So much of what we currently call marketing is trying to create connection, whether between offers and customers, audiences and organisations, and so on. Yet that connection is often only superficial, and the holy grail of deep, loyal, long-lasting connection – what I'll call 'true connection' – can seem elusive.
The following is based on what I've observed in how I connect with others and the world around me, and in how they connect with me. It's not based in science (I'm no fan of what the science has done to marketing!), and I'm no expert in human behaviour, but after many decades of life I do class myself as an 'experienced observer'!
And this is definitely treat this as a work in progress. Some of the current elements may turn out to be clusters, or imposters. Some may disappear, though that seems unlikely. For the moment, however, these are the five specific elements I see need to be present for true connection, and they occur in this order. The cycle may repeat many times in a single interaction, or just run once, though my sense is that one cycle does tend to invoke another if it goes to completion.
Perhaps the most powerful of the elements, it appears to set the potential of the whole connection by creating limits for the following elements. Regardless of how willing the rest of the system is to connect deeply, if the opening – the invitation, if you like – hasn't been sufficient to set such a potential, the connection will be limited.
Consider a child looking to a parent for support and comfort after falling and grazing a knee. There's a very clear 'opening' to receive connection, and the potential is greater than if the child dismissed the whole incident without concern. Regardless of how the parent reacts, it is the child's opening that sets the potential.
Once an opening has been offered, the first element in what I'll call the 'response' (elements 2–4) is seeing. Some would claim this is closely aligned to empathy, but for me that word implies an aligning with the perspective of the opener that I'm not sure is necessary. What's needed is for someone (always a 'someone', even if that someone represents an organisation) to see into the opening. Deeply see, beyond the surface presentation, through into what's really going on.
Just as the opening sets the potential for the whole, so the depth of the seeing sets the potential of the response, and the depth of connection that follows. If you aren't seeing what's really being presented, how can you respond in a way that creates true connection?
After seeing, what follows (if it's allowed) is a creating. It may be an idea, something physical, an action or expression of some kind. Or any combination of these. It arrives as inspiration or insight in response to the seeing, and is felt as an impulse, a burst of energy, a creative 'arrival'.
The potential to create is set by earlier elements, but we also choose how far we let the impulse grow. Ever had the impulse to say something or act, but stopped yourself because of what others might think?
That's our fears stifling the creative impulse. And that's why creating is separated from giving in this outline. There can be an opening, a seeing and a creating without following through to elements 4 and 5, and without true connection being created.
If we can overcome our doubts and fears, we will give whatever it is we've created in response to the opening and seeing. This is giving at its most generous best. Giving without caveats or expectations, no strings attached, no keeping score.
Give, and be nothing but deeply appreciative of the opportunity to connect you deeply with another. The greatest 'gift' in this process is not what's given, it's the opening that creates the opportunity.
Finally, what's given must be received. Without deflection, and without the usual attachments, such as guilt, shame, indebtedness, unworthiness, and the like. Allow, absorb and acknowledge.
For example, rather than receiving and acknowledging a complement ("Thank you, I appreciate you saying that"), too often we deflect ("Oh, I was just doing my job" or "It was really a team effort"). For true connection to occur, such comments must come after the receiving.
So how does this relate to the typical marketing activity we see today? For a start, it's fairly safe to say that for most marketing the ultimate goal is true connection. It lies at the core of Kevin Kelly's '1000 true fans' concept, where customers become loyal, devoted advocates.
Yet modern marketing tends to force the opening, pay little attention to seeing, deliver what's already been created and often not care how it's received.
A curious click on a YouTube advert can launch you into funnel designed to maximise the chance of you taking what's on offer, regardless of how open you were. What's offered is based on a limited number of fixed customer profiles, with little capacity to respond to the individual customer. Customer support is an automated bot, and too rarely is there adequate opportunity for the receiving to run its full course.
There are obviously some great exceptions. Retailers, suppliers and educators prepared to give up a sale today in return for a possible long-term advocate. But nowadays, most marketing material is designed to achieve just one thing – convert potential customers into customers – and sales people have targets to reach based on units sold, not depth of connection achieved. Which is a shame.
Shallow connection at scale has replaced true connection that has depth. And while the bottom line might be more units sold in the short term, such business models are much less resilient when change or upheaval come knocking. And in a world where change is the norm, that resilience is probably the greatest asset you can have.