Can you control your customers?

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.


  1. Rob Halsey says:

    Hi Charlene, This is an area I’ve been following closely over the last few years and I’ve always looked at it through two questions: (1) Can you keep control as a company (2) Should you keep control as a company. Obviously, #1 is a prerequisite for #2. To me, the question is more nuanced for the 30% of companies that might be able to answer that yes, they would be able to keep control because of lock-in, etc. I know your focus is on openness which is the right way to go … for most companies that is an evolution from control to openness and I haven’t seen a lot of people address it that way.

  2. Excellent point Charlene.

    Control is a negative term that should not enter into a (modern) Marketer’s vocabulary. We need to understand social media and embrace it – not try to wrangle customers back into an archaic system. It will only backfire.

    I for one am attending conferences on social media marketing to gain a better understanding of it all. I’m approaching these events with 2 views:

    - how I can use social media in the marketing mix for my clients, and

    - how my social media clients address their market (ie, big brands, media outlets, etc)

  3. Ann Greenberg says:

    Marketers need to close their mouths and should develop their listening skills. If they really want to help companies sell their products they need to ensure a robust feedback loop to engineering/development. Listening to and responding to customer need is generally what is needed. Nothing really new here, it’s really old school business – but some of these skills have been lost over the last century with marketing programs leveraging mass media…. two-way communication capability evens the playing field again, requiring the re-development of listening skills (in a massive way…)

  4. jenn_lee_ca says:

    There is no control in a dialogue. Its a give and take between two or more parties. This dialogue allows for authentic relationships.

  5. Charlene- Great post… I own a boutique staffing/headhunting firm, and I always laugh when someone says “applicant control” or “Client Control”… There has been a shift, the good old days (Good old boys) are over… Thanks again for sharing.. Brian-

  6. Very true. I was traveling in Hong Kong last week was not happy with the hotel having to move me 3 times during my 10-day stay. I threatened to blog about the issue and they relented. I read Jeremiah’s post about SideWiki and wrote on the United Airlines site. There is no way a marketer can control their customers. The tools are all there for consumers to win.

  7. The only way to “control” your customers right now is to provide excellent customer service and listen to what they are asking for.

  8. “control” of any kind is an illusion…i do NOT mean is a spiritual sense….ugh!….but neurology actlly is proving this….the desire 4 control is actlly a pretty gud symptom of insecurity and personal fear…..unintended consquences are much more prevelant and interesting….

  9. When I read the context and tone of the email’s promotional text, all I can think about is how you could substitute “manipulation” or “manipulate” wherever the word “control” is employed. Maybe, you could even substitute “coercion” or “coerce.” It’s disappointing that some organizations still view a customer as a component of a financial transaction. I agree with your assessment Charlene, and hope that this firm realizes someday that social media marketing is about trust, tranparency, and building a lasting relationship.

  10. Hey Charlene, I agree you can’t control customers. That said, you can listen to them, guide them, and manage their product experience. Marketers must control and manage their brands – always with an eye toward objectives, strategies (POST) and sales. Ceding control of brands to consumers is lazy and counter-productive; listening and doing something smart with what you learn is not. IMHO.

  11. Control has long been in the hands of the consumer – social media now gives them even more scope to hold brands to account. That’s a good thing as large companies have taken consumers for a ride for too long!

    This lack of control forces institutional change and a shift towards transparency and authenticity which will benefit both company and consumer.

  12. Good post, Charlene. I often say the new motto for communications and engagement is the serenity prayer–let go of what you can’t control, change the things you can, and know the difference!!

  13. Someday soon I hope that companies realize that the control that they think they have now doesn’t exist. Ignoring what is happening online isn’t going to make it any better for them so they should start listening, observing and then strategically figure out how best to push forward.

    We work with a variety of clients at Campfire and I can tell you that from the smallest of startups to the biggest brands in the world, everyone shares the same fears. What is interesting is that the smart ones realize that they have to change and we are helping them do that.

    This isn’t about setting up a Facebook fan page, a twitter account and commenting on blogs. It is about really understanding how things have changed and determining what works best for each client. There is not one single answer for everyone no matter what any conference or speaker might tell you.

    As much as I love all of new media and believe it is a great thing, I firmly believe that the smart agencies will work with their clients to figure out the best way to move forward. You can’t throw away all the old and assume the new is going to save you.

    The simplest thing I can advise is that the next time you are planning a marketing campaign to stop and think FIRST about the consumers you want to engage with. Figure out how to educate or entertain them. Start there. What can you do that will make them stop and pay attention. That is the first thing you need to do before anything out. Get their attention and then make it worth their time to go further.

  14. When this house of cards falls so will the status quo politicians of our day. ,

  15. “There is no control. There is only engagement.”


  16. I don’t think that we can control our customers unless we will make appropriate actions.

  17. Nice post….thanks for sharing it.


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