The future of business: Six layers of customer engagement


six layers of customer engagementOver the past few years I have been giving a speech about the “six layers” of customer engagement. It has been a hit with my audiences and it occurred to me that I have never shared this idea with you. So, let’s change that.

We are in the process of creating increasingly complex layers of digital distance between our companies and our customers. Mastering these six layers represent both enormous challenges and opportunities …

In the beginning

Historically, we dealt with customers face-to-face, with a trusted word and a firm handshake. Then in the late 1990s, with the creation of our first company websites, we took a one way ticket AWAY from these personal relationships and created the first, permanent digital divide between ourselves and our customers.

Year by year, this divide grew as companies found ways to cut costs and create customer delight by moving more and more self-service options to the web. We literally raced away from our personal relationships.

The second digital layer emerged just a few years ago as nerdy chat rooms bloomed into social networks. For many people, this became the preferred way to communicate, discover products and services, and connect with customer service. Time on websites went down, time on social sites exploded.

So for a business, we must now figure out how to connect with people in this new information eco-system and compel them to love us so much that they want to investigate our website, which is where the business takes place. After all this “socializing” we still need to get people to buy something right?

The third layer

The third layer is a social layer around all the other social platforms, and that is Facebook. You see, for many people today Facebook IS the Internet.

Yes, people love Flickr, but Facebook is the number one photo site in the world. We love YouTube, but millions of hours of YouTube videos are watched every day THROUGH Facebook. Does it seem like there is yet another layer going on here?  There is. Even if we do a great job populating the social web with our content, that content is increasingly viewed through Facebook. So, our businesses need to be there.

But we’re just getting started.

The mobile layer

Today, more than half of Facebook’s users access the site over a mobile device … and that is increasing month by month. So even if we have a great website, even if we are populating the social web and optimizing for Facebook, we now need to do it in a way that works on a screen that fits in the palm of your hand.

Mobile represents the fourth layer between our customers and the money we would like to liberate from their wallets.

All of this is probably familiar to you and hopefully your business is already implementing a web design that is responsive for mobile. If your head is spinning about the rate of change so far, you’re in for an even greater shock. We are on the cusp of the most rapid and disruptive technological change in history – augmented reality. There will be a digital layer over the “real world” and the Internet will surround us like the air that we breathe.

Now everything changes

augmented reality customer serviceThe Google Glass project is just the first volley in a revolution that will change the way we connect, learn, shop, communicate, and entertain ourselves. In fact, it will touch almost everything in our daily lives.  It is not the new Internet. It will be something far more important and foundational — it will be more like the new electricity. The widespread adoption of augmented reality, first in glasses and then in contact lenses, will transform every way we connect and communicate. Your business will need to master this layer and all of its implications.

The virtual layer will liberate us from devices and open up dazzling new opportunities to create new businesses, new applications, new customer connections.

Now that we have a ubiquitous digital layer across the world, what do we do with it? Why, we have fun of course …

The sixth layer of engagement

People love to play games more than anything. The average World of Warcraft player spends six hours at the game. Six hours. Wow. What if a business could tap into just a little of that!

Smart businesses are trying to figure out how to do exactly that. There is a whole theory of game science that creates these addictions and it can certainly be applied to marketing.

Social, mobile, location, augmented reality … it all enables the game layer. Why not turn your customer engagements into a game with levels, achievements, and rewards? Today, the popular mantra is to create “utility.” But I think there is a limited amount of engagement a company can provide through some useful electronic connection. But there is no limit to the amount of fun that can be provided. We are a few years away from an economy based on fun.

data mining


If you think this through, and I hope you do, there are some important implications beyond the six layers:

1) Customers are going to leave a data trail on every level. The companies that can mine this stream will create powerful competitive advantage. That’s why, increasingly, marketing = math.

2) Not every customer will engage with you on every layer. That means your channel strategies are going to multiply.

3) With the premium on fun and entertainment, this means good news and rising rates for the best content creators and game developers.

4) Bring plenty of money. I don’t think creating an augmented reality customer service department is going to be cheap.

5) For the companies that move first in these spaces there will be an unparalleled opportunity to create customer connection and loyalty.

Whew. Is your head ready to explode?

I would sincerely love your thoughts on this concept. What makes sense? What did I miss?

(Warning: shameless self-promotion ahead) If these ideas tantalize you, why not hire me to give you the full meal deal through a speech at your next company or industry conference? We’ll have a lot of fun with these ideas.

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  • Thanks for sharing Mark.

    I am hugely excited regarding augmented reality. The possibilities are endless and for marketers, the creative possibilities are equally as vast.

    It does bother me just how much Facebook appears to dominate the market however this is due to its users and clever marketing so you’ve got to give them credit for that.

  • You are so right Mark this is just the beginning! Enjoyed the article very much. Delighted I was able to listen to your full speech on 6 layers..@ ibm conference. Thx again

  • Thanks Maria. You got a preview of the post, didn’t you? : )

  • Agree on both counts Barry!

  • Yes! -)

  • @SaysJoeSchum

    Great walk-through of your engagement graphic. We are already seeing “gamification” in the event management arena. People attending trade shows and conferences encouraged to “play along”. This increases their focus and participation while helping event planners and marketers gather critical data and extend their brand or specific event message goals out to attendees. It just makes sense that the entire market be engaged this way.

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  • I am torn by all of this. Professionally I appreciate all of the data that we are going to gain access to but I am very concerned about privacy issues.

  • outstanding example Joe. Thanks for adding this to the conversation!

  • And you should be. Agree 100%

  • Mark, I videotaped this presentation (which by the way was very good) when you gave it an Social Media Club Chattanooga. When I get to editing it I’ll send you a link. Your talk certainly got a lot of people talking afterwards.

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  • That would be great Jon!

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  • Comprehensive list. If anyone’s head didn’t spin yet, let me offer something that may just induce vertigo.

    The Internet, which is the medium for the engagement you mention, is set to grow, A LOT, in the coming years. While estimates vary, there will be at least a doubling of Internet users in the next five years. The rise has to do with the growth of mobile internet users, which is set to overtake desktop internet users sometimes this decade. This means there will be more users, more websites, more brands online, more data, more interactions and more of everything basically.

    With more people on the Internet, more sites will undoubtedly rise. Niche social networking sites will offer unique opportunities for brands to engage and interact. If companies are having a hard time figuring out Twitter and Facebook today, they will probably be out of business in 5 years if they do not adapt.

    Finally, and this one is the doozy, the Internet will expand beyond computers. Most electronic gadget will have some sort of connectivity (for your convenience of course). So you are no longer limited to just interacting with brands, you’ll be interacting with their products (laundry machines, coffee machines, treadmills, etc).

    Companies will not only have information about when you purchase their products, i.e. engagement with the brand, but they will know when you use their products, how long, and in what way. Needless to say, data mining will be huge.

    This is a very exciting time (for better or for worse). All we can do is keeping learning and adapting. (As an aside, I find it interesting that ultimately, we are adapting to ourselves and our own behaviors, since we are both the consumer and the brand).

    P.S. Started reading Born to Blog, and I will say that it’s definitely one of the better books I’ve read in the last 12 months. Obviously I am aware that you’re a great writer and thus the bar was already set high for you (that’s what you get for having such an amazingly consistent – and consistently amazing – blog). However, the book just blew me away. It’s inspiring, informative, and interesting. Like it makes me want to do amazing things. You and Standford really did an amazing job. I’ll write you guys a review on Amazon once I’m finished with the book

  • You are an amazing young man. Always love your insights! And thanks for the very kind words on the book.

  • Rebecca

    Great thoughts here – these layers are complex and it’s difficult to cut through them all and get through to customers and build relationships in the process. I remember one of the hot topics at SXSW Interactive 2011 was gamification, which began with social tools like Foursquare that rewards frequent customers with badges and “awards”. I’ll be interested to see if this layer comes back as you predict and becomes the engagement magnet.

  • Thank you for the concept and the 6 layer structure that shows customer engagement is growing beyond social (that most people talk about today) to mobile, augmented reality, and games.

    Your observation that there’s only a limited amount of utility a company can provide in engaging the user, while there’s no limit to fun is quite insightful. Most people don’t want to ‘engage’ with most companies, unless it appeals to their self-image (motivation for social). Fun will create more engagement, though it’s still hard, since users have many other options for games.

    Lot of food for thought!

  • Thanks very much Alex!

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  • With all the talk about social, mobile, and Big Data, there is one things that cuts across all of them — search. Every interaction we have via social creates contextual links between data and people, every mobile interaction creates and consumes data, and Big Data conversations are just getting underway around what to do with all of this information. Search is the key to all of this.

    I chuckled a few years back when Google had their advertising campaign about “It’s all about Search,” and yet they were right.

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  • Very true re: augmented reality and the omnipresence of the internet.

  • Yes, I took the same thing away from SXSW that year. Still a ways off I think?

  • This is an extremely interesting topic Christian. I could make an argument that search is going to be increasingly irrelevant. Too much data, too much crap, too many games played to sway true organic helpfulness. Instead, perhaps the future is in “provision” — knowing so much about you that you are automatically provided the information you need, in the context of time, place, and space, when you need it. Without asking for it. An interesting idea?

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  • But Mark, that’s just semantics — it will take powerful search to enable that kind of contextual result. Search will play an increasingly important role as the volume of content increases. In my mind, there is never too much data — just poor filters, taxonomy, and search queries. As we improve the quality of our business intelligence tools (i.e. search) we will unlock the kind of decision support automation you describe.

  • Kevin Espinosa

    Mark I agree with you. The magic comes in when you can understand the customer’s digital footprint to better understand which one of these layers you need to meet them at…granted some of them will even stay on face to face. Based on their behaviors we will know where to market to them and how.

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  • Jeff Domansky PR

    Mark, I’m very late to this conversation and cocktail party. But I did want to offer another angle. That is the accelerating trend towards a single layer for customer service get online. That is moving entire “customer service” functions to social channels like Twitter and Facebook. Fraught with potential problems, challenges and filled with upside opportunities for those who get it right. Belated thanks for this thoughtful post and model.

  • Wait, where are the cocktails? I’m always the last to know anything around here!

    This is a very smart point Jeff. I like that a lot. Thanks very much for adding your wisdom to the conversation.

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  • This makes perfect sense as the natural evolution of technology is bringing us closer and closer to a game like environment within our every day lives.

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