We're at the bitter end of the "I Talk; You Listen" world. If no one's listening, you might just as well save your breath and your advertising/marketing dollars as well. One-way mass communications and indiscriminate broadcasts are all increasingly outmoded. The future of digital communication will require new consumer connection tools that are personal (interest-based), interactive (immediate and responsive) and credible (peer-based and authentic). They're on their way and it's pretty exciting.

It actually doesn't seem to matter which industry or marketplace you're in. Everyone will be impacted by this transition to conversations and those that don't or can't make the move to the new two-way world will be left behind. This is mainly because-- with the comprehensive personalization of the web (thank you, Facebook)-- the entire social fabric and the ways in which we communicate and share information with each other are quickly changing. There are important lessons in these changes for those of us who are focused on and measured by our performance and by the results we achieve. And, as always, when we need new tools and solutions, this means that new opportunities are being created for entrepreneurs.

Of course, it seems unfortunate that our schools are always among the last to learn and adopt anything new and there are still loads of laggards in the land of learning. Educators love to hear themselves talk just as much as any politician and these days it seems that they have only marginally more of value to say than your average alderman. They're also among the world's worst listeners. They're still way more concerned, in some respects, with what they're teaching rather than with what their students are actually learning. And the people teaching digital marketing in our universities are several generations behind the curve and still headed in the wrong direction. They need to get out and see what's happening in the real world.In the real world, things are changing radically and rapidly. Everything that's smart today is built on a dynamic, data-infused, two-way or multi-party conversation-- not a static presentation-- and, most importantly, every campaign or initiative that's going to have any value and/or ultimately succeed in building connection and engagement needs to anticipate and build an effective plan that incorporates a feedback loop and a real-time response capability as well. This sounds great, but the technology for millions of businesses to do this in a simple, straightforward and cost-effective way largely by themselves-- and without layers, buffers, interpretations and other intermediaries-- really hasn't been readily available up until now.

Your customers want and need to be an active part of the conversation and your strategy needs to enable and actively encourage that interaction because that's ultimately what drives actual engagement. The only thing worse than not asking your customers and prospects questions about their needs and desires is to fail to respond in a convincing, informative and timely manner to their questions and comments. And just as bad for business are inquiry systems that are so painful to use and so full of barriers, detours and friction that no one in their right mind would waste the time and energy that they require. (See How To Optimize Your Site for Users Not Just You.)

What we need are new, cloud-based tools like Squareoffs ( www.squareoffs.com). SquareOffs lets any publisher (novice or professional, large or small) insert context-sensitive polls and surveys, with virtually no code required, that capture answers, display results, and also facilitate the consumer's ability to instantly share the poll and results with others who can then join in the conversation and invite friends and followers as well.

Here's an example:

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You can try the poll yourself here.

Apart from providing a relatively simple and cost-effective new polling tool for capturing customer comments, sentiments, and concerns, which almost any content creator can readily employ (pretty much DIY), SquareOffs delivers on the five most important attributes of any new digital media solution.

(1) Amplification

It's almost impossible for a business acting alone to directly break through the noise and clutter to get its message to the right audiences and to learn anything of value from them in a timely manner. And it's way too expensive to try all by yourself to reach the gross number of consumers your business needs in order to net the volumes and revenue numbers necessary to yield the sales results that would justify the costs and the effort. No one does anything today without help; the trick is to enlist and recruit others to help you do the heavy lifting without having to pay them to do so. The solution is enabling smart social sharing that amplifies and expands your reach far beyond anything that you could hope to accomplish yourself. True influencers are automatic and authentic sharers-- not because of incentives or payments - but because it's in their very nature and it's something they actively want to do. Square Offs makes it easy.

(2) Authenticity

The only content that gets effectively communicated these days is authentically shared material (often user-authored) and SquareOffs encourages and accelerates that behavior by helping publishers and authors provide current and compelling bite-size choices and content (suitable for sharing) that triggers our natural (water cooler) inclinations and behaviors to share something new, something timely, something political, something we're concerned or passionate about, etc. with those around and closest to us. And, here again, the SO system helps the customers and consumers pitch in big time as they select and sort just the right (interested) target populations from their own networks based on connections to and common interests in the topics and materials so the word gets spread and sent to the right people at the right time. Something, by the way, which the initial publisher as an outside third party couldn't hope to ascertain or act upon. Now I realize that I've written recently about the scourge of stupid and knee-jerk sharing, but in these kinds of specific instances, smart sharing gets the job done right. (See Why Viral Isn't Always Virtuous.)

(3) Accuracy

Big media businesses and ad agencies lie to us every day about their ability to identify, target and reach the right consumers and audiences for our messages. The truth is that they do a miserable job on all three counts-- reach, resonance and reaction. (See 3 Things You Need to Know About Advertising.) But particularized, peer-to-peer sharing is a whole different kettle of fish and one that is surprisingly efficient. And when the system quickly reports results back to its users, it confirms the immediacy of the communication and validates and reinforces the individual's effort. Sharing simply begets more sharing. Interactivity and feedback loops (along with the need for self-expression) are growing into essential components of any communication programs which want to build and maintain consistent and continuing connections with consumers and customers.

(4) Analytics

By and large, especially in today's crazy world of politics, standard surveys suck. There are too many reasons to count, but consider, just for openers, that the people who are running many of the polls are still using antiquated lists of landline telephones for their survey calls. When's the last time anyone you knew used a landline for anything? These bad-news boiler rooms use the world's cheapest labor to reach a terribly skewed (and largely screwed) population of old, rural and homebound people who are also the only ones with the time and any interest in talking to them. The "results" they obtain are the worst kind of anecdotal rather than analytical data and they're basically worthless. On the other hand, the digital world and services like SquareOffs offer levels of data, demographics, and other direct and behavioral measurements that provide meaningful and useful inputs as well as the ability to optimize spend, make real-time adjustments to ongoing campaigns, and reinforce the most effective messaging.

(5) Accountability

Keeping score (leader boards, result tabulations, rankings, etc.) and comparing ourselves to others is natural human behavior that social media and the ubiquitous connectivity of the web have exploded to dimensions we never anticipated. Everything today is out there-- to be tracked, measured, reported and shared-- and every business, source, publisher, supplier and vendor will be held to new standards of measurement and accountability as users and customers increasingly demand concrete results and performance metrics to justify their outlays. They will expect to know how you're doing for them and, if you're not getting the job done, they'll simply go elsewhere.

Ad tech firms are out of favor these days - too many players, too many unmet promises, too little transparency, too few successes, and too much money for nothing much to talk about in the way of results. But it doesn't have to be that way going forward. Simple services like SquareOffs can solve many of the shortcomings of the old methods and provide real results at reasonable costs for businesses of any size.