Let's face it; none of us are perfect with respect to building relationships with customers. How can we do a better job at this all-important task over the next year? Here are a few ways:

#1: Build a Brand That Matters

"There's no place for mediocre content on the Internet," advises Neil Vogel, CEO of Dotdash, and one of the experts I was able to interview for Firebrand Group's current ebook, Big Ideas for 2018. "If your brand doesn't mean something to people, you are not going to thrive (or survive) on the Internet today. You are seeing that in publishing right now - brands are all over the place because they don't mean anything to anyone or have any real value to users." Vogel's one who knows from experience, having famously split About.com into a number of different high-value properties over the last two years, culminating in About.com's rebrand as Dotdash.

"People want expertise," advises Vogel. "If your brand can communicate that, then you have a much better chance of succeeding today."

Going out on a limb to build a brand that resonates isn't risky; playing it safe is probably the riskier move, Vogel argues. "If you disappear from the Internet today, and no one is upset, you probably didn't build a brand that mattered to enough people, or you tried to build a brand on top of a flawed model."

To build a brand that truly serves a purpose, you need to stand for something, Vogel stresses. "Once you determine what you stand for, that will dictate everything after that. You need to identify the true value of what you are doing, and focus solely on delivering on that value." Case in point: Dotdash's home and food-focused brand, The Spruce, is now one of the strongest properties of its kind on the internet, simply because Dotdash set out to do something that it didn't believe was well-served in the marketplace.

#2 Obsess Over Understanding your Users

Although it is quite difficult to truly understand your customers, it is also one of the best ways to foster innovation. "You can gain an entirely different perspective by speaking with people directly and better relating with your users," explains Jamie Albers, head of product for  Jigsaw, a tech incubator started by Google, and now operated as a subsidiary of Alphabet. "This can help you create lasting and meaningful connections between your organization and your users, which can in turn help you create better products that reflect what people actually want. It aligns your company around a specific shared goal while also communicating your values to your customers."

"It can be easy for a few users to skew your understanding, so it's critical to consult other sources," advises Albers, who looks at resources like AppAnnie for basic app metrics to understand user engagement and demand. She also analyzes user comments on app store pages, social media sites, and blogs to identify unique user sentiments and use cases for different products. Unsurprisingly, she cites Google Consumer Surveys; they're an insightful, inexpensive way to engage with users at scale and help validate findings."

It is also incredibly helpful to review specific metrics to look at how users are engaging with your products and services. On this front, Albers recommends, Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Heap, Looker, Tableau and Periscope Data.

#3: Crystallize your Brand Voice

Another way to build better relationships with customers is to work on your brand voice, especially for emerging brands. "Voice is part of the fabric of digital-first brands and in many respects how they differentiate and challenge the more conventional incumbents," argues Brendán Murphy, a Senior Partner at global creative consultancy  Lippincott. "Looking at industries from insurance to healthcare to financial services, brand voice is the megaphone they use to frame their differentiated purpose and experience."

Murphy, another participant in the Big Ideas for 2018 project, shares that "to build emotional bonds, [brands] are realizing that they need to dig deep into their origin story and recommit to their purpose to engage employees, recruits, and customers."

"As more and more of the service components of brands leverage bots and AI, the verbal experience is an integral part of how customers experience, relate and define brands.

While brands like Oscar get high marks for expression, the best brands walk the talk by using their voice to deliver on their promise.Southwest Airlines does an excellent job of keeping the voice real and engaging across all channels, from flight attendants to social media. Patagonia and Everlane are others brands Murphy cites for being very clear and transparent with their customers about their value proposition, leading with clear and purposeful actions which their customers appreciate.

"The first and most important thing brands need to do is define their purpose," advises Murphy.  Character, he explains, is an expression of purpose, values and offering as a company, and shouldn't be something disconnected from who your company is at its core. Figure that out, and you'll be well on your way towards acing the year ahead.