Rules of engagement

Rules of engagement

For marketers, customers are the focal point of any business. As such, learning how to communicate effectively with them is essential to stay competitive.

According to Rob Hardy, a marketing communications consultant and CIM course tutor at Cambridge Marketing College, it’s all about when, where and how. In his view, the guiding principle should be to communicate with prospective customers in the context in which they’re most likely to be receptive to the proposition – and respond to your call to action. Moreover, communication should be made using media the target audience is most likely to be using.

“Communication is most effective when it reaches customers in the right place, when they’re in the right frame of mind,” says Hardy. That could be online for someone at work, a poster at a station for a commuter travelling to the office, or a lifestyle magazine for a customer taking some downtime. “Ideally, they will be in an open-minded ‘information-acquiring’ mindset, as opposed to being narrowly task-focused,” Hardy says. “It could be when they’re actually experiencing the problem. Being made aware of the issue can compel customers to do something about it; this is why summer holidays are often advertised in the depths of winter.”

Of course, each potential customer will only be ready to buy when they feel like it, “so marketers need to create as many opportunities as possible to communicate with their target audience – increasing the likelihood that one of these messages will be received at the point at which the prospect is ready to buy.”
Hardy recommends building up a series of key ‘trigger dates’ that can initiate proactive – and relevant – communications with customers. These could include birthdays, anniversaries, or calendar-based events (such as national holidays). “It’s even better if you reward them with unexpected bonuses at these points,” he adds.

Grab the customer’s attention

The multichannel environment has created fresh challenges and opportunities for marketers as customers switch rapidly between digital channels in search of compelling content. But this has, to an extent, put more emphasis on some traditional marketing communication principles. With limited time to grab the customer’s attention, “you must make sure you quickly serve your prospect with a very interesting opening, swiftly followed by relevant and convincing content,” Hardy advises.

Moreover, complementary messages across related media can help cement the message in the minds of the prospective customer as they move between related sources of content.

However, marketers must be aware that consumer trust in organisations and brands has dwindled in recent years. In this climate, says Hardy, external brand advocates have become increasingly important: “Brands are working hard to generate the support of key influencers such as bloggers, celebrities and experts, who are able to spread the brand message through their own trusted comms channels. This augments the brand communications by tapping into sources of external validation.”

React to customers

At the same time, the area that has had to adapt most of all to the multichannel environment is ‘reactive’ communication, which often requires a more immediate and responsive dialogue with consumers.

“With the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, as well as blogs, forums and so on, customers are able to voice their concerns, complaints or praise. It’s crucial that the brand is seen to respond to this,” Hardy says. This must not only be in a timely manner, but also in a pragmatic and empathetic way. “This can involve proposing solutions to problems or, if the customer is praising the brand, looking at other options – such as encouraging customers to tell others about their experiences, or asking whether they want to consider complementary products or services.”

Demonstrate your authenticity

The erosion of trust in traditional big-brand advertising has had an impact not only on brands striving to build their reputations, but also on the nature of the conversation with consumers. “The task now is to convince customers that their whole 'reason to be' is to satisfy the customer’s unfulfilled needs. And to do this, of course, they need to show that their relationship with the customer is based on listening first to really understand what the customer is about and what they want from the brand.”

That requires an open mindset and a dialogue that establishes a sense of empathy with the customer and their needs – so the customer feels the brand instinctively “gets where they are coming from”.

A sense of authenticity is an important factor in building trust and engagement. “Whenever you can, you need to relate your messaging back to your brand’s founding values – and demonstrate how you still live by them, day-in, day-out,” Hardy says. “The reality customers experience has got to be consistent with these values.”

Develop a tone of voice

While a multichannel environment can be challenging, tone of voice continues to play a vital role in successful customer engagement.

Hardy explains: “Your tone of voice is crucial, in that your audience uses it to gauge how genuine, amenable and approachable you are. It starts to answer their implicit questions, such as, ‘is this my kind of brand; are these people I want to be involved with?'”

Hardy advises that a good rule of thumb is to adopt a friendly, approachable tone of voice. Obviously, this has to be scaled up or down depending on whether the customer is looking for you to offer reassurance and stability – for example banks or insurance providers – or the excitement of a cutting-edge ‘challenger’ brand for those 'in the know'.

“Whichever level you pitch it at, the tone of voice must feel genuine and appropriate for your particular target audience. Customers are very sophisticated; if they get the sense you’re disingenuously playing to a certain audience to capture them, they’ll spot it straight away.”

Five key rules of engagement for marketers:

  1. Proactive communications: address the customer in the specific contexts (time and place) where they are most likely to be in the right mindset to absorb your message and act on it.
  2. Reactive communications: reply in a timely, pragmatic way. Be seen to take ownership, solve issues quickly and think hard about how you can surpass their expectations.
  3. Be relevant: your message must be firmly focused on the needs and wants of your specific target audience.
  4. Be more interesting than the activity they are currently engaged in: can you convey your message in a surprising or unusual way that will capture the attention of your target audience?
  5. Be authentic: convey why your brand does what it does. Let your prospective customer know what drives you to want to serve them better. Is it reasonable and believable?


Rob Hardy is a marketing communications consultant and CIM course tutor. Find more on this topic in his recent book, Successful marketing communications.

Find out more about CIM’s training course on how to write an integrated marketing communications plan.  

Phil Lattimore Journalist and Editor
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