Dr. Stephen Covey points out in his 5th habit of highly effective people: Seek first to understand, and then be understood.

Corporate communications is no longer a one way push message. The power that was once in the hands of big corporations has shifted to the consumer. In order to know what is meaningful to customers and investors a company must figure out where their target market spends time, (on and offline) listen to what they want, get engaged in a non self-serving way and deliver on what’s important to them as individuals. Companies following this model win trust, loyalty and word of mouth/click.

Thirty years ago marketers could buy a two minute commercial spot interrupting the viewer’s latest episode of Gilligan’s Island and feel fairly confident they’d reach their target market on that particular channel, at that specific time. If the commercial aired often enough it would become a household brand as consumers became familiar with it through TV and radio ads. An effective but expensive undertaking.

Gone are the days when building a brand was accomplished using one or two mediums of communication. Now we have digital video recorders (DVRs) that wipe out commercials all together. There are over 500 niche broadcast channels available and more special interest magazines than a marketer can possibly keep track of. The Internet has created thousands of like-minded people in communities on every topic imaginable. Welcome to the new era of niche marketing in a forever evolving Web 2.0 economy.

The ease of world travel, globalization, trade and advances in technology have removed borders. When it comes to consumer choice of what to buy, the options are endless. Many products and services are of similar quality therefore consumers are making their buying decisions based on what their peers are saying, how familiar they are with a brand and most importantly, how much they trust the company to deliver on its promises.

Businesses that are listening and engaging their audience gain this trust. Success comes to those who are making products and services people want based on customer or investor feedback. Listening to an audience is easier today than it ever has been through the Internet and social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, etc. These communities allow companies to gain information beyond the traditional focus group.

Within online networks, people discuss and share their experiences and opinions on products and services from the comfort of their home, office or handheld device, in real time. It is the most honest and valuable feedback a company can hope to get and if used wisely, can create incredible results for the business.

Take Starbucks for example: They created a brilliant My Starbucks Idea campaign adopting a “people-centric” approach inviting customers online to talk about what more could be done to further enrich their Starbuck’s experience. This allowed people to express their ideas on a platform where others could read, post, vote and share with others in their networks.

If an idea made sense, Starbucks then adopted it. After enough people claimed the coffee was better in ceramic mugs than plastic cups, stemming from one of the ideas, Starbucks listened and gave customers that came in the store a discount on their coffee if they brought their own mug.

In March 2008, the open forum had generated over 70,000 ideas within a year’s time. Starbucks also generated buzz gaining over 300,000 viewers through their YouTube If You Vote, We’ll Buy Your Next Coffee, carries a strong “We Care About Our Community” message and offers customers a free coffee to participate. Their Twitter account is just shy of 250,000 followers. Starbucks understands the power of engaging its audience and building trust by providing an emotional experience. People become loyal based on how they “feel” about a brand, not necessarily how logical the decision is to buy it.

An article in the June 21, 2009 PARADE Magazine stated, “Businesses spend about $1.6 billion a year on ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising, promoting their goods to bloggers and to people who use social-media websites like Facebook, according to the research firm PQ Media.”

In order to learn how your customers or shareholders are talking about you online, and how to engage them, here are a few simple tips:

• Go to Technorati (blog search engine), Google Search Blogs, Google Alerts and Twitter.

• Search for key words and phrases that match your company’s products and services and research what shows up. Subscribe to blogs pertinent to your organization and follow the conversations for a while.

• After gaining a feel for the community and when appropriate, add value to the discussion through your own compelling content. Be an expert, helpful and maintain a humble tone.

• Start your company’s own blog, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook accounts. Deliver relevant content that people will find of interest and can share with others. This is not a place to toot your own horn; it is a two way conversation where you provide transparency on operations and communicate information that interests your target market in some way.

In summary, if you truly care about your audience, listen to what is being said about your business and then be an active voice in the conversation. Passive companies hoping to fly under the radar of discussion are not in control of their message, nor do they gain the trust necessary for growth. Those that are hearing what’s important to their customers and investors, receive great rewards.