The rapid pace of globalization, as well as the ever-changing needs of customers, the increasing competitive pressure, and the exponential speed of technological advancements, create a condition where businesses are struggling to gain competitive advantages. As both academicians and practitioners have recognized that customer engagement (CE) is an imperative facilitator for customer retention that further results in performance outcomes [1
], enterprises try to provide better customer experiences [3
] by increasingly deploying digital technologies (e.g., social media and e-commerce) [4
The potential of CE has led to increasing [5
] and persisting [6
] scholarly interest in recent years. Extant research has provided several contributions by defining CE (e.g., [7
]), proposing different CE dimensions (e.g., [9
]), and investigating CE antecedents and consequences (e.g., [1
]). Furthermore, extant research predominantly focuses on digital technologies [13
], which, according to Vivek et al. [14
], provide a range of ways that enterprises can use to interact with customers. Despite the aforementioned contributions, Alvarez-Milán et al. [13
] pointed out that the CE research has only recently acknowledged enterprise-initiated CE perspective. Moreover, Beckers et al. [6
] observed that the implications of enterprise-initiated CE on enterprise performance challenges practitioners and researchers to rethink what it means to proactively initiate and manage CE and provided several research directions. Recognizing the impotency of enterprises’ CE initiatives, this study refers to enterprise-initiated CE as “enterprises’ deliberate effort to guide customers’ voluntary contributions to its marketing functions, beyond a core, economic transaction” [15
] (p. 312).
Existing research on the enterprise-initiated perspective of CE is limited to date. The term enterprise-initiated CE was introduced by Beckers et al. [6
] in 2017 with the purpose of differentiating between customer-initiated and enterprise-initiated CE, which “occurs when firms adopt explicit strategies to stimulate CE” (p. 368). Similarly, Harmeling et al. [15
] differentiate between CE and CE marketing, where the focus is on enterprise-initiated CE. Moreover, Alvarez-Milán et al. [13
] propose a strategic CE marketing decision-making framework that enterprises are advised to follow. Even though researchers [6
] provide evidence in support of the enterprise-initiated CE on enterprise performance outcomes and shareholder value, they encourage further exploration into the impact of enterprise-initiated CE. One of the recent studies [16
] suggests that the impact of CE on the marketing performance that consists of operational performance (e.g., customer mind-set, customer behavior, and product-market performance) and enterprise performance (e.g., accounting and financial market performance) should be focused on. Additionally, Beckers et al. [6
] also suggest that potential drivers that encourage enterprises to start with enterprise-initiated CE initiatives should be investigated.
Although several studies investigated the field of CE, most of them focused on customer-initiated CE. Enterprise-initiated CE as a relatively new domain remains much less explored. It is still unclear how enterprises approach enterprise-initiated CE, what the drivers are that encourage these approaches, and how enterprise-initiated CE influences enterprise performance. Consequently, enterprises that need to design and implement effective enterprise-initiated CE have scarce insights on what they need to take into consideration and what benefits they can expect.
Taking into consideration the aforementioned research gaps, the present study has the following research objectives: (1) to investigate what drives an enterprise to start CE initiatives; (2) to determine whether enterprise-initiated CE initiatives improve marketing performance. To address these research objectives, this study takes the following steps: firstly, based on the marketing literature review, we build a conceptual model that consists of enterprise-initiated CE, drivers, and marketing performance outcome constructs. Secondly, we formulate the hypotheses and test them empirically by conducting an online questionnaire among Slovenian micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Our study provides two main contributions to the emerging stream of research on enterprise-initiated research. First, we investigated the marketing performance consequences of enterprise-initiated CE. While the existing research investigated the net effect of enterprise CE initiatives, revenue benefits, and cost-saving, this study considers other metrics, including customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, sales value, and marketing share. Second, we followed Beckers et al.’s [6
] suggestion and focused on providing insights into drivers that stimulate enterprise-initiated CE.
In the paper, we first develop a conceptual model of enterprise-initiated CE and formulate hypotheses based on the examined current relevant research. Then, we present data collection and data analysis procedures. After that, we discuss the results and contributions and suggest further research opportunities.
3. Conceptual Model and Hypotheses Development
Following the studies focusing on the enterprise perspective of CE (e.g., [30
]), we developed a conceptual model that consists of five constructs, as shown in Figure 1
. Enterprise-initiated CE initiatives are a construct that is presented in the center of the model. The constructs on the left side of the model present drivers, and the construct on the right side of the model presents marketing performance. The assumptions regarding the relationships between individual research model constructs and developed hypotheses are presented in the following paragraphs.
Our study is based on the theoretical foundations proposed by van Doorn et al. [8
]. As such, we considered all three groups of drivers proposed in their study. The customer-based group of drivers includes customer attitude, their consumption goals, resources, and perceived costs and benefits. As Doorn et al. [8
] discuss these drivers more from the customer rather than the enterprise perspective, we aimed to fill this gap and focused on the CE factors from the enterprise point of view. With the rise of SM, customers are interacting with each other and they expect to interact with the enterprise in the same manner [42
]. According to Kunz et al. [44
], CE will increase if enterprise engagement activities “meet or exceed the customer’s expectations” (p. 177). Chathoth et al. [45
] further pointed out that not only customer expectations, but also competitor actions need to be taken into consideration by the enterprise when trying to meet the customer’s expectations. Both customer pressure and competitor pressure can be perceived by enterprises as external pressure that motivates them to start CE initiatives. We therefore hypothesize:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
External pressure has a positive effect on enterprise-initiated CE.
The enterprise-based group of drivers includes brand characteristics, enterprise reputation, enterprise size/diversification, enterprise information usage and processes, and industry. As already pointed out by Wong and Merrilees [36
], brand orientation is an important determinant of brand engagement. Nevertheless, other enterprise-based determinants need to be considered. For instance, Gambetti and Graffigna [46
] identified two main drivers related to CE based on thematic analysis: engagement strategy and strong relationships between employees and customers. The likelihood to improve CE by creating an engagement strategy focused on customers was also acknowledged by other recent studies (e.g., [44
]). Employees can only engage with customers effectively if they understand CE goals and their responsibilities toward fulfilling these goals [1
]. Furthermore, enterprises need to provide the adequate resources and skills necessary to regularly assess customer engagement-based changes and trends and immediately respond if needed [15
]. We therefore hypothesize:
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
Organizational readiness has a positive effect on enterprise-initiated CE.
The context-based group of drivers is related to political/legal, economic/environmental, social, and technological aspects. It seems that emerging technologies, especially social media, have considerably changed the way enterprises interact with customers [47
] and have been identified as a critical component for enterprise competitiveness and survival [48
]. According to Kumar et al. [49
], social media, among others, play an important role in increasing customer insights and marketing communication. Furthermore, social media enable enterprises to generate a useful and enjoyable environment that encourages customers to engage with them [50
]. Moreover, while social media allows enterprises to reach a wide audience in a short time frame and hear what people say about a brand, several studies (e.g., [9
]) pointed out that CE initiatives are more effective. Finally, enterprises that exploit social media for CE can increase enterprise competitive advantages [12
]. We therefore hypothesize:
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
Social media have a positive effect on enterprise-initiated CE.
Our study also took into consideration Hollebeek et al.’s [16
] suggestion and focused on the marketing performance outcomes of enterprise-initiated CE. Several dimensions of marketing performance were considered in recent studies. For example, customer mind-set and customer behavior are customer-based performances, which have been taken into consideration in several recent studies exploring online CE (e.g., [54
]). Market share—as an item of product-marketing performance dimension—was widely used in empirical studies [41
] and also in studies investigating the impact of customer involvement on performance outcomes (e.g., [56
]). Similarly, studies that used product-marketing measures also measure the indicators related to profit and sales revenue that are related to the accounting performance dimension. To sum up, enterprise-initiated CE can improve customer-level, product-market, and accounting-related marketing performance indicators. Therefore, we hypothesize:
Hypothesis 4 (H4).
Enterprise-initiated CE has a positive effect on marketing performance.
This study aimed to expand our understanding of the enterprise-initiated CE drivers and investigate how enterprise-initiated CE impacts marketing performance.
Our findings extend the existing knowledge regarding enterprise-initiated CE drivers. The first driver is an external pressure and consists of customer pressure and competitive pressure. In this study, the results show that the link between external pressure and enterprise-initiated CE was significant. This finding is aligned with previous CE studies (e.g., [44
]), emphasizing the significance of customer expectations and competitor actions in CE. This means that customer requirements and behaviors, as well as evidence of how other competitors benefit from SM, use drive enterprise to initiate CE. First, as pointed out by Braojos-Gomez et al. [75
] and Florin et al. [76
], the customers can express their wants and needs and exert pressure on the enterprise to start using potential engagement tools that better support CE activities. Second, the competitive pressure can compel enterprises to engage with customers through different engagement tools [76
]. This enables them to align their engagement activities with the practices of other competitors and, thus, help enterprises to survive in the competitive marketplace. Overall, to satisfy customers’ needs and to be able to compete with other businesses, enterprises need to start with initiatives that motivate customers to engage with them.
The second driver that was found to have influence on enterprise-initiated CE in this study is organizational readiness. This finding is coherent with existing studies (e.g., [1
]) that imply the need for enterprises to be prepared for CE. To do so, managers in enterprises have to play an important role in driving enterprise-initiated CE [30
]. By their commitment to SM strategy and the encouragement of their employees to follow SM objectives [2
], enterprises can improve their CE processes. Furthermore, enterprises need to be able to quickly introduce new engagement tools into CE processes [30
] and have knowledgeable personnel to support the utilization of new engagement tools into CE processes [44
]. Thus, a combination of management support and technological readiness and skills drive enterprises to start engaging with their customers.
The third driver is SM use, for which we did not find evidence that significantly influences enterprise-initiated CE. This finding is inconsistent with earlier studies (e.g., [9
]) asserting the significance of SM in CE. It seems that enterprises still have a lack of understanding of how engagement tools can support them when engaging with their customers. According to Chathath et al. [45
], enterprises believe that they can achieve superior CE regardless of the use of engagement tools. Moreover, even though several studies have focused on online engagement tools (e.g., [9
]) Alvarez-Milán et al. [13
] pointed out that CE is also highly relevant in traditional (offline) environments. Namely, one of the informants in their study [13
] argued that focusing solely on SM when engaging with customers and forgetting about the traditional way of CE, which occurs, for example, in psychical stores, could negatively affect competitive advantages. Thus, our finding implies that enterprises still rely more on traditional methods when they initiate CE. Nevertheless, they should not forget to take into consideration emerging engagement tools (online tools such as SM) that were identified as a critical component for enterprise competitiveness and survival [48
Another result of this study indicates the positive effect of enterprise-initiated CE on marketing performance. This means that enterprise-initiated CE improves customer-level, product-market, and accounting performance outcomes. More specifically, the customers of the enterprises that initiate CE are more likely to speak positively about the brand and tend to be more pleased with the quality of service offered [79
]. Furthermore, enterprise-initiated CE contributes to market share [2
] and sales revenue growth [1
]. Overall, all these marketing performance outcomes seem to be the consequence of enterprise-initiated CE. Thus, this study is consistent with the existing enterprise-initiated CE studies [12
] and highlights the important role of enterprise-initiated CE in enhancing marketing performance.
6.1. Theoretical Contribution
This research contributes to the marketing literature in several ways. Firstly, we provide insights into the CE literature by focusing on the enterprise-initiated perspective of CE. When conceptualizing enterprise-initiated CE, the characteristics from several CE dimensions proposed by Kumar et al. [17
] were considered, including customer referrals, customer influence, and customer knowledge. Nevertheless, the results of scale and model testing suggest that enterprise-initiated CE is a single dimension construct. This finding is consistent with France et al. [30
], who pointed out that there may be only one real dimension of customer-brand engagement. Thus, even though the CE is a complex concept and several researchers (e.g., [7
]) have, since 2010, suggested different multi-dimensional engagement constructs, it still seems that some researchers (e.g., [8
]) consider CE as a single dimension construct.
Secondly, our study, as suggested by several recent studies [6
], took a different perspective and focused on drivers that motivate enterprises to initiate CE. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first that tried to take three groups of drivers proposed by Doorn et al. [8
] into consideration while focusing on the enterprise perspective of CE. External pressure and organizational readiness were empirically revealed to be drivers of enterprise-initiated CE. Unfortunately, SM use was not empirically supported by this study.
Thirdly, beyond the influence of enterprise-initiated drivers, this study addresses the emerging area of interest. According to a recent study [16
], little is known about the consequences of CE. Furthermore, even though the growing body of literature has focused on customer-based behavior and customer mindset, generalizable findings are still lacking [16
]. Thus, this study provides evidence that enterprise-initiated CE has a significant impact on marketing performance. Without CE that is initiated by enterprises, the level of marketing performance may be lower compared to those of competitors.
Overall, the enterprise-initiated customer-based model extends the understanding of the CE domain. The model builds on the existing studies on enterprise-initiated CE and provides additional insights for the drivers and outcomes of enterprise-initiated CE.
6.2. Managerial Contributions
The empirical results of the research provide evidence that enterprises are forced by customers and competitors to start their CE initiatives. The passive role of the enterprise in the CE could harm relationships with customers, which may result in customers’ shift to a negative mindset and word of mouth. Moreover, if the enterprise neglects the best CE practices of their competitors, the customers’ perception of the quality of their service or product could decrease in comparison to the competing offers. Therefore, the enterprise needs to be prepared to start with CE initiatives. This means that enterprises must have an appropriate strategy and managers who are committed to this strategy and can motivate their employees to actively engage with their customers. Furthermore, the enterprise needs to be able to quickly introduce new engagement tools into the CE practice if necessary. Thus, the enterprise should provide necessary information technology and encourage employees to increase their CE skills. Moreover, enterprises should not forget that engagement tools are sometimes the only way to reach their customers. For example, in the case of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, many businesses all over the world were also shut down to curb the spread of the coronavirus. However, it seems that they stayed connected with their customers by increasing their SM and online presence.
Furthermore, this study implies that enterprises need to motivate and empower customers beyond the core economic transactions to maintain long-term and sustainable relationships. As sustainability aspects are gaining more and more importance, enterprises may also gain recognition from their customers by communicating their sustainable goals and operations towards preserving the environment and increasing benefits not just for customers, but also for their employees and society. By doing so, the enterprises will not only have satisfied customers, but they can also expect positive word of mouth. The positive recommendations cultivate a positive brand perception, which can lead to market share and sales revenue growth.
Additionally, this study provides insights into how enterprises actively and intentionally stimulate CE in several ways. For example, enterprises stimulate organic CE by including brand ambassadors and opinion leaders in campaign activities and communicating success stories. Furthermore, some enterprises provide an online space where they can ensure a prompt response to customers’ concerns and complaints. Other enterprises provide an online space where customers connect, share their experience, and learn from each other. Moreover, they proactively ask their recent customers to write a review or testimonial or to refer their brand to others. Additionally, they leverage innovative insights by requesting customers’ individual opinions, tastes, or beliefs. Overall, enterprises strive to proactively stimulate their customers’ engagement in every possible way, not only online (through SM), but also by using physical contact points.
Although enterprise-initiated CE is not a new marketing concept, most of the previous studies are conceptual or do not empirically explore CE-based relationships in a broader nomological network. Thus, our study investigates the drivers and outcomes of enterprise-initiated CE. The results demonstrate that external pressure and organizational readiness are the major drivers of enterprise-initiated CE—that is, higher levels of enterprise-initiated CE requires the ability and willingness of an enterprise to shift from its current way of operating. Furthermore, the higher level of enterprise initiated CE is associated with customer expectations and competitor actions. Importantly, the findings have managerial implications, as they guide enterprises to increase CE initiatives in a more systematic way, where they consider not only their customers, but also competitors and their resources. Nevertheless, deeper insights into additional drivers are needed to further clarify what drives enterprises to initiate their engagement with customers. Case studies with a more extensive analysis of enterprise-initiated CE drivers could shed light on groups of drivers that can affect engagement.
The results also indicate that enterprise-initiated CE affects marketing performance. Thus, this finding provides a major rationale for enterprises to conduct CE initiatives, yet the opportunity exists for further empirical demonstration of potential risks and sustainable aspects of enterprise-initiated CE. The results have also shown a strong correlation between organizational readiness and marketing performance, although this was not anticipated during the formulation of the hypotheses. As organizational readiness contributes to enterprise growth, further research should also consider linking these two constructs. Furthermore, this research provides insights on how enterprises are executing CE initiatives. The results reveal that enterprises not only encourage customers to complete a single task defined by the enterprise, but also motivate customers’ autonomous contributions. This implies that enterprises that combine task-based and experiential engagement initiatives are more likely to benefit from their CE initiatives. The results also indicate that enterprise-initiated CE is a single dimension construct. As recent research sees CE construct as multidimensional, further research that explores this phenomenon may provide additional insights. Further research could also target either large or B2B enterprises for a comparison of results.