The Answer? Start With a Question

"Next time, you know what you should do to get what you want?"

It was my first job after business school, at a client meeting with a mentor. I had no idea what I should do. What my wise mentor said next is forever etched onto my brain.

"Start with a question."

What is the typical approach to educating consumers about products, i.e., advertising? Same as mine was: one-way information transmission, hoping beyond hope, that the message hits the targets--the shotgun approach, which usually results in a pain here and there, especially in the butt, rather than coming anywhere close to the heart. Want to touch someone where they live and breathe, the core of any person? Ask a question, listen to the answer, respond in kind. It will lead to better questions and better answers. You'll build a relationship through this evolving dialog that is more than about what shows up on a balance sheet--in order to dramatically improve that balance sheet. Then, apply marketing strategies that get better results for less cost. Thank you, Master Mentor!

Many companies have been shifting their marketing spending to online channels that use sophisticated technologies and promise to get ads seen by more eyeballs in the target demographic. Tech companies, thirsty for revenue, have figured out that helping bigger companies get in front of consumers, is an effective business model--for the tech companies, but not for the businesses spending the money because that marketing strategy has degraded into a race of who can spend the most money to yell the loudest.

Remember Toyota's Camry "Effect" campaign? Toyota essentially spammed people's Twitter accounts during the Super Bowl with the "Camry Effect a Friend Giveaway!" Unsuspecting people received auto-replies from @CamryEffect when they simply tweeted about their favorite team or the upcoming game. Result? A massive consumer backlash. Say "so-long" to yelling, and hello to listening and relationship-building and succeeding.

The game of advertising one-upmanship results in bigger and bigger media buys and blanket messaging, but results seldom approach expectations. To make the situation even more challenging, we have a whole new generation of consumers, the Millennials, who have developed extra-thick filters to block out traditional advertising messages. Time to yell even louder, right?

Good news is that think tanks have spent vast energy and resources to understand this new and increasingly dominant, highly educated consumer segment, and we now have some insight into how to get through those extra-thick filters, without any yelling.

Millennials love and want to share, not just photos on Instagram or the latest animated GIF, but also their opinions. If they know about your product, they've probably got an opinion about your product and they're ready to tell you and the rest of the world what they think. So why not ask them directly? Or better yet, make them your partners.

No doubt, online channels are the most efficient way to reach out, connect and engage with Millennials, but instead of relying on Facebook and Twitter, companies should reach out directly to their audience - under their own brand. You can create an online interactive, media-rich online experience under your own brand and engage with (or better yet, ask) your consumers directly.

The other critical ingredient for success is media content. Millennials were raised on interactive media. They like to engage with, and feel, and make that content their own. Key to this most effective online outreach is integrating art & media in the online experience. Customers reward companies like Coca-Cola and BMW for doing an exceptional job in creating media integrated online experiences to form and solidify their customer relationships. For example, Coca Cola's experience is not only engaging Millennials but also jointly creating great media content.

Savvy consumers, especially Millennials, demand a carefully planned and well-executed online experience with impactful content and eye-catching aesthetic design. Your success hinges on creating that relationship--that evolving dialogue--whether about a product or service, that is creative, authentic and respectful of the opinions of your consumers. Only when you and your campaign demonstrate the essential traits and actions--reach out directly and form partnerships with your customers, integrate art and media content, and, rather than open your mouth to shout, instead open your ears and listen--will you be able to establish that elusive bond that every brand would hope to share with its customers.

Your bonus for starting with a question and for more carefully crafted creative efforts? Far less cost while achieving exponentially more effectiveness. So what kind of questions would you like to ask your customers?