Why Companies Must Talk To Customers (And 5 Reasons Why They Don’t)

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One of the most exciting opportunities the web opens up for companies is the potential to use it as a publishing platform and engage directly with customers and consumers.

Companies, just like individuals, now have the tools to go where their customers hang-out online and provide news, tell stories, demonstrate their cool, their passion, thought-leadership or whatever, and listen carefully to the feedback and opinion their brands and products engender among those that count.



The equally positive flip-side of direct engagement (in my view) is that companies can become a little less reliant on the false security (often worthless metrics) provided by traditional advertising or PR. Three million impressions or a paragraph in the Star Tribune do not mean anybody actually paid attention. And of course as media continues to fragment, or disintegrate entirely, direct engagement provides a hedge against the dwindling efficiency of traditional channels.

Lots of companies (big and small) are beginning to take advantage of the opportunity to become the media rather than rely on it. But despite a healthy ‘content marketing‘ industry and recent high-profile moves by Edelman to get into the corporate content business, in relative terms only a small number of companies are seriously engaged in this type of activity. Bearing in mind the zillions still spent on traditional advertising (including web advertising) and PR efforts, there’s a gap, or at least a lag, between what’s possible with direct engagement and what’s actually happening.

Why is that? Why would a company still prefer to spend millions on hugely expensive airtime or adspace, blasting their hopelessly restricted commercial messages to a vast audience of which only a tiny percentage has any interest in their ‘creative’ ‘message’, when there’s an alternative. And an alternative (by the way) that is orders of magnitude less expensive.

In my travels I’ve heard a bunch of reasons. Some marketers fear social media and “losing control”, some struggle with corporate structure, some have outmoded perceptions of what marketing is and how to value activity, some admire the refusal of old-school media titans to roll over and die and see it as proof of the status quo, and some just can’t overcome good old inertia.

But none of these are the real reasons more companies don’t roll up their sleeves and engage with the real people who buy their stuff. There’s a much deeper emotion at play, a very human one. Fear.

Imagine this conversation on the corporate psychologist’s couch:



“I don’t have anything to say”. Well sure that’s a problem. After all you haven’t really said anything for 50 years. But surely your company has a mission that drives it. Something that relates to the industry you serve? Something that galvanizes your employees and that your customers believe also? No? Ok, you need help.

“Nobody will think I’m interesting”. Ahhh, so that’s why you’ve hidden behind carefully crafted 30-second spots and press releases all these years. Because you’re shy! Well, you know what? There really are people out there who care about you, they even say nice things about you. Maybe if you just give it the old college try you might be surprised.

“There are people out there who hate me”. Yes it’s true, we’ve seen the social monitoring results. Some people will be undoubtedly be mean to you when you say hello. But you know what? They’re saying nasty things about you anyway so what’s to lose? And if you actually talk to them, you might be able to change their minds.

“The guys in my gang say don’t do it”. Yeah and they steal your lunch money too. But you know what? Your advertising and PR agency partners (other than an enlightened few) have a vested interest in keeping things just the way they are. They have no idea how to engage consumers either. They’re still hoping the whole web thing’s a hideous nightmare.

“It sounds really hard”. This is true. It’s not easy to start and it will require pretty significant change inside the organization. Ultimately direct engagement is about much more than just a way to communicate. It’ll end up fundamentally changing the culture of the company. In a good way. But there might be some blood.

Ultimately of course there’s no way back to 1980. Neither should we wish for it. Customers and their opinions matter. They’re real, mostly reasonable people. But if they’re ignored or condescended to they tend to get irritated. Companies MUST engage. They must also have something to say, say it well and be in it for the long haul. Simply throwing up a Facebook fan page or having the PR department tweet occasionally is emphatically not enough.



Change is hard. But it’s also inevitable. Get up on the dancefloor!

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