Points of Connection in the Relationship Era

It is a Fundamental and Immutable Law of Marketing:
Begin with a Deep Understanding of Your Customer.

For years, this concept has been preached as a key ingredient to marketing success and an important means to an end. The idea has been to take whatever the marketer can find out about its customers and leverage it to its full advantage. To “be who the consumer wants us to be” in order to sell more products and services.

Sort of manipulative when you think about it, right? It’s the stuff that gives marketing a bad name and contributes to consumers’ serial distrust of advertising messages.

Yet smart marketers today are taking this concept in new directions by re-thinking the intentions behind why we want to know our customers better in the first place. And just like our most successful personal relationships, the idea is to pursue and develop relationships where we believe there is a depth and authenticity to the connection that exists between marketer and individual customer. Similar to eHarmony’s concept of “Dimensions of Compatibility”, the dimensions of these deeper relationships we can think of as “points of connection”. The more we have of them, the better our chances of creating relationships that last.

First Things First

There’s an old adage that says that you can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself in the first place. For marketers in the Relationship Era, this amounts to knowledge of self: who is the brand and what does it stand for? What purpose does it serve beyond functional product benefits? What are its values? Once we understand who we are, we can then identify meaningful points of connection with our customers.

If you don’t think this idea is important or you’re not quite sure, consider this: Now more than ever, consumers are expanding their buying criteria – it’s not just about the product or service itself anymore. The public is spending more time researching the providers of their goods and services, allowing what they find to influence their purchase behaviors like never before. So, whether marketers are stopping to consider these fundamental questions or not, the point is that consumers are seeking out points of connection on their own with the companies they buy from, and it’s up to us whether we will be prepared for that or not.

Need proof that customers are in fact looking for these connections with brands? For starters, we all know that digital platforms are making information about marketers and their products and services more accessible than at any time in history. Customers are not only researching details about the products and services they buy (what they are made of, where or how they are made), but are also stretching into new areas including details about a given brand’s parent company and the actions they take, or examining a company’s values to consider the overlap with the customer’s own set of values, before deciding what, where and when to buy.

Social media is also providing a platform for fellow customers to share their good and bad opinions and experiences about products and companies, giving rise to a new set of influencers who are becoming trusted sources of information even though they may never meet those they influence, face to face.

Finally, customers are encountering brand representatives in one to one contexts on an increasing scale, providing more real-life personalities for these companies to express their brand character. Beyond interactions with customer service representatives over the phone or online, exchanges are occurring via blogs, twitter and facebook accounts, and even third party-sponsored websites that facilitate direct dialogues between brands and customers.

Deeper Customer Insights and New Points of Connection

So once we buy into the idea that a greater number of points of connection can increase our chances of building deeper and more sustainable customer relationships, we need to do two things: 1) create an ongoing program to learn more about our customers, and 2) identify potential points of connection by constantly comparing who we are, with who they are.

How can we think about potential points of connection that go beyond our product or service? What ways can we communicate or demonstrate these points to customers? The chart below reflects some possible points of connection, how they can be demonstrated by marketers, and how they have evolved throughout the Product, Consumer and Relationship Eras.

Evolution of Marketing Points of Connection

Product Era – Informing about products and driving transaction Consumer Era – Focus still on transaction, but idea of trust enters the dialogue as a way to convince people to transact more Relationship Era – Trust between brands and consumer is mutual
  • Customer has a problem >>> marketer has the solution
  • Includes Points of Connection from Product Era
  • Customer has an interest/passion >>> marketer uses advertising to associate product with interest/passion
  • Customer desires amusement/entertainment >>> marketer uses emotional advertising to grab attention
  • Includes Points of Connection from Product and Consumer Eras
  • Customer has an interest/passion >>> marketer finds way to facilitate/enhance/help fulfill a goal related to the interest/passion
  • Customer holds a set of personal values >>> marketer demonstrates shared values
  • Customer has desire for friendship, to fit in and to belong to something >>> marketer provides a character to be related to, a context for like-minded people to gather around/ something to belong to

The Changing Nature of Relationships

At this point, skeptics may review some of the items listed above in the Relationship Era column, and question just why we should think that customers would be motivated to opt for these type of connections with marketers, instead of more personal one to one connections with other individuals. Great question! Part of the answer may lie in the changing nature of relationships, according to sociologists who have conducted research in the last century or so.

In the 2008 volume Social Relationships: Cognitive, Affective and Motivational Processes, editors credited ‘the father of modern sociology’ Emile Durkheim with the identification of trends in modern society that have helped to create a departure from the relationships common in the face to face societies of centuries past.  Durkheim argued that “modern mass societies function on the basis of indirect, impersonal, and disembodied networks of relationships that do not require face to face interaction”. Despite these trends, the authors of the book contend that “…we need the support and comfort provided by enduring social relationships more than ever.”

Could it be that marketers (in their small way) have a role to play in fulfilling a set of deeper needs related to relationships that may be either unstated or even unrecognized by individuals in today’s society?

New Questions and Challenges for Today’s Marketers

In the Relationship Era, marketers must create new and deeper points of connection by embracing rich insights about their customers and through transparency related to who the marketer is and what it stands for.

Marketers must challenge themselves to achieve such connections but also answer some fundamental questions to enable for success:

  • What is our brand’s purpose (why do we exist)?
  • What deeper needs might we be able to serve for our customers that have authentic connections to who we are as a brand?
  • How will we reveal ourselves to create deeper connections with our customers?
  • How do we express a consistent brand character while entrusting dialogues to individual brand representatives?
  • What role can influencers play in communicating points of connection?

The best relationships from our personal lives are based on a set of common interests, passions and shared affections. Could the same formula of deeper relationships based on multiple points of connection be a winning strategy for today’s marketer?

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