Until not so long ago, potential customers primarily learned who a company was through word-of-mouth recommendations, stories in the press, or limited spaces where you could pitch yourself to a presumably interested audience--in a TV commercial, a print ad, or a direct mailer.

Today, however, a company's ability to tell its own story has expanded far beyond a few column inches, the confines of a 30-second TV spot, and the six panels of a tri-fold brochure. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the marketing mentality all too often has not expanded alongside these new opportunities. Like the story of the flea who can't jump out of the jar once the lid has been removed, marketing as a profession still usually operates within the limiting logic of the circumstances of the past.

Show Me, Don't Tell Me

It made sense that, when you were limited to tight space, you had to "perfect a sales pitch" in your marketing material. Today, though, as even the smallest companies maintain robust websites, constantly update their social media presence, and have leaders who actively tweet and maintain LinkedIn profiles, taking such an old-school marketing approach to your direct communication can really start to feel out of place.

My company, Peppercomm, has spent years trying to help clients shed a traditional direct marketing mentality as they bring their thought leadership and marketing to expanded, more participatory, and more engaging settings online.

We encourage our professional services clients, for example, to share glimpses of the insights and expertise that they have to offer clients. Meanwhile, we encourage manufacturing and "consumer goods" clients to share the inspiration, thinking, design, research, and development that is behind what they do and not just point everything toward a sale in their online store.

We also regularly work with executives to help them create a presence on sites like LinkedIn that doesn't read like the corporate bio from a bygone era. Instead, we encourage them to demonstrate their passion and knowledge about their subject and their company without having to overtly tout their expertise. (Think more academic expert or analyst and less professional wrestling-style promo boasting about your skills.)

How to Shift Your Focus

One of the ways we help clients make this shift is encouraging them to see their communication from the perspective of the audience they seek to reach. For instance, we've been working with one client over the past few months to look at the communication experience both their owners and their potential buyers have when engaging with them, as well as their competitors.

A person going through that buying experience captured the customer mentality quite well: "Whenever you feel like you're being sold to, it's like you're wary. What's the matter with this (product) that you're trying to sell it so hard?" That especially comes through in places where people expect insight, expertise, storytelling, and human communication--like digital publishing and social media platforms, where the hard sell feels particularly out of place.

If you can see every piece of communication you put out from the point of view of the audience you seek to reach, you'll likely soon realize that your goals and theirs might not be so aligned.

In forthcoming research that Peppercomm has been engaged in with Economist Intelligence Unit about companies marketing to other professional audiences, we have found that almost all the companies connected their content to their products and services in some way, while business audiences are most often coming to that content seeking something else--for instance, to research a business idea, to get a wider industry outlook, or to understand a new or controversial topic.

Something else that's needed to move yourself from a mentality of "telling" to a mentality of "showing": rethinking how you measure success. If you measure success too directly in terms of direct correlation for sales figures, for instance, it puts pressure on your corporate leaders and your marketing team alike to try to do everything possible to translate every message into a pitch. (Our research with Economist Intelligence Unit, meanwhile, finds that the top turnoff for company-produced content is when it "seemed more like a sales pitch.")

But if you can get everyone in your company aligned in thinking about what best serves the customer--and focus how you evaluate the worth of the content you create based on that customer-centric perspective--you're much more likely to have a content strategy that shows people why they should do business with you, rather than trying to pitch them to do so via old-school marketing-speak.

After all, the "hard sell" is more and more frequently becoming "hard to sell" to audiences looking for helpful information, expertise, and entertainment, rather than being pitched to. If you want a customer to give you their attention and their business, prove why they should.