Late last year I read an article titled "Call it a recession, already!" Though at the time we didn't officially know that we had already been in one for some time, proof abounded that we were living in stormy economic times with no ray of sunshine amid the clouds. And smart organizations were looking for every way possible to pare budgets and operate as efficiently as possible.

As part of the research I did in preparation for my recent book, BrandDigital, I interviewed some of the best and brightest people in the fields of marketing and digital technology, and they provided incredible insight on how digital tools and tactics can be used to not simply increase operating efficiency but also increase customer loyalty.

Here I share some of those insights, with specific focus on my conversation with Bob Pearson, Vice-President of Communities and Conversations at Dell. Though Dell is a computer manufacturer, the ideas that Bob discussed can be adopted by any organization, no matter what size, industry, or level of technological acumen.

Before I delve into the top four ways that companies can use digital applications to both cut costs and influence people, let me offer a one-sentence summation: Engage with your customers in relevant ways, and they will unlock more value than you could possibly imagine.

1. Start with listening

It's very easy for marketers to talk, and they do. However, these days it's more important and simpler than ever for them to listen. Consumers want to have their say, and this desire should be seen as the positive dynamic that it is. Wouldn't you rather get insight from hundreds of people about how they feel about your brand than sit in the forced setting of a focus group with 10 people who may or may not feel comfortable about airing their views?

Digital technology allows marketers to listen in on the millions of conversations taking place every day on blogs, on product and industry review sites, and within social networks. And it enables them to act on issues long before they get out of hand. Most significant, it gives them the opportunity to get feedback about potential products or product features prior to spending money on something people may not be interested in.

Bob Pearson and I discussed a section of the Dell Web site established with the express purpose of listening to customers and gauging which ideas are most relevant and important to consumers. Called IdeaStorm (, it's an online forum where consumers can provide input on existing products and, more germane to organizational efficiency, provide feedback about products and service features still on the drawing board.

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Allen Adamson is managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates and author of BrandDigital: Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in the Digital World and BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep It Simple and Succeed.