I'm a hugger. I'm not sure when I became a card-carrying hugger, but as a teen I spent a lot of time at my buddy's house with his Portuguese family and relatives, who treated me like another son. They always had that huggy thing going on, and it must have rubbed off.

Hugging has a place in marketing, too, at least in a virtual, figurative sense. I thought about that on a recent flight home from London, while reading Gary Vaynerchuk's book The Thank You Economy and thinking deeply about customer relationships and Gary's mantra of listening, engaging, and taking care of all customers.

That flight, and what followed, helped me understand how hugging your customers can be an effective marketing strategy under the right circumstances. Stay with me through the following anecdote, and you might agree.

To Hug or Not to Hug?

I sat next to a British woman who works in Google's London office. For the next 9.5 hours, when we weren't watching movies, reading, working, or listening to tunes, she and I discussed work, European privacy issues, travel, relationships, movies, America, and my passion for English rock music. We had connected and were enjoying conversational give-and-take even though we had just met. Each of us also could sense when the other wanted to disconnect for a while.

Once we landed at San Francisco International Airport and were on our way to US Customs, I wondered whether she would be OK with a little goodbye hug after sharing so much on a 5,000-mile flight.

To my surprise, she offered a hug first as we moved toward our different customs lines. To me, the gesture signified that after several hours learning about and sharing with each other, she was comfortable enough to express her feelings with a public hug.

Have You Hugged Your Customers Today?

In the context of social media and customer relations, hugging is not about getting the conversion. Instead, it's about the conversation and about building the relationship. It's about getting the prospect or customer to the point where she will give your company, brand, product, or service a public "hug," especially without your having to ask for it.

As my airplane anecdote suggests, getting the hug might depend more on customer experience than on a lengthy relationship. Are you listening almost as much as you are talking? Are you providing a quality experience? Are you solving a customer's problem?

Companies that will win in the future will be those that not merely build great products or provide amazing services (or both) but do those things so well that customers and even non-customers will give them hugs in public.

I hug lots of people in my work realm, but I also know that many people are not huggers nor will our relationship ever reach the "huggability" level. Likewise, not all of your customers are huggers, but they still want and expect the level of attention and service that leads to huggability for others.

As a marketer, a growing part of your job will be identifying those customers, prospects, partners, or influencers who are potential huggers.

In a "sideways marketing" world, where getting your customers to do your marketing for you is the new goal, identifying, engaging, curating, and enabling your huggers might be as important as anything else you do.

Six Keys to Getting More Hugs

How can you boost your huggability quotient? Here are six tips.

1. Be huggable

No matter how big your company is, how great your products are, or how funny your Super Bowl ad is, your company just might not be huggable.

Being huggable goes beyond having cool products; it emanates from your company culture, your service levels and responsiveness, and the vibes you send to the market. You don't have to be Apple or Starbucks to get hugs, but you do have to be likeable and approachable.

Among Marketing's crucial roles now are to be the conduit of feedback, to understand the market, and to drive a more consumer-centric focus.

2. Listen

Good marketing can't fix bad products or inferior service, but it can own listening. Listening goes well beyond using social listening tools to actually having conversations with customers.

Early in my career, I learned that the one doing the listening has more power than the one doing the talking. Take advantage of the opportunity to build a culture of listening, communicating the voice of the market, and driving change and action at your company.

3. Engage

Though "engagement" has become perhaps the ultimate marketing cliché in this era of social media, having conversations with customers is a key step to getting public hugs. Don't just react when influential customers tweet about a problem. Talk with them about their interests, or get their feedback, ideas, or reactions to a blog post or video.

The more you talk with customers, the better your relationships will be. You'll also be more likely to have positive conversations that result in a solid hug.

4. Identify

Identify those customers and influencers that show a propensity to be huggers.

In a B2B or service setting, your employees may already know those customers. Once those customers are discovered, encourage them to speak on panels and participate in webinars. Some might be socially active, but they might need acknowledgement and opportunity.

In a consumer setting, find customers who are active on community sites or forums, and those who provide reviews of and post about your brand, products, and services on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites.

5. Hug

Show some love. Send a card, flowers, or a gift. Solve a problem. Offer a no-strings freebie, such as advice to a B2B client, a latte from your coffee chain, or a private tour at your winery.

Hug customers publicly via a social media call-out. It takes two to hug, so initiate the hugging. We've started doing that at Silverpop, where we recently recognized eight clients as "PopStars" with public acclaim and smart little desktop trophies. Contenders nominated themselves in seven categories, and those who didn't win got handwritten notes and copies of The Thank You Economy.

6. Enable

Your hugger customers need a channel to display their public affection for your company. Make it easy for them.

For B2B clients, provide standard marketing avenues, such as case studies, webinars, videos, and speaking opportunities. B2C customers can offer testimonials, product reviews, and user-generated videos; and they can become acknowledged experts in your community forum.

Enabling huggers involves having conversations with them on your blogs, communities, Facebook page, and Twitter account. If you don't offer those avenues, or if you don't respond to customer comments, don't expect a lot of hugs.

* * *

The future of marketing is not about you. It is about ensuring that your customers do your marketing for you and enabling them to do it.

It all starts with a hug.

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Can We Hug? Six Tips for Getting Customers to Show You Love

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Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop, an email service provider for B2C marketing initiatives and B2B lead-management processes. Reach him via lmcdonald@silverpop.com.