Brands have been fighting the age-old battle of gaining audience attention with every shift in technology. From print to radio, radio to TV, TV to web, and now the digital transformation—it seems that the marketing soil beneath our feet is constantly shifting. But is it really?

A hundred years ago or so in the Fuller Brush days, people spoke to a salesperson at their door. They communicated directly with another human being. They talked to their neighbors about the Fuller Brush guy and compared notes—more human contact. However, with the age of mass media (print, radio, TV), brands threw all that personal communication out the window. They started focus groups to get a sense of what people wanted, sent out surveys or called people on the phone to find out more about them so they could make educated guesses about what drives them to purchase. Then they spent millions on ad agencies to send out one-way communications to these audiences.

I think brand communication is coming back full circle back from the good ole Fuller Brush days of door-to-door salesmanship. Only now it’s called “engagement.” People haven’t changed… they still have the same basic needs and wants, but over the decades, HOW they got what they wanted and needed has changed. I grew up in the beginning of the TV era, where brands got in front of people through their television sets and sold them soap, lawnmowers, trips to Tahiti—anything they wanted—with one-sided advertisements. It was also the era of ad agencies and direct mail—also one-sided communication, and these were the only game in town.

Then along came the digital and social transformation. Wow! Now we have gazillions of people we can get in front of with ads! What a boon, right? Not really. Instead of spending billions on print ads, we spent billions on digital ads, even though the social revolution taught us that what people REALLY wanted from brands was one-on-one conversation, empathy, and human connection. What they didn’t want was more marketing noise. That is the whole reason for social connection. People still want what they wanted from a door-do-door salesperson back in the day…to talk to someone knowledgeable about the product, to speak to their neighbors and friends about it, and to share experiences before making a decision to buy. They DON’T want to be bombarded with interruptive ads (but they do want a brand to be responsive when they reach out to them). They want one-on-one connection with real human beings.

So what should brands be working on hardest in this day and age? You guessed it—personal engagement. The brand that steps up its engagement game will not only protect and extend its organic reach but will also find a significant competitive advantage. What kind of engagement? Comments, conversations, and sharing—the kinds of things we see on our social channels every day. How do you know what to say? By listening to social conversations of your fans—going to an individual’s social platform and observing what they discuss and what they like and share. Do the research. Find out what makes them tick. Wish them a happy birthday or anniversary. Share content with them that is relevant to what you learned about them.  Start building real relationships with them. The channels are there, and in them people tell you what they want.

Thankfully, there are social listening platforms available that can help you find social conversations relevant to your brand at scale, so you can start creating meaningful content relevant to those conversations and share them in a way that is helpful and creates better outcomes for customers (or potential customers).

We all love when someone listens to us. When your current and potential customers hear from you (and your content is relevant to their lives), their excitement will spread along with your reach and reputation, especially if you help them with a problem or reduce friction in some way. That kind of engagement creates Return on Relationship. The more you learn about your audience, the better you can become at developing high-quality content that helps them in their daily lives. However, with every post, update and comment ask yourself, “Is this relevant to them or just adding to the noise?”

Many brands still make the mistake of “making noise” instead of recognizing that things are shifting towards a “connection” economy. This new economy requires constant production of content that is highly relevant to the lives of consumers, as well as development of plans for using that content in social profiles to emotionally connect to audiences and encourage conversation.

The competitive advantages you’ll reap from studying your audiences, customers, and prospective customers, looking for opportunities to ask questions and share relevant content, and truly engaging with your audience are… substantial customer loyalty and ongoing brand advocacy. When your content resonates with people, it gets shared and receives comments and likes—making your brand more visible in people’s feeds and in their searches. Something else that can help is to study the social engagement (or non-engagement) of your competitors. Look for opportunity “holes” where they are not engaging on their websites and social channels, and ask… what can you do better?

The Fuller Brush days are a thing of the past, but I think that as brands we’ve come full circle in the last hundred or so years. From the early days of face-to-face personal connection to today’s digital connection and engagement (looking people in the eye digitally) we’ve come back to what people have wanted from brands from the beginning: listening (really listening), reaching out with personal conversation, and sharing helpful, relevant information that makes our customers’ lives easier. If you take a step back and look at how brand marketing has evolved over time, you’ll recognize something; we need to get back to basics. Success comes down to the human connection and relationships, and I think it always will.

Old marketing was dictation… new marketing is communication. Change from Convince & Convert to Converse & Convert!

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