God provided a great model for communication when he gave us two ears and one mouth. But marketing - the function that leads customer dialogue – tends to focus on outbound communication. 

In today’s web connected world, is that still an appropriate model?

Take a look at the marketing department’s budget. How much is spent on the different activities of research, advertising, direct mail, sponsorship, PR and events? If you are like most companies I have met, the marketing function and the associated spend, is dominated by marketing communication – getting the message out to prospective customers. 

Communicating your message is of course a vital activity; even the best product/service in the world is of little value if people don’t know about it. It is also true that reaching that elusive audience is increasingly difficult and expensive. It is estimated that people are exposed to 4,000 marketing messages each day of their lives from companies trying to influence their buying intentions. And this is just a small part of the 50,000 thoughts we each have every day. 

To stand out from the crowd in this deluge of marketing and mind games, companies resort to ever more sophisticated and expensive campaigns. These are less and less effective. Research by BT and the Future Foundation shows that family and friends are much more influential than advertising in shaping consumer’s buying activities. Their recommendation (good or bad) is much more likely to be based on first hand experience than on the adverts they have seen.

This is not to say that advertising does not work; it does. Lord Leverhulme knew that half of his advertising spend was effective – he just didn’t know which half. But just how effective is advertising compared with other approaches? What would be the effect on sales revenue of reducing advertising by 20% and investing that saving in improving the customer experience? What, if instead of bombarding customers with more advertising, we listened more to them and used their feedback to improve the service provided? Are companies listening enough or is marketing too much of a monologue? 

In many companies, research into the customer experience is simplistic and ineffective, based on what I call the ‘annual do you love us survey’. To be effective, experience-based research has to gather feedback at all the key stages where a customer does business with you, as well as the overall relationship. Monitoring customer interactions provides valuable information on how the company is doing; actionable data to drive continuous improvement. It is this cycle of feedback and improvement that underpins many companies’ success in building a loyal customer base.

And in a Web 2.0 world, surveys are not enough. Your customers, influencers, users, commentators are all having their say about what you are up to. Tracking this word of mouth effect on blogs, social networks and the web generally all have an impact on your reputation. Tracking them is an important part of the dialogue that marketing should be shaping. Indeed, it is no longer a dialogue; companies are mere players in the peer networks that make up today’s web. 

The winners will be those that master three things:

  • Delivering what they promise, consistently.
  • Operating in a way that reflects the values of the communities they serve.
  • Integrating the data they have about customers to provide deep insights.

A few companies are already seeking to exploit this integrated view of the customer to their advantage. For them, listening is the new marketing.

David Jackson is the managing director of Clicktools.