I remember my first copywriting class. One of our assignments was to write a 30-second radio spot. My teacher told us to use this rule of thumb when addressing the audience: Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Tell them what you’re telling them.  Then tell them what you’ve told them.

In marketing, we’re hired because we can “tell the story.”  Whether it’s with words or pictures, we cleverly craft our messages and deliver them through a media outlet. If we want our message to get through, we tell it as loudly, frequently, and as cost-effectively as we can. Have you ever seen a Marketer’s resume that said “good listener”?

For me, the change happened slowly, I hardly knew it was happening. I began my career as a designer for advertising and print. The best shot we had of listening was whether the client was happy with how many coupons came back. Of course their goal is also to negotiate the best rates, so while I had many satisfied clients, I couldn’t be sure if it was the service or the results.

Shortly thereafter, I made a transition in my career and shifted my skills to the web and became a Webmaster. Few of my print colleagues were making this move, but clearly, this was the way things were moving. The first web analytics I ever saw were raw server logs. It was so cool to see how many people “hit” index.html or logo.gif. Of course things were pretty basic, but I was starting to listen. The challenge with web analytics is they are an aggregate view of a snapshot in time. It was listening, but it was like listening to a crowd – impossible to tell what any one person was saying.

Then email marketing started to hit its stride. Now here was a way to tie a specific person to a specific action. I could tell that so-and-so opened my email, clicked through the link, and went to my website. Awesome! Except that they were then lost in the crowd, unless I went through some crazy web gymnastics, I could not tell where that person went, or what they did. Still, I could identify who responded to my message and who did not.

With email, the process was faster, I could very quickly tell if people liked my story or didn’t. I also had to be content with knowing that on any given day 95% or more of the people would dislike or completely ignore my story.

When I was first introduced to Marketing Automation, the lights went on for me instantly. Now, I could finally take all that email activity, combine it with their web activity, AND (and it’s a huge AND) build a conditional response. Wow! I could listen and respond accordingly.

Marketing Automation, while attracting a lot of attention, is still very new in terms of adoption. According to a recent interview with Jeff Pedowitz, CEO of The Pedowitz Group, he estimates that only about 3,500 companies worldwide are using these systems. That amazes me.

It is the people, process, or technology that is getting in the way?

At first, I said it was the technology. Marketing Automation was brand new. The companies were small, you weren’t sure if the salesperson’s slides matched the available products or just the vision. Today, these companies are available as SaaS, they’re built on world-class hosting facilities, and the products do as promised – they’re mature.

Maybe it’s the process…

How many times have you sat in an uncomfortable chair in a hotel function room listening to the story of *cringe* Sales 2.0? (I’m not a fan of anything labeled 2.0) Inevitably the story illustrates how Marketing is “owning the conversation” longer, sales is no longer the controlling source of information for a buyer, the internet changed access to information, yadda, yadda, yadda. Depending on the speaker, some technologies are bolted on and whammo! Money pours out the end of the pipe. Awesome.

There are two valuable take-aways from this: First, the buyer is in control, and second, we (Marketing) think we “own the conversation.”

Why wouldn’t we think we own it? We have ramped up our publishing skills to push content out over a gazillion different channels; we can monitor everything; and we can automatically send responses based on those levers.

It’s got to be the people!

So as few of my colleagues at the time transitioned their skills from print to web, from web to email, how many were transitioning from email to Marketing Automation? After all, with all this great technology, someone still has to drive it, but more importantly they have to know where to drive it.

Marketing has to be listening on all channels in order to communicate on all channels. Simply telling the story isn’t good enough anymore. Which brings us to the latest development: Social Media.

Social Media accelerated the buyer’s control not just away from sales, but also away from marketing. Any illusion we had for “owning the conversation” quickly vanished as soon as it arrived. The individuals own the publishing space. Their content is as valued as ours, and they control how they interact with us.

But listening got easier.

It’s now our job to look at the whole picture, from web visits, email activity, survey responses, and social media activity. We need to listen across all channels in order to identify the right prospects, advocates, and even angry customers. Some clues are obvious, some are very subtle.

Ideally, I think marketing should be trying to hand over the story-telling responsibilities to our customers. Why not? We strive for the credibility they already have. Our time should be spent listening, being good brand stewards, and communicating based on the dialogue that’s taking place. Of course we can still tell the story, but our stories should not be mistaken for the voice of our brands, that exists, as it always has, in the minds of our customers.

Author: Ed Thompson is Director of Demand Generation for The Pedowitz Group (TPG), a burgeoning demand generation company focused marketing and sales solutions that drive topline revenue.   TPG  helps clients become successful Revenue Marketers®  please visit. http://www.pedowitzgroup.com/.   Ed can found on Twitter @edthewebguy