By Sheree Hellier, Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 10 November 2011 12:00AM
I have a confession. I don't know how to suck eggs. Nor does my grandma. But if there was ever an article on it in Good Housekeeping, I've absolutely no doubt we'd both be intrigued (where does the saying come from?), curious (how do you suck eggs?), amused (why would anyone ever want to do that in the first place?) and moved to share our new findings with each other, as we do with many a GH recipe or shopping idea.
You see, publishers have always been experts at engagement. They've had to know their customers inside out from the moment they publish their first issue. Not just who they are, where they live, how many cars they own and holidays they take, their favourite coffee brand and whether they have children (all useful stuff when you have to sell a double-page ad in between the travel and food sections). But what intrigues their readers, what makes them curious, what amuses them, worries them, angers them ... what moves them to respond, act, share their views? Publishing companies have been doing this research for decades.
As the current climate has painfully revealed, if a magazine doesn't know its readers intimately, its features miss the mark and readers leave. In droves. Taking both cover and ad revenue with them.
It's the same with direct marketing, a profession that has been gathering, analysing, interpreting and acting on customer information since the beginning. So you can see why, when asked to contribute to this collection of essays, my thoughts turned to the intricacies of egg-sucking and my lovely 88-year-young grandma.
But publishers have had to change their business model drastically since the internet arrived. Those whose titles are currently thriving are the ones that have continued to put their readers at the heart of their strategies; listen to them, go where they are and provide what they want. They've had to embrace the very changes that could (and have for many) brought about their extinction. Successful publishers are transforming their content creation approaches (think apps, think iPad). Digital channels extend their brand's reach, deepen their customer understanding and ensure they remain the relevant, well-informed, trustworthy source of ideas, inspiration, news and knowledge that their readers expect - in a format that their readers want. In many cases, reader interaction and participation can even influence future content.
It's a model we've also applied at the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing since we launched the first ever IDM Diploma in 1986. We may not be publishers, but our content is our course material. And if we're to continually meet the changing needs of marketers, that content needs to engage. So it must be relevant, up to date, informed, authoritative, trustworthy, proven, effective, practical, applicable to real-world marketing - and in a format our customers want.
Not an insignificant feat when your customers are some pretty astute marketers who, collectively, know more than you do.
But that's why it's critical that, for the IDM, engagement takes many forms (there's more than one way to suck an egg, if you like).
Engaging our customers starts with listening. Collecting customer feedback is a religion and is encouraged via whichever channel our delegates are most comfortable with (SurveyMonkey is popular right now). And we're interested in the whole user experience. For example, our training delegates give scores for course content, tutor performance and expertise, the balance of subjects covered - even the catering. The information is fed directly back to tutors, course developers, IDM management and staff so that everyone, from reception to finance, knows exactly how our courses are being received. The feedback is used to refine future course content and to fine-tune the customer experience.
Marketing is never static, so neither should marketing training be. Training is a living, breathing thing that should evolve to suit the needs and delivery preferences of those being trained - so we take co-creation of course content as far as we can. Engaging the marketing community at large is very important - and engaging the influencers within that community is crucial.
The institute works with some 200 expert marketers from both client organisations and agencies. Course tutors are experienced, real-world practitioners whose first-hand knowledge of the newest, most effective techniques is invaluable, firstly in shaping the syllabus, and secondly in helping delegates apply their new knowledge to their own programmes and campaigns. We also work with five advisory councils that include some of the biggest names in the profession, who give their time and expertise to ensure that the IDM responds to - and, ideally, anticipates - market changes. These are relationships that we nurture every bit as much as those with our customers. The benefits have to be mutual. We have earned the engagement, participation and advocacy of "our" experts over many years and, without them, our professional development programmes would not have the reputation and international recognition that they do.
For us, engagement transcends channel. Of course, we run e-mail programmes, direct mail campaigns, social media, telemarketing, blogging, ads ... but we invite customer participation at every opportunity. That includes when people walk through our doors to attend class-based sessions, when they pick up the phone with an e-learning query, when we're discussing the presentation at a networking event or comparing notes at one of our conferences.
To do this requires the support of every IDM employee. An engaged, informed, well-trained and motivated team will work harder, stay with the organisation longer and present a more positive image to the wider community. It's the way we've always worked, and the way we always will.
Engagement isn't new. It's not a technique. It's not even a strategy. It should be a business way of life and pervade everything you do. It's not easy. It means both relaxing control and tightening up your reactions. It's an ongoing commitment to authenticity, to practising what you preach and to changing your very business model if need be. But get it right and the rewards on both sides can be immense.
Sorry if that's teaching you to suck eggs. But in a world of buzzwords and barfmail, it's easy to forget the basics.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk