guest article by Robert Ciuchita, finalist of the SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award 2017 (granted by Maastricht U)
“Engagement is becoming paramount. A marketer’s greatest achievement is an engaged customer”. The Economist Intelligence Unit [EIU] (2015)
As the above quote illustrates, customer engagement is an attractive concept for managers. Finding new or better ways to engage customers or to keep customers engaged are managerial concerns brought up in numerous business press and market analysts’ reports. Not surprisingly, to address these concerns many management consultancies have developed engagement-focused units where digitalization plays a key role. Nevertheless, allow me to direct your attention to the very next phrase in the EIU report: “And because an engaged customer keeps coming back, engagement is defined most often in terms of sales and repeat sales.” Most scholars working on engagement will probably cringe at that phrase, because it reflects why engagement is an attractive idea for managers, but a risky proposition in the academic world: it means different things to different people. Engagement-sceptics will challenge how engagement differs from established concepts such as customer loyalty or how it relates to emerging concepts such as customer experience. With service research at the forefront of theorizing engagement, the conversation about conceptualizing, defining and measuring engagement (a MSI priority during 2014 – 2016) is ongoing.
After a couple of years of grappling with the issues above, I am still very much intrigued by engagement and look forward to more research widening and deepening our understanding of this fascinating topic. For that purpose I would like to suggest three research opportunities that surfaced while I was toiling over my doctoral dissertation:
(1) service innovation is a rich ground to study engagement;
(2) some under-researched digital services are engagement-prone and
(3) the dynamic nature of engagement is what makes it most exciting.
When I talk about “our research”, I refer to projects I conducted as a doctoral student at Maastricht University in the Netherlands alongside Dominik Mahr, Gaby Odekerken-Schröder and Martin Wetzels.
Opportunity 1: Studying engagement with service innovation
Brands and organizations constitute the preferred object for empirically studying engagement, but it might be useful to consider other objects of engagement. Inspired by the information systems idea of the IT artefact, I suggest service research would benefit from studying engagement with digital service innovation. Service innovation boils down to introducing new services or renewing existing services and is a key strategic asset for service providers. Moreover, digitalization makes it easier and faster for service providers to innovate. My suggestion is to consider the role of engagement in why and how consumers accept and continue using digital innovation. In our research for instance we investigate engagement with contactless mobile payment, a new-to-the-market service innovation that has the potential to revolutionize brick-and-mortar retail. We find that driving engagement with this innovation is contingent on the service ecosystem supporting mobile payment made up of users, retailers and technology providers. That hints at the role engagement with service innovation plays in building engagement platforms: customer engagement with specific brands, or specific service providers might not be enough for digital service innovation to take off. Consider for instance of the difficulties Apple Pay has been facing to reach widespread usage in an ecosystem it does not control.
Opportunity 2: Studying more engagement-prone contexts
Social media has emerged as the natural environment to study engagement (e.g., in practice, “likes” and “shares” are labelled engagement metrics), but other contexts that require increased user participation might provide interesting grounds for studying engagement. Inspired by human-computer interaction research, I suggest service research would benefit from studying other highly interactive engagement contexts such as video games. An example of digital service innovation, video games are especially engagement-prone because the actual purchase of a video game is only the beginning of the user experience. Furthermore, most video games have a relatively limited lifespan in single-player mode (i.e., when gamers individually play the story-line developed by the game publisher). Nevertheless, the multiplayer mode (i.e., when users play with and against other users from all over the world in real time) offers almost endless possibilities. Add to that the opportunities to “quantify” engagement courtesy of technological developments (e.g., latest generation consoles, virtual reality head-sets etc.). In our research for instance we draw on telemetry (i.e., longitudinal data that observes individual players’ actions while playing a video game) – to determine what keeps players engaged with a multiplayer ego shooter such as Call of Duty. Our results show that player engagement and the in-game experiences reinforce each other over time, a perspective that has been recently advocated in conceptual research.
Opportunity 3: Studying the dynamic nature of engagement
Finally, the area of research I am most excited about concerns the dynamic nature of engagement. That is because while digital service innovation accelerates service lifecycles, it can also have unexpected consequences for consumers over time. Consider for instance how a social media innovation such as the Facebook Timeline has altered the way we consume news. Recent studies have made valuable steps in theorizing the dynamic nature of engagement, so empirical studies looking into how engagement unfolds over time would be very welcomed. Our research for instance shows that while users of a video game can have very different individual engagement trajectories, a common engagement trajectory can be determined across all users within one month after the game’s introduction. Additionally, service research would benefit from uncovering what actions taken by service providers can increase or decrease engagement.Our research for instance suggests that service innovation can also have detrimental consequences for engagement. Nevertheless, service providers can help their customers better deal with the introduction of innovation by encouraging the use of coping strategies. Bringing my two recommendations together, one of the most interesting opportunities to dynamically study engagement is to empirically determine when disengagement kicks-in and how to counter it. On a more philosophical note, does a consumer ever actually disengage?
Exciting times for studying engagement lay ahead of us. In the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Let’s see what’s out there. Engage!”
Postdoctoral Researcher | Digital Service Innovation
Maastricht University Maastricht University
The Economist Intelligence Unit [EIU] 2015. The rise of the marketer: driving engagement, experience and revenue. Available at http://futureofmarketing.eiu.com/briefing/EIU_MARKETO_Marketer_WEB.pdf