Can you control your customers?

[Original posted at]

I just received an interesting email promotion for an upcoming conference. At the top of the email, in big bold letters was this:

“It’s time to take back control!”

Now that definitely caught my eye, as I’m writing a book about being open. That’s because the number one concern I hear from executives — and especially  marketers — is how out of control they feel these days.

Here’s some more text from the email:

“Reaching today’s consumers is more challenging than ever. Both savvy and wary of marketing, they control when, where and how they see your marketing message. With the power of social networking, they pull all the strings. But there are ways to win back some of that control. Give your message more impact and improve your chances of influencing the behavior of your current customers and prospects.

Join us at xxx where our industry’s best will show you how to master a multi-channel approach to give you more power and more control over your campaigns, your costs and your consumer.

This conference is a stepping stone towards harnessing the power of direct marketing.

Take back control.”

This event will likely draw a lot of people, because it plays to one of the largest concerns of marketers. But when a marketer approaches its customers with this mindset — that it is in a battle to control customers — it’s clear to me who will prevail. The customer, not the marketer will be the victor. That because there’s no way for the marketer to really “control” its customers. Who out there wants to be messaged to, to be controlled, by even the best brands out there?!?

What this copy refers to is this innate desire for marketers to time warp back to an era, not that long ago, where they felt that they were in control. Where they could chose when to “engage” with their customers, or  shut them out because they weren’t saying the things the company wanted to hear. The reality is that they weren’t really in control even back then —  they just felt like they were.

So to marketers who ask, “How can I control negative comments?” or “How can I control what people say about me on social sites?”, I can offer no solace. And I warn them from trying to find the relief they so desperately seek  in new products, creative techniques, or consultants that promise greater control. These companies sell the equivalent of today’s snake oil.

Instead, I hope that the conversation at this event begins with the simply acknowledgement that marketers are no longer in control, and instead, stress that it’s time to think about building a real relationship with those customers, one that is based on trust and dialog. To me, that would seem to be a much healthier way to approach the problem of feeling out of control.