NEW YORK: Brand owners like Volkswagen, MTV and American Express are all heightening their focus on engagement, but a lack of clarity about what this requires remains widespread.

Forbes, the business magazine, partnered with George P. Johnson, the agency, to survey 300 communications executives representing firms with annual revenues of at least $500m (€403m; £336m).

Overall, 97% of the panel agreed this issue was of vital importance, and 86% said it was the subject of an "ongoing conversation" with senior management.

"Targeted customer engagement in the US is more critical than ever," said Tim Ellis, vice president of marketing for Volkswagen US.

"Because we have developed a customer touchpoint map, we know better how the brand is interacting with customers across all departments, and this helps inform how we consistently deliver a seamless customer experience moving forward."

For 48% of consumer-facing companies in Forbes' poll, the goal of this exercise was to cut through the clutter, with 47% hoping to add incremental revenues through product extensions.

Other core objectives were opening up new segments, reducing price pressure and increasing resilience in the face of competition.

Elsewhere, 72% of the sample argued that repeat purchase was the best means of determining whether this kind of bond had been formed, while 69% emphasised advocacy.

Nearly half associated it with a willingness to pay a premium, 38% suggested shoppers would "resist" rival goods and 28% believed a loyal following should allow them to trim marketing budgets.

Providing a dependable brand experiences was regarded as being the most effective way of establishing such a relationship by 35% of contributors.

A further quarter argued that campaigns must be based on the preferences of their core audience if they are to have a long-lasting influence.

Experiential gatherings were perceived as being the best tool to drive engagement, mentioned by 48% respondents, with opt-in email and live event sponsorship on 36% and trade shows on 33%.

Web/podcasts delivered a total of 29%, falling to 28% for direct email and social networks, and around 25% for direct mail, virtual event sponsorship, and online fan communities.

"We want to be in the spaces and places where our viewers hang out - whether that's on Facebook, or at summer festivals," said Tina Exarhos, evp, marketing and multiplatform creative, MTV.

"We're not scared to experiment. We've committed ourselves to testing any and everything in the digital space, as it relates to customer engagement."

"While it might not be a direct pathway to ratings, we believe that staying top-of-mind with consumers is critical."

Traditional media was less popular, with print ads received a score of just 24%, broadcast spots on 22%, but it may still have a key role.

"With all of the buzz around social media, mobile marketing, user generated content, interactive innovative marketing tactics, there is something to be said for the basics,” said Ellis.

At present, only 59% of marketers were tracking engagement, and even though financial metrics like revenue per customer and repeat purchases were dominant, this may not be the correct method.

"This is not selling. We want to make sure our customers understand how the card they're carrying can give them more value," Beth Lacey, svp for customer experience at American Express, said.

"Our primary measure is what percentage of customers would recommend American Express to a friend."

"We've been able to translate increasingly positive answers to that question into increased use of the product." 

Data sourced from Forbes; additional content by Warc staff