Building a lasting relationship with consumers is not about which brand can shout the loudest. Only those brands that engage in conversation will thrive in the digital age.
Last week, after a long and courageous battle, my washing machine gave up the ghost. So I headed to my local retail park, armed with my credit card and a willingness to use it.
The salesman in the first store I visited, which shall remain name-less, asked my budget, before launching into a monologue about the benefits of a Hotpoint model that I'm sure he had already recited to 10 people that day. It was a model that, it seemed to me, at least, would earn him very good com-mission. I left empty-handed.
In the second store, the sales-man didn't ask about my budget. He asked me what I wanted from the machine, how I would use it and whether there were any features I was particularly looking for. I was more than happy to part with my cash for the Bosch model he recommended, which I am sure will suit me for years to come.
A familiar story, maybe, but it perfectly illustrates the changes taking place in the world of PR. Although PR is inherently a more subtle form of communication than above-the-line marketing, it has arguably been as guilty of pushing one-way communication to consumers in the past, just like the salesman in that first store. However, things are changing - and changing fast.
The whole communications environment has evolved over the past year, and is on the verge of what some believe will be a major step-change.
Consumers are growing tired of being bombarded by advertising messages. More brands than ever are competing for a share of consumers' ever-shortening attention spans.
What's more, the growing popularity of social media, mobile internet and online networks have given people an artificial firewall behind which they can hide.
Only those people and brands with which they feel a connection can get behind this wall. Tres-passers will be quickly screened out with one click if they fail to spark interest.
There is no doubt that it is becoming more difficult to con-nect with a given target audience. To be allowed through these personal firewalls, brands need to develop meaningful relationships with the individuals creating them. They need to engage and inspire, as well as to influence and appeal on a one-to-one level.
In short, they need to become friends and engage in two-way dialogue. With conventional above-the-line marketing, this is virtually impossible, and it is PR's role in contributing to the development of meaningful relationships that is, arguably, greater now than ever.
The emphasis of this new PR model is dialogue. It is all about creating brand advocates who will go out and promote the brand for us, spreading our messages via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Flickr, YouTube, file-sharing, mobile phones, email and any of the numerous other applications to which we are turning to keep in touch with one another.
PR has the power to engage individuals, thereby giving us access to their own social networks. It enables those embracing the new consumer environment to create personal relationships, which is an unheralded step forward.
Social media is here to stay and will have a big part to play in this process. But the concept of conversing with influential consumers extends beyond dig-ital channels, and is something that we have invested a great deal of time into embracing and implementing at Cirkle, regardless of the media channel.
Creativity is more important than ever, to cut through the volume of marketing messages. But focus is equally crucial. With modern PR, it can be the case that less is more. As my washing machine experience illustrates, conversing with one person beats shouting at 10.
Caroline Kinsey is founding director of Cirkle
Find out more about Cirkle here