Science Research Management ›› 2019, Vol. 40 ›› Issue (7): 182-191.

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Operating mechanism for the virtual customer engagement platform: A theoretical and empirical study

Wang Li   

  1. School of Economics and Management, Tongji University, Shanghai 200092, China
  • Received:2016-04-12 Revised:2018-06-04 Online:2019-07-20 Published:2019-07-22


With the advent of the customer-centered era, the improvement of corporate innovation performance is increasingly dependent on demand data obtained through customer engagement. However, in real life, the distribution of customers is scattered, and it is particularly difficult to attract customers. Nowadays, the booming development of Internet provides new ideas for solving this problem. A large number of enterprises have begun to use information technology to effectively attract customer to participate and make full use of customer demand data. In this context, Virtual Customer Engagement (VCE) are emerging from time to time. In essence, VCE is a virtual community of innovation in a broad definition. It is an Internet platform established by enterprises to facilitate customers’ participation in product innovation activities and to share product knowledge, experience and innovative ideas. Through Virtual Customer Engagement (VCE), corporations can attract customers to participate in innovation, make full use of customer big data, and create customer-centered organizations, but the operating mechanism of VCE has not received enough attention from the academy.
This study divides the VCE platform into three sub-platforms based on VCE functions: (1) The sub-platform of information display, is a platform for enterprises to display various information such as products and prices to customers, including product introduction and FAQ. It’s without the interaction between the business and the customer, so there is no feedback process. (2) The sub-platform of demand collection, is a platform to facilitate customer to give feedback, including online survey, customization, message board, email functions, etc. The feedback process is one-way from customer to the corporation. (3) The sub-platform of deep interaction, is the platform for customer-enterprise interaction or customer-customer interaction, including online community, online customer service, customer design and product virtual experience. It is deep two-way interaction. Based on the Stimulus-Organism-Response model, the operating mechanism of each sub-platform is analyzed. Specifically, the developments of the IT environment and the market environment constitute the operating mechanism of the VCE. The interaction between the enterprises and the customers causes the operating motives of the VCE, and the attraction behavior from enterprises and participation behavior from customers make up the running process of the VCE.
Moreover, by using content analysis, this paper examines the operating mechanism of VCE platforms in the website of China’s top 500 enterprises. The study finds that: (1) 67.51% of enterprises use the information display sub-platform, of which 95.99% contain product introduction, 39.03% contain the FAQ. This shows that most companies have built an information display sub-platform. But product introduction and FAQ functions only enable customers to view information not interact with others. Customers only read those information passively. Since customers cannot provide suggestions and opinions, companies are unable to get user data, which makes customer knowledge management impossible. Meanwhile, construction of the two functions is only done by the IT department of the enterprise. (2) 42.77% of the enterprises use demand collection sub-platform. Through the content analysis, and based on the characteristics of online survey, customization, message board and e-mail, customer participation behavior is mainly represented by the one-way, not real-time feedback, and most data collected are programmatic knowledge. In this context, company’s support behavior is simple customer knowledge management, beneficial to improve marketing. Since customer knowledge management involves IT department and marketing department, it is necessary to cooperate with these two departments to effectively use customer data. (3) Only a small number of enterprises use the deep interaction sub-platform (12.55%), which implies that it is not easy to build this sub-platform. Through the analysis, it is found that online community, online customer service, virtual product experience and customer design reflect a two-way real-time communication between customers and enterprises. Customers can actively participate in product innovation and provide descriptive knowledge for enterprises in order to achieve deep participation. It is a complex customer knowledge management for enterprises to manage the descriptive knowledge. Therefore, the IT department, the marketing department and the R&D department need to work together, that is, IT needs to use information technology, marketing understand the customer needs, R&D use customer needs for product innovation. The empirical research supports the operational mechanism proposed by the theoretical model. However, it has also been found that most of China’s top 500 companies have not yet built the two sub-platforms of demand collection and deep interaction, which are not effective in attracting customer participation in actual.
This research not only promotes the development of VCE theory and expands the customer participation theory, but also helps to guide enterprises to improve the construction of VCE platform, to shape customer-oriented organization from the perspective of information technology, and to improve innovation performance.
(1)Specifically, this study firstly divides VCE into three sub-platforms, and analyzes the characteristics and operating mechanisms of each platform. Theoretically, it expands VCE theory, promotes the research development of VCE operation mechanism, and provides a theoretical basis for studying antecedents and outcomes of VCE in the future. Secondly, this study has carried out classification on customer participation from the perspective of VCE operation, thus perfecting and expanding the customer participation theory. Previous studies have shown that customers are the source of enterprise innovation. This study believes that customer participation is largely influenced by corporate support behavior, that is, different stages of corporate support behavior correspond to different stages of customer engagement behavior, which can be divided into no-feedback phase, one-way feedback phase and two-way interaction phase. Based on this, this paper analyzes the characteristics and effects of customer participation in different stages.
(2)Practically, only a few enterprises provide demand collection and deep interaction sub-platforms, indicating that the implementation of VCE strategy in China’s top 500 enterprises is just at the beginning, and the development speed does not catch up with the growth rate of Internet users, so it is difficult to meet the growing customer demands. They need to improve their abilities of combining innovation resources and stimulating innovation vitality of enterprises. This research guides enterprises to master the rules of VCE operation, explore VCE suitable for itself, and shape customer-oriented organizations from the perspective of information technology.

Key words: virtual customer engagement (VCE), information display, demand gathering, deep interaction, operating mechanism