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.

Rather than considering it the ceding of control to consumers, Dell considered the outpouring of comments on IdeaStorm the incredible advantage it was in the development and launch of its Latitude business laptop line. By listening before acting, Dell launched a product that it knew in advance would meet the specific needs of its customers.

The "digital focus group" involving thousands of potential customers allowed Dell to design the kind of product that people said they wanted, and to make critical design choices earlier in the process, thereby significantly reducing time to market and operational costs.

Bob also made clear that the act of listening to customers was seen as not just the responsibility of a single department but, rather, as an integral part of Dell's organizational culture. In other words, to be effective, it's necessary to share the listening and learning responsibilities with those in the organization who can benefit most, from folks in research and development, to those in marketing, finance, and customer service departments.

It should also be said that a listening culture starts from the top. Michael Dell is the biggest proponent of making sure the company avails itself of any digital tools that make listening to customers easier and more productive.

2. Make customers collaborators

One of the most interesting things to emerge from the digital arena is proof positive that consumers trust other consumers for advice on brand information more than they trust organizations. When your brother or your neighbor tells you that a particular brand of automobile or cell phone or cereal is better than another, you're pretty likely to believe it.

One of the most financially efficient ways to sell a product or service these days is to get buzz going—to let one consumer tell another and another and another via the amazing viral dynamics at play. The enormous success of YouTube and social networks like Facebook and MySpace is due, in part, to the terrific technical applications that make the sharing of ideas, opinions, news stories, and even interesting advertising so fun and so easy.

Word-of-mouth has always been one of the most efficient forms of marketing.

Digital tools have made this time-honored word-of-customer tactic even more practical. It was with this in mind that Dell created a new functionality on its community forum site called Accepted Solutions. This application gives customers the ability to ask questions about Dell products or to pose problems they're having and have other Dell customers provide answers.

Bob Pearson told me that the application has taken off like a rocket. Since launching the site in February 2008, Dell has had thousands of people ask questions and thousands more respond with solutions based on personal experience. Dell's customers post the solutions and Dell employees read through the answers to verify their accuracy.

To make the process of finding answers to a specific question as expedient as possible, the Dell team responsible for the application created a visual "check mark" system to make searching through the millions of question/answer threads manageable. Since its launch, Dell has posted over 15,000 Accepted Solutions with an average of 350 views per solution, tried-and-true advice from one customer to another.

The beauty of an application like this in the current economic environment is that it saves Dell the expense of fielding thousands of phone calls or hiring extra customer service representatives. Customer relationship management is done in collaboration with ready, willing, and able customers. While this, alone, is reason enough to keep the effort going, the ability for one Dell customer to help a fellow Dell customer is a wonderfully effective way to create brand evangelists and long-term brand loyalists.

3. Identify where you can play to win

Digital technology has put a powerful magnifying glass on just how many ways there are for consumers to come into contact with a brand. It has also magnified the importance of helping those responsible for branding to see how their roles influence the totality of the brand experience.

While it's never been easy to assess which of a company's interactions with a brand has the greatest impact on buying behavior or return on investment, the digital arena makes it even more challenging. Nevertheless, in a down economy, it's even more important.

You have to determine where customers are hanging out and which branding efforts will yield the greatest value. It is for this reason that I advise clients to create a map of the customer's journey with a brand. A map allows the organization to get a sense of the operational requirements to deliver on the brand's promise and enables it to assess which branding initiatives are cost-of-entry versus those that will definitively differentiate the brand in the marketplace.

Bob Pearson and his team are well aware of where their customers and prospective customers get their information and where and how Dell needs to play to get their attention. Among its most critical cost-of-entry digital functions is its Dell Reviews site. Pearson explained that reviews posted by customers are among the most powerful and the most cost-efficient ways to share insights, not to mention the easiest to implement.

Given how easy digital search makes it for consumers to compare and contrast products, a review site is a must-have, not a nice-to-have marketing tool.

Creating a Dell-sponsored platform where people can talk openly about the positive and the negative aspects of a particular product is valuable not only to potential buyers but also to Dell employees. In fact, providing customers a Dell forum for their opinions is far more useful to all interested parties than having them air their views on generic sites or blogs.

Following the customer's journey a bit farther afield, Bob told me of an interesting program he and his team had taken on with and their platform. An enterprise-level software service, it's a customer relationship management tool that puts all information about a customer at the sales team's fingertips, including information about via which communication channel a customer likes to receive product updates and information. As Bob said, "Our account rep has the customer information they want and need. It's personalized and its turbo-charging the long-term efficiency of our sales force."

4. Stay on top of what's new

It's not enough to read the countless articles about what's happening in the digital space. To serve your brand well and to provide value to the customers with whom you'd like to do business, it's essential that you have a working knowledge of the space in which they and you are playing.

To understand how to use digital technology to work more efficiently requires taking an active part in learning what makes it tick. Create a profile on LinkedIn or Facebook. Upload photographs to Flickr. Post messages on someone's MySpace wall. Enroll with and tweet on Twitter. Post your own reviews on product Web sites. Identify where your customers are hanging out online and what they're doing.

People use technology to make the things they already do more convenient. Your job should be to see how to use technology to do what you already do... more efficiently.

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image of Allen Adamson

Allen Adamson is a co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce, a disruptive boutique consultancy specializing in branding as well as activation.

LinkedIn: Allen Adamson

Twitter: @adamsona