Posted by: Nancy | October 25, 2015

The Engagement Dilemma

Everywhere I turn, there seems to be an industry crisis in connecting, truly connecting, with a desired audience.

The buzzword for this is “engagement.”

As in: civic engagement, donor engagement, board engagement, patient engagement, client engagement, reader engagement, employee engagement, stakeholder engagement … you get the idea. natura di autunno

The prevailing best practices on engagement issues typically call for a task force between IT and marketing to figure out a way to hook the preferred audience digitally, via smart device or laptop. There are weighty discussions about the merits of text, video, email, calendar alerts and sensing devices. There are promises of always-on connections, giving ubiquitous access to everyone and everything else with just-in-time info.

But I can’t help wonder if we’re going about this engagement crisis the right way.

Perhaps it takes a human touch first. Someone who will take time to listen to the desired audience. Someone who will capture attention with an irresistible story that’s meaningful to the individuals who make up the audience.

I was in a busy physicians’ office this week. There was a line at the reception desk, staffers were processing each person and diligently following a new script: Would you like to sign up for our new portal? 

One older woman didn’t understand the question. “What does that mean?” she asked. The receptionist tried again: Do you have a computer? You can connect with us online. 

“Oh, no I don’t have a computer — what would I do with a computer,” the woman said, shaking her head at the idea. Then, brightening, she added:  “Now my daughter, she has a computer and you should see the things she knows how…”

The receptionist interrupted her with the next question: Have you been to West Africa recently? The woman looked at her utterly confused.

Engagement? A man and woman are holding hands and comforting each other in a park

She may not have been eligible to “engage” online, but she certainly was willing to engage on a human level. She was ready to tell a little story about her amazing daughter who uses a computer. It clearly made her happy to think of her daughter. I wondered if she might have asked if she could use this “portal” with her daughter.

We don’t know.

I’m pretty certain she will be logged in a database somewhere with a negative score on engagement. The physicians’ office and the hospital administrators will look sourly on that and try to figure out why they can’t reach this patient.

What’s missing?

Engagement, like communication, is a two-way street. Success requires a transmitter and a receiver, as well as a compelling connection between the two. And it takes time, a commitment on both sides.

How can we ever expect to solve the engagement crisis (let alone the next crisis— empowerment) without listening to each other? Caring for each other? Taking time for each other?

Now, I’m no Luddite. I’m an amateur futurist, a fan of technology and a student of how it intersects with humanity. I believe big changes are near and I want to make sense of them now. I play in Big Data, and I love being able to make meaningful decisions with information never-before available. And I can’t wait for the Internet of Things (believing we can overcome the privacy and security issues). The idea of having everything interconnected, accessible is fantastic because it will prompt new knowledge.

We’ll develop new ways to analyze and process all this this information; we’ll need new ways as humans to absorb the data. (See the umwelt story.) I imagine that “data empathy” will become a desired skill; we’ll study how some people just “know” things from looking at data.

But to build true engagement, let’s keep a priority on the old-fashioned, ordinary kind of empathy — caring for other people, understanding their feelings and state of being. Let’s use that to build connections between people first, and then let the high tech interfaces supplement the human ones.

Successful engagement has to start with a one-to-one connection that has meaning and value to both parties. Then add the technology — sensors, social media, texting, alerts, alarms, natural language processing, telepresence and all the rest of it. An ongoing engagement has to bring value to each of the engaged individuals, and that human connection might end up being the most valuable bit in the equation.

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