Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Engagement is not a Plugin

I recently attended CMS Expo and there was a lot of discussion about "engagement" — presentation-side functionality to create more enriching experiences for customers (on the website and beyond). Engagement is a pretty hot topic within the CMS industry these days. By focusing on engagement, companies can get more value from their content and serve their customers better. The upper tier of WCM vendors have fully committed to this trend. Sitecore now describes its offering as a "Customer Engagement Platform." Adobe calls CQ the "foundation of the Adobe Web Experience Management (WEM) solution". Ektron has its "Digital Experience Hub". OpenText puts its WCM products under the "Engagement" section of their portfolio. Autonomy has theirs under "Customer Experience Management."

When hearing about the opportunities and benefits of engagement, you could see the audience (mostly open source CMS developers) thinking about how they would build these features into their platforms. What struck me though is that thinking about engagement as a technology problem, to be solved with code, is doomed to failure. Yes, we can program some logic that displays different content under different conditions and automates some actions. But as long as we think of engagement as "features" that the developers leave behind, the result will be a fortress of software that insulates an organization from its customers and inhibits real engagement. The software will be correct to the specification but fail to achieve its goal of enhancing visitor experience. In fact, it is more likely to assume wrong and frustrate visitors than get lucky and do the right thing. We all know how hard Amazon and Netflix work with their algorithms and they still get it wrong.

Engagement is a two-way conversation. To create an engaging experience, a company needs to deeply understand its audience. A company needs to listen for the slightest hints of delight or disappointment and continually adjust to get more of the former and less of the latter. Like with anything, you can only automate engagement once you get really good at doing it manually. You can only offer good suggestions if you have been observing what people pick on their own and know how happy they were with their choices.

If you start to build in business logic to engage visitors, you better have metrics and in place, constantly monitor them, and have the skills and the time to tune your algorithms. Engagement functionality is not going to work for companies with a set it and forget it attitude. But for companies that are already executing a content strategy (so they have the right content) and actively seeking performance feedback (through analytics and anecdotal information), engagement features will present opportunities to serve their customers even better.

The same is true for the editorial side of content management technologies. If a company is not good at developing and organizing effective content, if it doesn't have the right skills and processes, a CMS is not going to help much. But in the hands of an organization with a good content strategy and strong executional capabilities, a CMS is an invaluable asset. You can't execute a content strategy without one. Some CMS vendors get this and have developed training programs to help build the organizational capabilities necessary to execute a successful content program (both on the editorial side and on the engagement side). The ones that don't risk losing customers who fail to meet their goals and wind up blaming the product.

Engagement is something that all companies should strive for. An unfulfilled visit is a huge missed opportunity. It could be a lost sale. It could lead to an expensive call to a call center. Worst of all, it creates frustration with your brand that, through social media, spreads like kudzu. Companies won't succeed with engagement because they bought software with the word "engagement" on the tin. They will succeed by having the organizational capacity to learn and serve their customers and by working with tools that support their optimized business processes.