It was the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who said that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. It's a lesson that many small businesses should keep in mind as they develop digital marketing strategies.
When Shaw was writing a century ago, our methods of communication, while slower, were also more considered. Letter-writing was an effort, particularly compared to the wealth of instant messaging tools at our disposal today. To receive a response, one had to ask questions of the recipient.
These days, because communication is seemingly so effortless and instantaneous, businesses are inclined to think little about who is on the other end of their message. How will they receive it? What questions will it raise for them? What do you want them to do with the information?
The principle of two-way communication is really an extension of the Christian ethic that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Put another way, to be understood, you have to show that you understand your audience. To engage others, you must be engaged with them.
These principles have become even more important in an era of interactive communication, where once-passive audiences can now be as active as the companies marketing to them when it comes to defining how valuable those companies' services are.
The implication for brands is that the message is now more about show than tell. How you cast what you do changes from merely describing and listing the products and services you provide to illustrating the impact that they can have on peoples' lives.
Here's an example: a cruise ship operator found that its marketing campaigns — which were built upon showcasing the luxurious facilities of its boats, their all-you-can-eat buffets, and exotic destinations — weren't quite hitting the mark. A marketing executive diagnosed the problem: "You think you're selling travel, when what people are buying is the possibility of human connection."
From that point, the company decided to shift gear. It ran a competition asking past travellers to write 250-word stories about their cruise ship memories. Inevitably, the stories were about relationships — lifelong relationships forged, romances begun, marriages reawakened, new senses of possibilities born. They changed their campaigns accordingly, with great success.
In this sense, marketing now is less about promoting products or services; and instead, more about finding out what motivates and grabs people, and having them share it with others. By highlighting the personal connection and the individual experience, the real value of your offering emerges. This fits in with the concept of consumer dominance: the idea of a single, passive and undifferentiated market has given way to a more splintered market where consumers define their experiences with your product or service and share it with others within their sub-group.
Brands need to be able to adjust their marketing strategies according to the kind of people they want to attract.
This has been called an audience-first strategy, as opposed to a traditional business-first strategy. Instead of asking the audience to come to you, you go to where they are. The story you tell should begin with their experience, and then your product or service is positioned within that.