By Tom Collinger published March 20, 2016

Don’t Follow a Funnel, Create Content for an Engine [Research]

 Don't -Follow-Funnel-Content-engineSince 1902, marketers have relied on the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) Model developed by Elias St. Elmo Lewis to understand how consumers learn about and take actions related to brands.

The growing influence of the consumer’s voice in an always-on digital environment, however, has made obsolete many of the AIDA Model assumptions that underlie the funnel-based view of how consumers and brands engage with each other. The antiquated assumptions include:

  • Engagement is a linear process with a distinct beginning and end.
  • Communications are initiated and controlled by the brand.
  • The only communications that influence the purchase are between the consumer and the brand.

If consumer engagement can no longer be explained by a brand-managed funnel, what construct accurately depicts the way that engagement occurs? And what types of engagement have the biggest impact on customer lifetime value? My colleagues and I at Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center set out to answer those questions, and what we found has powerful implications for content marketers.

Watch as Tom discusses the findings of the research that led to the development of the Consumer Engagement Engine:

Introducing the Consumer Engagement Engine

Our research showed us that engagement in today’s digital communications ecosystem works not like a funnel but like an engine where brands and consumers are synergistically interacting with each other in new ways that can have a powerful impact on customer value.


While the Consumer Engagement Engine differs from the traditional funnel in many ways, these five characteristics are particularly important to content marketers looking to engage with consumers in relevant and valuable ways:

1. The engine is elegant

It’s made of five interlocking components: Brand actions, customer motivations, purchase behaviors, brand consumption, and brand dialogue behaviors. Consumers are constantly being influenced by messages from friends, social networks, strangers, the media, and intermediaries – messages that are sent and delivered across numerous platforms and devices.

2. There is no on/off switch

Unlike the funnel, which represents engagement as a linear process with a beginning and an end, the engine reflects the always-on state of engagement. Unlike the funnel’s “end,” often the purchase is the catalyst for the start of new and enhanced levels of engagement. The engagement engine is in perpetual motion.

3. Brand actions are just one of the cogs

The brand no longer controls when and how consumer engagement occurs. Today, customers or other actors are just as likely as marketers to initiate brand-related communication. Brands are moving from being broadcasters to being listener-responders.

4. Users of the brand are vital

Buyers’ brand consumption experiences – good or bad – are fuel for sharing. The good ones positively power the engine.

5. Brand dialogue behavior is the biggest cog

Our research found that non-purchase behaviors – brand dialogue behaviors (BDB) – have the greatest impact on future engagement. We uncovered powerful insights about how BDBs are driving customer lifetime value. Now, we examine BDBs and their role in driving value.

Understanding and ranking brand dialogue behaviors

Our research found that the types of engagement that frequently had the greatest impact on consumers were brand dialogue behaviors, which can involve consumers, other purchasers, non-purchasers, and the brand itself.

The research also found that these BDBs currently lack a categorization, taxonomy, or ranking according to the value they create for the brand. Content marketers need to better understand the opportunity presented by BDBs, as well as the brand’s role in BDBs – a role that involves enhancing the customer experience and/or listening and responding to the engagements.

BDBs can be categorized into three distinct types, all of which have an increasing degree of interactivity and value for the brand:

  • Observation – “Lean-back” behavior where the consumer takes a passive role, such as reading a tweet or looking at a retargeting ad
  • Participation – Behavior where the consumer takes an active role in engaging with the content, such as retweeting or looking up a consumer review of a product
  • Co-creation – Behavior where the consumer creates original content that is relevant to the brand, such as participating in a contest to create a new flavor of potato chips, writing a blog post, or voting in a reality TV show

Our research found that as consumers engage more actively and in ways that involve relevant interaction with the brand, there is a strong correlation to increasing levels of customer lifetime value.


Revving the engine

Here are five things that you can do to engage with customers in ways that drive customer lifetime value in today’s digital ecosystem:

  1. Adopt the engine – Use the engine framework to better engage and drive value for your brand.
  1. Map your engagement – Identify where your engagement efforts lie on the brand dialogue behavior hierarchy.
  1. Invest in your customers – Invest heavily in customer experiences and help this audience become your advertisers.
  1. Drive relevant engagement only – Stimulate only the types of engagement that create a relevant connection to the brand.
  1. Listen and respond – Use social media to be a responder, not just a broadcaster.

As content marketers continue to adapt to the opportunities and challenges presented by today’s rapidly evolving communications landscape, we believe the Consumer Engagement Engine will be a valuable tool for helping marketers engage with existing customers, prospects, intermediaries, and other actors in ways that create value for the brand.

Stay updated on the latest research and insight from academic and industry experts. Subscribe to the daily or weekly CMI blog.

Cover by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via

Author: Tom Collinger

Tom Collinger is the executive director of the Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. Follow him on Twitter at @tchere.

Other posts by Tom Collinger

  • Aura Academy

    Got Good Idea About How To Improve Content In Our Website Which Helps Us To Engage More With Customers

  • Mark Burgess

    Tom, thanks for a good read on this topic. The consumer decision journey initiated by McKinsey in 2009 led to an updated model that seeks to accelerate the consumer buying process. The key today is the content strategy used by the brand to make this process all work. Content becomes the fuel to engage and ultimately impact the sale.

    • tchere

      Appreciate the feedback, sir! Yes, McKinsey added the Loyalty Loop, though we think the engine reflects a much more “always on” framework to explain the dynamic. . .

  • Steven Davis

    I’m dubious. Ultimately, my goal is a purchase or , even better, a long stream of purchases. If you extend your engine post purchase, I’ll buy it. I’m not necessarily going to believe in the power of social media as an unvarnished good or good use of my finite resources.

    • tchere

      Thanks for this. The engine is in constant motion, before, during and after purchases. In fact, it’s those who buy that are now driving the engine at increasing levels from their post-purchase sharing, voting, reviewing, and in some cases, co creating.

      • Steven Davis

        Your article doesn’t say this note does it give hard support.

        Does engagement really matter? I thought there was a recent study on GoPro showing that they had great engagement…. And no sales.

  • Claudio Marcus

    Where is the data-driven evidence of marketing effectiveness? To what extent do consumers engage with branded content? What percentage of consumers become customers? Is content reach large enough to attract new buyers? Is content recency broad and timely enough for repeat business? What percentage of buyers are willing to co-create content (data shows few are even willing to write a single tweet)?

    • Steven Davis

      Great comment, Claudio.

      The big question may be whether Engagement is a valid form of social proof or not.

      In guessing not in most cases.

  • Cam Balzer

    Love the engine analogy. Engines need fuel. In my experience with community driven brands like Threadless, the “fuel” is the interaction between passionate fans of the brand… or better yet, passionate fans of the thing that the brand is about. Brands that can harness that fuel with a “social reactor” create an endless stream of content and engagement that power the marketing engine… just like a nuclear reactor’s steam run the turbines that create the electricity.

    Love what the Spiegel Center is doing, Tom!

  • Dnevue

    This is a great article and it shows how much has changed in a relatively short amount of time for marketers. Revving the engine is a great analogy that will be long lived. Thank you for the great article.

  • Datascribe Digital Marketing

    In Digital marketing today’s one of the trend in 2016 is content. The engine had moved long way leaving funnel aside is a great analogy. As mentioned, before planning content need to observe the niche, understand the market and participate. Content is the bridge for communication between the consumer and brand, hence content need to be given more weight age.