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How Should Marketers Communicate in the Relationship Era?

If your content marketing efforts have been struggling lately and you find it challenging to determine why, it could be due to outdated marketing strategies in a new marketing era.

Timecodes: 0:00 Intro

0:50 What is the Relationship Era?

1:39 Enchanting Your Audience

3:44 Removing Consumer Cynicism

4:28 Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM)

6:02 How Consumers Interpret Messages

7:33 Relationships and Context

10:32 The Benefits of Mystery

12:37 CMM in Customer Service


So if you've been paying close attention to the trends and marketing communications between brands and companies and consumers and customers, you've probably noticed that one consistent factor in it all is the need to make a more human or personalized connection. And that really has been the emphasis in recent years.

And you might be wondering when did that change, and what's driving this?

I think Brafton has really broken this down in a great way because it's shown us just how things have evolved over time and how that communication is actually not only taking place from this side, the company side but also what the consumers and customers want from the brands in modern times.

Brafton is calling the current era of marketing The Relationship Era. And they say companies in recent years have found it's no longer enough to carry on a one-sided conversation with customers. They prioritize engagement, retention and loyalty programs and personalized social media content.

It's important to point out they called the era before The Marketing Era in the 1980s, where they said businesses let ads do the talking. So you can see why it can be difficult for Marketing Era strategies to work in The Relationship Era.

The Business of Enchanting Consumers

Now, while this means that businesses have to evolve with the times and rethink their strategies, the concept of engaging or even enchanting consumers is not new. In fact, I use the word enchant intentionally and here's why:

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions book cover

Guy Kawasaki wrote a book in 2011 called Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions. And one of the key steps of enchanting an audience is your ability to get inside their minds. This means understanding what they want versus what you want to tell them they want. And even during The Marketing Era, it was challenging.

In fact, Guy shares an example of this mistake when he was working at Apple. He said they really struggled to sell Macintosh computers to the business market because they didn't know what the people in that market were thinking. He said his company was so enchanted by their own product they learned the hard way that consumers didn't feel the same way.

And if you've spent any amount of time on social media in recent years, you've seen companies do this with one-way communications on their platform. They're telling everybody:

"You need this!" or "You have this problem, and this is how it's fixed!"

And they might be wasting a lot of time and resources, and effort trying to sell this idea that's not even resonating with an audience. And that means not only is it not resonating, but it makes it really, really difficult to enchant that audience as well.

So Guy says you have to be willing to ask and answer a few questions, starting with:

"What does the person want?"

And he reminds us that people will also wonder about your motives in your attempt to enchant them. He says this doesn't mean you shouldn't benefit, but you should disclose your motivation to put someone at ease.

And this adds another important layer to understanding what the customer wants because it's not only so much what they want from a solution standpoint, but it's also what they want from YOU.

Because today, what we see is a lot of people pushing one-way communication on social media and other places and a lot of times. That's immediately given the impression that that one-way communication is there because they're only interested in helping themselves and not really interested in helping you.

I mean, it's designed to look that way, but there's always gonna be that cynicism from the consumer that says, "Yeah, this sounds good, but really this is meant to help them and not really help me?"

So how do you break that barrier down?

Guy says you also need to ask, "Is the change worth the effort?" He says, “The fact that you think change is worthwhile is not enough. The person you're trying to enchant must believe this as well.

And the third question is, "Can I change?"

He says, “Even if the change is worthwhile, can someone do it? Considering the potential expense, effort and risks, someone may doubt that they can change even if they want to do it."

Understanding the Layers of Message and Meaning

So, as we develop effective ways to make personal connections through communication, let's also consider how the words in those communications can have meaning. And to do that, we're gonna look at a theory from the 1970s called Coordinated Management of Meaning. W. Barnett Pierce and Vernon E. Cronin develop this theory to focus on how humans create, coordinate, and manage meanings while communicating.

And it's not really viewed as a universal theory of truth - but a series of insights, studies and ideas that help us understand how humans behave and react during communication-focused interactions.

In 2018, Arthur Jensen and Robin Penman wrote an overview of CMM and used it to explain how effective communication can build social worlds and relational connections.

And that sounds pretty valuable in the relationship era, doesn't it?

They point out that the very name "Coordinated Management of Meaning" captures the core proposition of the theory. Communication is the process of managing meanings, and we manage those meanings by coordinating with others.

And CMM is broken down into three components:

  1. Coordination

  2. Coherence

  3. Mystery

They break it down this way. Coordination draws our attention to the way in which we work together in this meaning-making process and to the patterns that emerge as we do so.

Managing meanings is a joint activity, never one done alone.

We make these meanings coherent to ourselves and others through the stories that we tell. Yet no amount of coordinating or coherence-making will ever produce a complete account or perfect pattern because there's always something that cannot be explained. And mystery reminds us that there is always far more to our social world than we can imagine.

And as human beings, we're always trying to interpret what things mean, especially in the realm of marketing and advertising.

And Guy alluded to that before when he was talking about proving your motives.

Content Marketing and Consumer Experience

When we see environments in social media and other places where there are a lot of one-way communications and things like clickbait out there and think about what clickbait means for a second, clickbait means it looks like it's valuable. And then, when we click on it, we find out:

"Well, it was clickbait. It was meant just to get me here to help them boost their numbers or sell something."

Something like that.

And the way things are written and the way things are communicated, because of all those other experiences, we might find ourselves going, "Hmm, I'm interpreting this to mean this could really be something that's meant to benefit one party and not really benefit me."

We're always analyzing what those things are, and it's based on our experiences. And that's something that Coordinated Management of Meaning also talks about is our experiences - what we've experienced as people or as cultures or as consumers can drive how we interpret things.

There are a lot of experiences out there unfortunately that create negative thoughts and then lead to negative interpretations of content and communication from brands because of everything else that's going on out there. And the key is what can you do from a messaging and communication standpoint that really conveys to the consumer and enchants them in a way that says:

"You know what? This company is really here to help me."

Content Marketing and Consumer Experience

When talking about meaning, they say contexts include our definitions of the situation at hand, our relationship with ourselves, and our own views. There are also hierarchies of meaning that can vary depending on the situation or a relationship.

They use an example of an argument between friends.

Despite the fact that there's a dispute, things may not get too heated or too out of hand or even impact the relationship in a negative way because it's already understood that they're friends, but they say an unexpected comment that can be interpreted to be more personal or hurtful in nature could elevate the context and threaten the relationship.

Now, obviously, it's a little bit challenging to maybe come up with examples of when brands and companies got personal with their customers or consumers in a way that looked like an argument between friends, and then something just completely changed the dynamic of the relationship in a negative way.

But it doesn't always have to be a get personal context.

There are still types of communications that can harm a relationship, especially if you're a brand, um, or you're associated with a brand that's built up trust with your customer or consumer over time. And then one component or just one example of communication that threw it for a loop could suddenly change the dynamic, ruin a little bit of that trust and make it take a step back.

In fact, let me give you an example that digital expert and bestselling author Mark Schaefer gave one time. He talked about a story where he had built up obviously a lot of trust over time with his pharmacist and the pharmacy that he, um, obviously trusted over time to keep him in the loop of all things related to his health.

And he one time got this message from the pharmacist that said, "Hey, you need to reach out to me when you get a chance."

And he thought, "Oh my gosh! This is obviously something very important to my health or something I need to know about."

And so when Mark made the call to his pharmacist, it turned out the whole thing was about some sort of subscription plan that he wanted Mark to get involved in. Again, obviously benefiting the pharmacy. And that just threw things for a loop.

And he literally talked about how, you know, "I had this relationship built up with this guy over time, and I thought every time he reached out to me, it was something related to, something I really needed - related to my health - that was vital to my health. And he calls me and gives me a message that it was important to talk to him."

And it was about some sort of subscription plan.

And it just changed the dynamic at that moment of their relationship and made him think, "Okay, you know, what, what made him decide this was a good idea?" and really made him think about, you know, future communications.

And that's something that would obviously have to be addressed. And it becomes a situation where now what does that company have to do or that pharmacist have to do to repair that line of communication?

And isn't it interesting that this also relates to the things we've already talked about when it comes to motive and interpretation?

Improving Content Strategies with Mystery

When we talk about mystery, this is when Arthur and Robin say hierarchies get interesting. They say that accepting this idea of mystery opens up to other possible ways of making sense, even encouraging us to seek them out as a way of enlarging the conversation or seeking better alternatives than we might otherwise choose.

I love how this theory is calling this mystery, and I also love how we can apply this to modern marketing communication because when you look at everything we've talked about up to this point about interpretation and about how our experiences drive those interpretations and make us question motives, a lot of that's because we see a lot of the same type of one-way communications all the time, very much like we did during The Marketing Era.

We're still seeing that. And when you see so much of it, you become desensitized to it. There's no way to make that human connection because we've already decided:

"Yeah, I've seen it before."

"Yeah, I've seen it before."

"I recognize cut and paste when I see it when it comes to this message I got on LinkedIn or this email I just got, or the way this person is promoting a product in social media, whatever."

And we move on.

And that's why it's so important to evolve the way we communicate because it's that mystery, that one moment of seeing something different that instead of just scrolling past it on a screen, we go:

"Hey, wait, what does that mean? Is this different? Are they really trying to help me here? I've never thought of that before."

That mystery component is huge when it comes to allowing us to think about things differently. But also that was generated by the communicators saying:

"You know what? We're not gonna do this this way anymore. We're gonna come up with new ways to communicate. We're gonna come up with new ways to try to engage our customer and our consumer."

And that's so relevant today.

Considering Consumer and Customer Experiences

And remember, this was all studied in the seventies, and that's why it was so great to have a recent breakdown of Coordinated Management of Meaning because we can see all the different ways that theory can be applied in modern marketing and communication context.

In fact, there was a 2019 academic study that demonstrated several ways CMM can be applied, including consumer marketing.

Another important time to enchant an audience is customer service. And a 2019 Messagly article pointed out how coordinated management of meaning can be applied to customer service. It said: "If you focus on CMM, you'll understand that conversations are constantly evolving and that your current conversation is influenced by the previous one. If you understand that you're creating a new reality when you interact with another person, you can focus on making sure that you communicate with clarity. If your customer support representatives understand this concept, they can focus on interacting with your customers in a clear way that moves the conversation forward. This understanding can help them more effectively serve your customers."

And notice how, yet again, we're building on the experience of other conversations, communications to help enhance the ones we're going to have in the future, which is really important in everything we've discussed.

Because what that means is we're not treating every single person like they're the same person and like everything needs to be handled the same way, communicated the same way, no matter how that person is communicating with us.

And we can build on the things that work with other conversations in order to provide better communications with consumers and customers in the future. And this is one of the key reasons why contact centers are investing heavily in things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, text and speech analytics - things that can help gauge sentiment and figure out the words and phrases and interactions that can lead to better customer experiences.

It's not good enough anymore to have one universal script that can be used for every single person in every single situation, not only because it's not efficient but customers can recognize that when they hear it.

And companies today are realizing they're having to create that good personalized, humanized experience across all channels, whether it's online, whether it's email, whether it's phone, and experience is really a key word.

Experience is a big part of the relationship era.

In his book about Enchantment, Guy Kawasaki says:

"When you enchant people, your goal is to not make money from them or to get them to do what you want, but to fill them with delight."

And believe it or not, delight is also a relevant word in his book, The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation: Creating, Protecting, and Repairing Your Most Valuable Asset, Ronald j Alsop said:

"Creating emotional appeal means more than simply exceeding people's expectations. It means delighting them. Indeed, delight has become the latest catchphrase for companies aiming for a special relationship with their customers."

And he points out - by doing this, you can turn customers into advocates.

And when you talk about turning customers into advocates, that is a golden ticket in The Relationship Era. That probably means you've done everything we've talked about today so well that your customers are now going out telling everybody about your company, your product, your customer service, and your people to the rest of the world.

So I hope that this insight into enchantment, delight and meaning has helped you evolve your communications from The Marketing Era into The Relationship Era.

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