At first blush, you might not think the two guests who joined me on stage at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis to record an episode of Marketing Smarts as part of our Smart Marketers Tour had much in common. 

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On the one hand, we had Patrick Schaber, AKA The Lonely Marketer, who happens to be VP of Global Marketing at Communications Systems Inc., a company that provides "physical connectivity infrastructure for global deployment of broadband networks," among other things.

On the other hand, we had Joe Sorge, President of Hospital Democracy, which owns and operates restaurants in Wisconsin, including AJ Bombers, home of the peanut butter bacon cheeseburger (a delicacy inspired, apparently, by a burger on offer at The Blue Door pub in Saint Paul).

Indeed, the marketing challenges faced by Patrick and Joe are quite different, with Patrick spending his time focused on marketing IT to the enterprise via channels, and Joe constantly trying to figure out how to get hungry people through the doors of his diverse establishments. 

Nevertheless, as I listened back to the conversations I had with them (which you may do via the media player above), I realized they both understood and believed in the value of literally sitting down and engaging with customers. (When was the last time you did that?)

Patrick talked about this engagement in the context of a chair used by one major of retailer of home electronics to encourage employee-to-employee dialogue about issues that needed to be addressed at the company.  Having heard the story of the chair, Patrick asked himself whether his organization was "really face-to-face engaging with our customers." 

Realizing that it wasn't, or at least not to the extent it could, he decided that one thing the company needed to do was "get as many people [customers] as we can at one time in a room and sit down and talk to them face to face," which led to a series of user conferences that served exactly that purpose. 

Of  course, Patrick pointed out, you don't have to organize global conferences to gain that sort of customer insight. Doing so can be as getting your marketers out of the office and in front of customers. 

"Send them with the sales folk," he said, "and let them, instead of getting the word from the sales force… let the marketing people go out and find it for themselves. Let them sit in the meeting where the customer says, 'You know, you're not providing me this: I don't know what you do.' Let them hear it first hand."

Joe discovered this power of customer engagement in part by immersing himself in Twitter and "becoming one of them," talking to customers on the web using the @AJBombers Twitter handle as if he were just another customer himself. Joe found that social media extended the restaurant space and allowed him to talk to his customers and potential customers "exactly like their sitting at your table."

This isn't just a metaphor for Joe. He believes that the most powerful part of any social media "campaign" is making the "offline connection to the online work." You have to work to bring the two worlds together. He pays close attention when people mention in social channels that they will be visiting one of his restaurants—alerting his managers so they can give these guests special attention—and when he notices somebody has tweeted from the restaurant itself, you'll actually find him walking around, smartphone in hand, trying to connect the diner to his avatar.

In the end, as Joe sees it, the real strength of social media as a marketing tool lies in its ability to help you form "a closer bond with the existing customers that you have...creating more repeat [business] and more frequency because of that connection."

In other words, whether you are selling complex technical systems or burgers with fried pickles on them, you need to not only understand your customers but also to interact with them face-to-face and strive, in everything you do, to "make it about them."

At least that's what I learned sitting down and talking face-to-face with Patrick Schaber and Joe Sorge in a rock club in Minneapolis.

If you'd like to hear these conversations in their entirety, you may listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes and never miss an episode!

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