Redefining Customer Engagement: Ogilvy Marketing Executive Rohit Bhargava on Why Modern Marketing Tactics Mostly Come Up Short

Josh Z by

Ask most marketers and they’ll tell you that modern marketing tactics like social media, corporate blogging, and brand journalism are allowing B2B companies to create more meaningful relationships with their buyers and drive much stronger customer engagement.

Ask Rohit Bhargava, senior vice president of global strategy and planning at esteemed marketing firm Ogilvy, and he’ll tell you that those techniques — while effective in the right context — are mostly failing to accomplish either of those goals. The culprit, Bhargava says, is the business world’s general propensity to focus only on short-term gains and immediate sales opportunities, rather than creating the kinds of genuine customer relationships that fuel long-term customer value.

Bhargava, a Georgetown University professor and bestselling author, recently sat down with OpenView to discuss his definition of customer engagement, why he thinks marketers need to change their traditional view of it before they can effectively create it, and what his new book, Likeonomics, can teach companies about being more believable and, yes, likable.

A lot of marketers say they’re interested in driving customer engagement, but few seem to understand what achieving it actually involves. How do you define customer engagement and how is it best achieved?

First of all, I think we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that modern marketing has mostly failed to create real customer engagement. Yes, social media and content marketing can effectively create customer engagement, but only if those tactics are driven by the right context and goals.

I believe that customer engagement is less about getting a buyer to comment on your Facebook page or share your most recent blog post, and more about getting a customer to care about your company in a way that goes beyond being happy with the last thing they bought from you. More often than not, a customer’s initial purchase occurs because they possessed a specific need for your product. Achieving that kind of sale is so much about being in the right place at the right time, and much less about your marketing messaging or engagement strategy.

Customer engagement really comes in to play after that point. It’s about creating long-term value that encourages customers to continue interacting with your brand in ways that matter to them, not you. You can’t be selfish and you have to think well beyond the next quarter or year. It’s all about creating meaningful value that encourages them to continue to build a relationship with your brand.

Is social media the best medium for creating that engagement?

It can be, but social networks like Facebook might also be the absolute last thing a marketer should use to foster customer engagement. One of the cliché assumptions of social media is that it’s an optimal engagement channel because it stimulates a two-way conversation. That’s all well and good, except when customers don’t really want to have a conversation. They just want you to answer their question, or tell them which number to call for customer service.

The collective assumption seems to be that engagement is driven by conversation. In reality, customer engagement is spawned from you giving your customers exactly what they want, when they want it. In some cases, that’s a simple answer, which you can provide through numerous channels that aren’t under the social umbrella.

What advice would you give to marketers trying to create stronger customer engagement? 

I think marketers need to customize their engagement practices around their customers’ needs. If your customers are active on social channels and they prefer to connect and converse with you there, then by all means leverage Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. If they prefer much more subtle interaction or are looking for specific advice to resolve an issue, then structure your engagement tactics around those preferences.

I also think marketers need to focus on creating content that is much more substantial. For example, I was shopping around for a grill last year and, because I didn’t know much about grills, I decided to Google tips for buying a new gas grill. I found a PDF from Weber, a top grill manufacturer, that walked me through the various options on new grills, explained the purpose of each feature, and provided a checklist of the things I should be shopping for based on the options that were most important to me.

I ended up buying one of Weber’s grills and the company continued to interact with me from there. Weber encouraged me to check out its community of master grillers for grilling tips and recipes, and download its “On the Grill” App, which features hundreds of simple recipes, a grocery list builder, a grill timer, and instructional videos from celebrity chefs. The company clearly understood that making the initial sale was just one step in the customer engagement process. By providing substantial, relevant, and easily accessible content, Weber is creating long-term value and converting me into a much more committed, engaged customer.

What prompted you to write your most recent book, Likeonomics?

I’ve always been interested in consumer psychology and the various influences on customers’ purchasing decisions. Not surprisingly, likeability is very often a determining factor for which company a customer will choose to do business with.

In the book, I try to define likeability as something more than being a nice person or a nice business. Ultimately, neither of those things are guarantors of success. Likeability is really about building deeper, more trusted relationships that power everything from who we believe to what we buy. For marketers interested in creating more genuine customer engagement, I think it provides a roadmap to becoming more believable.


Rohit Bhargava is a founding member of the world’s largest team of social media strategists at Ogilvy and Professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University. His two books — Personality Not Included and Likeonomics — have been named Amazon bestsellers. He has been invited to speak at multiple TEDx events, as a keynote speaker at the World Communications Forum in Davos, and by hundreds of audiences around the world.