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Marketers today understand that consumers think, feel, and react in ways different from June Cleaver some 50 years ago. We use descriptors like fickle, indecisive, and disloyal to describe the modern consumer.

Just what do these terms mean? Mainly, they mean that consumers have too many choices—multiple brands, brand extensions, and sub-brands—and too much stimulation, especially online, making it nearly impossible to predict their next move.

And yet, marketers continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on segmentation analysis and other research, hoping to understand and predict the behavior of these fickle consumers. It's as though they're still chasing June Cleaver when neither her modern counterparts nor today's consumerism as a whole bear any resemblance to the past.

So what can marketers do? They can start by grasping the profound societal and technological changes that define today's new consumerism.

Rather than predicting a consumer's next move—which is not only imprecise but also impractical—marketers should focus on forming meaningful brand relationships by listening to and actively engaging consumers as they negotiate the major changes in society and their lives.

Identity Crisis

That no two consumers are exactly alike is a given in marketing. And now, marketers are starting to realize that individual consumers bring with them a whole new set of complexities: Each person has several identities that shift with context. They may, for example, represent themselves one way in the LinkedIn business network, and another, very different way on Facebook with friends.

Each of those identities has its own idiosyncrasies and behaviors, so when they are in one context—e.g., a busy mom chatting on—they're more receptive to some brands, perhaps recipes from Kraft, and totally closed to others that don't appeal to that persona.

Let's consider the busy mom further. A typical mom has sub-personas that may include "household manager," concerned with efficiency and convenience, and "gracious homemaker," focused on entertaining friends in Martha Stewart style. These two personas—efficient manager and elegant homemaker—can and must coexist dynamically, even though they may clash on a daily basis. And those are just two of many personas a busy mom might have.

So what's the secret to understanding our modern June Cleaver, she of multiple personas, morphing from context to context? The answer is simple: Listen to her.

Listening is critical for a more meaningful relationship between brands and consumers. First, however, brands must embrace today's epic cultural shift toward more open, flexible, and adaptive communications across the social Web.

What Won't Work

Traditional research—what may have once helped identify, segment, and target June Cleaver—just isn't well-suited to understanding and engaging consumers on the open, flexible Web. To build relationships with ever-evolving, persona-shifting consumers, marketers need new strategies and approaches that are built around listening. Not just once, but continuously and programmatically.

For companies getting started, it pays to rethink how and when to approach consumers. The short answer is continuously. But how can a company sustain continuous connections to customers? Would a purpose-built social network or public online community work? What about an integrated marketing campaign that uses state-of the-art Web and site analytics along with newsletters and customized email?

While those approaches have merit and can be part of a larger marketing effort, they can't help brands truly understand, engage, and sustain long-term relationships with today's dynamic, multi-contextual consumer.

What Does Work

If you want to understand, engage, and sustain, you'll need to embrace three tenets of new consumerism: listening, relationship-building, and empowerment.

Relationship-building, as a process, is misunderstood by many marketers. Too often we confuse willingness to buy as evidence of a relationship. It's not. Brands must earn the right to have meaningful relationships with their consumers, and that isn't accomplished by special offers and personalization alone. Like personal relationships, brand relationships are built on trust that is earned over multiple exchanges and eventually feels natural instead of contrived.

If all you're doing with customers is surveying them periodically, you'll never build trust or a relationship. But if you establish some intimacy with your customers—providing an ongoing, intimate forum to dig deeper and share the many facets of their different personas—you're entitled to ask more of the relationship. You've earned that.

Listening—real listening—is one of the most powerful and often misunderstood "disciplines" of marketing. Social-media monitoring, for example, is a great early warning system, but it isn't really listening. Effective listening can't be keyword-driven alone; it must be done with sensitivity to nuances and with a finely tuned ear for discovering unexpected insights.

One way to effectively listen to customers is through private online communities where brands can begin to understand how customers negotiate changes in their lives. Through communities, brands have the means—like never before—to be with consumers over time, building relationships and being present so that they can really listen. The trick is to isolate the multidimensional voices of the consumer, nurture them individually, and channel what you're hearing into meaningful changes that send a clear message: "We're listening."

Empowerment is the final, misunderstood tenet of new consumerism. Giving consumers a public forum to voice, vent, or vindicate—perhaps a public social network or your blog—seems like empowerment, but it's not. When you master listening and build a relationship with a consumer, you owe them something in return. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, what they want isn't coupons, free stuff, or other remuneration; they want to see the impact they're having on your brand and hear their own voices in new products and promotion. That's real empowerment for today's consumer.

In the end, consumers are most engaged when they realize that a brand—perhaps yours—is actively helping them negotiate the changes in their complex lives, from how and where they communicate to what they consume. Give them that, and they'll be empowered to dig deeper and explore more on your behalf. Moreover, eventually you'll offer more than simply a product or service to them: You'll become "their brand."

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Manila Austin is director of research at Communispace Corporation (, which creates and manages online customer communities.