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Authentic Marketers Don't Control the Conversation

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In ancient times, the concept of 'marketing' would have been quite ludicrous. It's not that marketing wasn't done, mind you. It's just that it looked very different than it does today. Marketing was an inherent and organic part of the process of selling or trading goods; you didn't come up with a 'marketing plan' per se, you just made, grew or raised the best goods and products you could. If you had a great product, your satisfied customers would tell their neighbors about your business. They controlled the marketing message.

Then, with a little luck, those neighbors would come and buy from you. 'Word of mouth' marketing was the industry standard: offer a great product, and under the right conditions, your business was likely to flourish. After many years of selling, you could potentially earn a reputation as a trustworthy supplier of quality goods. Your business was on solid footing, not only because you had the best corn, goats or eggs, but because you were able to sell to your customers face-to-face. There was an element of relationship.

A Shift to "Push" Advertising

Now fast forward to 100 years ago with the introduction of the first modern automobile. The world began to get smaller, and as radio and TV increasingly became the prime methods of communication between businesses and consumers, a radical change happened.

For the first time in history, businesses could easily reach a massive group of consumers, both in person (by means of modern transportation) and through the airwaves (TV and radio). Brands could literally come into people's homes and directly control the marketing message. While word of mouth marketing obviously still existed, at times the sheer volume (as in loudness) of the marketing message broadcast by brands made them hard to hear. Instead, "push advertising" took center stage.

Research told us that 'impressions' were what mattered. Big brands thrived because they had budgets to dominate the game, and consumers had relatively little opportunity to object to these messages, or to even form a collective opinion. As long as companies had a budget big enough to get their product seen on billboards, radio and TV, they were set.

Coming Full Circle: Smart Brands Know Consumers Control the Conversation

Now think about how marketing messages are transmitted today, in the internet age. With traditional print newspapers being all but dead, and TV commercials being TIVO'd and skipped
through, push marketing has again become pull marketing.

Through social media, customers can talk back, form collective opinions, and object to what they perceive to be inauthentic marketing. Smart brands know they no longer hold all the power - that once again, consumers control the conversation. Rather than succeeding because they blast their prospects with 'impressions', successful companies work hard to find out what their customers value, to attract and connect with customers, and to engage with consumers on topics they're passionate about.

Reputations that were once made and lost over decades can now be built or destroyed instantly. The smart brands are the ones who figure this out and use this massive change in dynamics to their advantage.

How Brands Can Participate in the Conversation That's Already Happening

Your customers are going to be talking about your brand whether you like it or not. So isn't it better to be a part of the conversation?

While it might be scary at first to dive into conversations that are already happening, brands who take the plunge have a lot to gain. By hearing what their customers really think, brands can better understand what consumers truly value.

So how do you participate in this conversation? How do you even find out where the conversations are happening? For brands looking to engage with their customers on social media, here are a few tips:

1. Be where your community is talking. Think about which social networking sites your target demographic is using, and start building a strong presence there. For instance, if your target market tends to be highly creative and visual, you'll likely want to be on Pinterest. Or if your ideal customer is a professional or academic, you'll want to be active on LinkedIn.
2. Listen to the conversation that's already happening. There are a myriad of tools you can use to find our what your customers are saying about your brand. Hashtags, Facebook interest lists, and on-site search are just a few ways.
3. Participate in the conversation. Your customers want to hear from you! However they respect brands that know they're participating in the conversation, not dominating it. This means asking for input, responding to criticisms, and just generally not being a 'know it all'! (For more tips on participating in the conversation, see my article 5 Ways People Build Successful Relationships on Social Media.)

Smart brands acknowledge that they are participants in a larger conversation about their brand. They listen to the conversation, participate in it, and learn what their customers really need and want. They know that true success comes from being active and engaged in the conversation, not in trying to control it.

How is your business taking advantage of this shift to inbound, 'pull' marketing? Does it make you uncomfortable knowing your customers now control the conversation? Why or why not? Please share with us in the comments below!