An Algorithm With No Rhythm

by David Heitman

How many times have you heard it said of a politician or a successful business leader that when she is talking to someone, that person feels like the only one in the room. The charismatic leader’s attention is riveted to an audience of one. Such people are also usually also known for remembering people’s names and personal details years after a first encounter. It’s a gift for which remarkable public figures have been noted for centuries.

Organizations that seek to reach an audience must develop that same sense of familiarity. This is harder than it sounds. Sure, this can be digitized—up to a point—as when Netflix or Amazon suggests a movie or book based on your earlier selections. But in reality, that’s just a heartless algorithm. While it might increase the odds of closing another sale, it  does nothing to move a person into intense loyalty or passionate brand advocacy. In fact, relying on technology to make such connections can lead to offensive juxtapositions, as when a tourism ad for a vacation spot recently appeared right next to a news story about that very location being attacked by terrorists—the result of an algorithm with no sense of rhythm.

Successful customer engagement is about tapping into people’s familiar patterns, not just asking them to adjust to your organization’s patterns. As I write this, I’m waiting for the Comcast guy to come by and fix our intermittent cable signal. No one at Comcast asked me what would be the most convenient time for me. I was instead asked which of their two-hour windows I wanted to use to take time off work to be available. I’m a Comcast user, but I don’t particularly trust them–and don’t expect me to advocate for them any time soon.

Tapping into people’s personal behavioral patterns requires creating a sense of location to which people return on a repeated basis. That place might be Facebook or a favorite blog in the digisphere, but in the real world, it involves an actual location. Some have dubbed such locations as the “third place”:  home, work and __________.

That could be Starbucks; it could be the athletic club you belong to: it could be a bar or hair salon. On a much higher plane, it could be one’s church, synagogue, mosque or AA meeting. While we enjoy periodic doses of novelty, we are wired to thrive on a fair bit of familiarity and ritual. The more rituals and familiar patterns we have in our lives, the less the stress of continued decision-making in an information-overloaded world.

Thus, you and your company can become a refuge of predictability and comfort. Let your audience find adventure in exploring other things, but as far as your product/service category is concerned, give them every reason to stay and no reason to leave. Any sense of novelty or adventure should come in the form of your continually introducing new, brand-reinforcing benefits.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson here is not to take customers/members/donors for granted. You’ve worked hard to land them as customers. If you continue to meet and exceed their expectations, you can expect to retain them and see them move to greater levels of loyalty and engagement. But take them for granted—or even just fail to evolve with their changing needs—and you can kiss their loyalty goodbye.

Sounds a little like dating and marriage, right? Well, the worst thing you can do in a marriage is take your spouse for granted. Same goes for customer engagement. Even though you’ve been selected to be your audience’s ______________ of choice, the best strategy is to give them new reason after new reason after new reason to stay on board. As 19th century novelist William M. Thackeray, reflecting on his own craft put it:

The two most engaging powers of a good author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

This is the mandate of any organization seeking to stay relevant with its audience.