unfocused tactics, often followed by the humbling experience of wondering why the world didn’t jump on board with us. We can do better.

Here’s a tip: This engagement strategy model can scale. Depending on time and budget, it can drive the design of a multi-month discovery and analysis project, or it can simply provide the structure to a quick deep dive and brainstorming session. Either way, it gives you a map of which stones to look under, what to look for, and what to do with what you find. Everything else is just part of a toolkit.

Here’s to successful engagement!


Bill Wilkie is a “narrative” strategist and storymaker working with brands, design, innovation, sustainability, and causes. He has worked with sustainability oriented brands for twenty three years. He is founder of Stori, where his sustainability and impact work… [Read more about Bill Wilkie]


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