ROI: Return on Involvement

by Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.

Imagine this conversation between two shoppers at a car dealership:

Consumer #1: “I want the one I read about in the latest issue of Car and Driver magazine: It has a six-cylinder turbo engine, a double-clutch transmission, a 90 strokebore, and 10:1 compression ratio.”

Consumer #2: “I want a red one.”

Obviously, these two people differ quite a bit in terms of their level of involvement with the product. This concept describes the perceived relevance of the object based upon a consumer’s needs, values and interests. When talking about customer engagement, there is no more important factor one needs to consider. It’s so important that I believe we need to add a new kind of ROI when we look at marketing campaigns: I call this “Return on Involvement.” 

Here’s the irony: No matter what they sell, managers obsess about it. Thus, they find it hard to accept that customers don’t give a hoot. But the reality is that many (probably most) products and services fall into the low-involvement category. 

Sure, a few select brands like Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola approach the status of cult worship. What about everyone else? Actually, it’s pretty easy to sell a cult product that pretty much sells itself — but much more of a creative challenge to sell other things. This is where the “pedal hits the metal” in terms of identifying marketers who can really strut their stuff. 

Of the many ways to increase involvement, here are a few:

Mass customization: This describes the personalization of products and services for individual customers at a mass-production price. This strategy applies to a wide range of products and services, from newspaper websites that allow readers to choose which sections of the paper they want to see, to Dell computers that buyers can configure, to Levi’s blue jeans that have a right leg one inch shorter than a left leg to fit an asymmetrical body (this is more common than you think). 

DIY (Do It Yourself): When we have the opportunity to personalize a product, our involvement increases because the item reflects our unique preferences. The DIY market is projected to reach almost $14 billion in just a few years. One reason for the boom: When we build the product ourselves, the value we attach to it increases because our own labor is involved. Researchers term this the IKEA Effect.

Co-creation strategies: This goes a step further, because the company works jointly with customers to create value. This approach is catching on in B2B environments, where organizations partner with their biggest clients to envision new solutions to their problems. For example, Anheuser-Busch invited input from 25,000 beer drinkers when it developed a new lager called Black Crown.

Gamification: This is a red-hot marketing strategy today; it refers to the application of gaming principles to non-gaming contexts. When companies make buying or using a product or service “fun” or turn it into a competition, customers will immerse themselves in the game. When the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) wanted to promote financial literacy, the government agency created its Money Smart program. It’s designed to look like a board game similar to Monopoly, and it challenges players to learn financial skills such as setting up a bank account, paying bills on time and avoiding identity theft. The game attracted more than 40,000 users in a year.

But for those still mired at the low end of the involvement continuum, there is another path to success. I call this the “paradox of low involvement.” When we don’t care as much about a product, the way it’s presented (e.g., who endorses it or the visuals that go with it) increases in importance. 

We don’t want to see, hear or read about all the dry and boring reasons why one brand of kitty litter or shoe polish is so much better than the other guy’s. But we will respond to “peripheral cues” that give us a shortcut to determine whether a brand is worth a look. These cues include an attention-grabbing package, a popular endorser or, perhaps, a riveting in-store display. 

Many a marketer has wrestled with the age-old question, “Do I sell the steak or the sizzle?” Here’s a simple answer: Those who are lucky enough to market a high involvement product or service should push the steak. Others can add some sizzle by finding ways to engage the shopper — and will need to keep selling that sizzle as hard as they can. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about ROI (Return on Involvement).   

Michael Solomon “wrote the book” on understanding consumers. Literally. Hundreds of thousands of business students have learned about marketing from his books that include Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being — the most widely used book on the subject in the world.

As a professor of marketing (in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia) and an industry consultant, Solomon combines cutting-edge academic theory with actionable real-world strategies. He helps managers get inside the heads of their customers so they can anticipate and satisfy their deepest and most pressing needs — today and tomorrow. An executive at Subaru said it best: “The man is a scholar who is current and street-wise.”

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