What American Idol Teaches Us About Customer Engagement

Sing Your Heart OutYou’re probably too cool to watch American Idol, right?

I’m not.

I think it’s a brilliant show that also has something to teach organizations about engaging their stakeholders.

Contestants sing their hearts out every night and some of the performances are truly touching. Check out Jacob Lusk pouring his heart out in the video clip below. He literally breaks down sobbing after his performance, exhausted from having given it his all. There is something real here behind all the glitz.

So what can organizations really learn from American Idol when it comes to engaging their constituents?

First, American Idol knows how to mix high production value with authenticity. The producers know their audience expects high production value and they deliver it with fancy staging, professional backup musicians and lots of behind-the-scenes coaching for contestants. But they’re also very savvy about keeping it real. The judges genuinely seem to care about helping performers realize their dreams. The producers dramatize some contestant stories to build audience rapport, but so far they’ve resisted going so far as their British counterparts at X-Factor in using Auto-Tune software to correct performers’ pitch. Idol producers seem to know this would ruin their balance between produced and authentic.

This mixture of produced yet authentic experiences is one way organizations can improve their engagement with stakeholders. As customers, we know instantly when organizations get this mix is wrong. We’ve all suffered the soulless mumbo-jumbo of overly-scripted support and sales people, and we’ve all experienced times when companies showed just a bit too much dirty laundry through sloppy communications and plain old bad service.

Getting this mix right starts with building an organizational culture where authenticity and soulfulness are actually valued. Few companies get that right, but companies like Southwest Airlines do.

Production value precedes authenticity in an organization. It’s the cake and authenticity is the frosting. I know, I know…authenticity should be infused in all the organization does, but seriously, if the organization can’t execute in ways stakeholders expect – it’s dead. Just like American Idol would be dead if the show wasn’t well produced. So yes, build a culture that values authenticity from day-one, but then concentrate like crazy on execution – know how to fulfill your customer promise. Once these processes are in place and flow consistently and effectively for customers, you can then invest in building authenticity into the organization’s connections with stakeholders. As human beings, we crave that real connection, but first we need things to work. I love the sassy, funny attitudes of Southwest flight attendants and pilots, but I’d stop flying with them if they were consistently over-priced, late and kept crashing my plane.

The second thing American Idol gets right is its collaboration between producers, judges, contestants and audience. American Idol audiences are the ones who pick the winners via online, phone and text voting – and they do so on a mind-bogglingly large scale. A few years back, viewers sent in some 97 million votes in one of the bigger contests.

This massive engagement doesn’t happen by itself. There’s an architecture behind it – an engagement architecture that’s highly produced. Remember, the audience isn’t called on to vote until later in the season, after the judges have winnowed down the candidates based on professional expertise, and before that even happens there is a bunch of culling done by the show’s producers. The audience doesn’t see all of these critical steps in the screening process because it would take away some of the magic. But make no mistake, the producers’ auditions are critical to filtering a big pool of contestants – and a big pool is critical to finding new talent. Once the producers and judges have done there work, the collaboration is then handed off to the audience.

The brilliance of this collaboration is two-fold. First, the show gets millions of people to vote on performers before any record label sinks a dime into them. That’s real-time market testing on a massive scale.

Second, when I get excited about a performer on the show, I want to see them succeed. I root for them because I remember when they were just getting started, and that makes me more likely to buy their music. Of course, lots of new pop stars still rise to prominence without American Idol, but the show has produced quite a few chart-toppers like Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry. It’s a definite money maker.

The lesson here for organizations isn’t that we need to start running singing contests; it’s that giving customers and other stakeholders a real hand in the creative process builds market intelligence and builds stakeholder loyalty. It’s a kind of fellowship between organization and constituents, and the co-creation it enables is good for organizations and good for stakeholders. As Idol judge, Randy Jackson would say: yo dawg, I’m totally feeling that.