Jul 072011

The future happens every moment, but some moments it seems to be happening faster than others. Take for example the sudden onslaught of new in-person communications options over the past week, from Google+’s Huddle feature to Skype on Facebook.

These powerful new tools are new ways for us to interact directly with those we self select, one to one and in groups. But what oh what does it mean? (Cue double-rainbow video howl).

Whenever I read the digital tea-leaves, I always keep in mind the saying, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” or, more to my liking, “those who forget the past are destined to remain confused.”

In this case, it means that the trend for online interaction is headed inexorably toward intimate personalization. We increasingly seek out that which enables us to make our online experiences reflect our offline experiences, where we choose who we see, speak and interact with, and when.

Almost no one calls Coca Cola or any other brand and says, “Hey, can you tell me more about you?” No one would want to have their conversation group interrupted at a party or in the park, by a product representative saying, “hey, watch me do this silly thing with kittens in costumes.”

But what we DO do in real life, is research a product, and then ask our friends, one on one or in groups, “So what’s been your experience with your wireless carrier?” Or, “Where’s a good place to take a first date for dinner, casual, but with great food?”

And we act on the answers. In real life and online. This study, discussed in Inc. Magazine, talks about the combined power of SEM/Social.

So what does this suggest for brands that want to part of that dialogue without being the shrill interruptor that ends up resented instead of appreciated?

The answers that most work here, are all prismatic reflections of what works in the default world.
– Micro-target: Communicate selectively to self-declared interests.
This is where SEM and ads still have a place, although this is increasingly on Facebook. The advantage here is that if you’re careful, you won’t end up trying to sell marshmallows at a house fire. No one likes that.

– Make yourself accessible: Friends know they can always reach you.
For smaller companies, a communication lag might pass muster, but for larger ones, responding quickly is the only way to show you’re accountable to your customers.

– Be responsive, learn from input: Friends don’t let friends be ignored.
Sometimes the incoming message isn’t what you expected or wanted to hear. But if you’re hearing it from a number of people, quite simply, there’s fire to that there smoke. Pay attention. Respond. As with a friend, it’s ok to say, “Hey, I don’t know what to make of that yet.” But you’d always get back to that friend with a better reply once you have one, wouldn’t you?

– Always offer value: Friendship means mutual benefit
This may sound callous, but it’s true. We engage in a constant exchange of value, re-proving ourselves by our actions. The friend who never calls eventually fades into irrelevance. You don’t have to offer something for nothing, but you have to offer something: a timely informative response, a funny poster or video, a coupon, etc., but it must be something.

– Empower evangelists: Treat people nicely, they will do the same for you.
The best friendships survive rough moments, and nothing’s perfect, but if you train your entire online staff to respond gently, considerately, you are bound to win fans and influence people. And those people will speak of you highly because they want to.

Final Thought: As always, the realm of online two way communication between brands and consumers is a complex and developing arena, but if you remember your past, your own personal preferences for how you like to be communicated with, listened and responded to, and rewarded, then you will know how to shape your communications in a way that makes the most of your capabilities and offerings.