Why the FCC's Autodialer Ban Will Be Great for Innovation

Forward-Thinking Brands Will Reach Consumers in New Channels

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I got my first job when I was 11. My dad had a small market-research firm and he paid me to help out in the call center. I'd thumb through the phonebook -- highlighting every third number --write those numbers down, and bring the lists to people conducting telephone surveys.

I thought of that tedious first gig when I heard the news of the Federal Communications Commission's proposed ban on autodialers. Telemarketers and market researchers won't necessarily be returning to highlighters and pencils, but it's clear the FCC's decision is going to be a major pain for them.

For you and me, the end of autodialing means more peaceful mealtimes. For telemarketers and market researchers determined to stick to outdated models, it will likely mean the end of their businesses. But for those who innovate instead of digging in their heels, it's a blessing. Once the laggards die off in the transition, we'll all wish we'd done this sooner.

Because here's the thing: FCC autodialer ban or not, that kind of scattershot, mass phone-calling approach was a terrible way to sell products and conduct market research.

People hate those calls. Ultimately, the FCC's ruling reflects how, with a world of shopping options and information available online, today's customers are smart and savvy, and they have a powerful voice. People today feel swamped by demands on their time, requests for their opinions, and "special offers" they never asked for in the first place. The FCC's ruling sends the unambiguous message that today, if you don't change, the law will force you to change.

Some firms will look back, finding ways to keep contacting customers on the phone, perhaps moving back in the direction of highlighters and pencils, or spending more time in malls and at checkout counters to have quick, in-person conversations.

Others will look ahead. As consumers continue evolving toward social, mobile and the cloud, forward-thinking marketers and researchers will meet them in those channels, leveraging the social capital of brands and the mobile revolution to have higher-quality conversations. Whereas the old unsolicited phone call rarely, if ever, ended with an invitation to keep talking and advance the relationship, smart marketers today will not be content to have such one-night stands. Smart firms know how valuable those hard-to-reach customers are, and once they find them they'll do all they can to hold on to them, inviting them into a community, learning from them over time and always giving something back.

When life insurance company Allianz wanted to conduct a large-scale study on family finances, it created a private blog community in which members were invited to write about a variety of topics and communicate with each other. In one section of the community that mirrors social apps like Whisper and Secret, members could share tips of their own, and members could respond with advice or encouragement.

Rather than shrink from the challenges posed by today's social and tech-savvy customers, in recent years McDonald's has launched country-specific websites, "Our Food, Your Questions," wholly dedicated to publicly and transparently answering customer questions about McDonald's food. Not only is the brand connecting with customers in an unobtrusive way that builds trust, it's inviting its most passionate customers -- the ones who take the time to ask questions on the site -- into what could be an ongoing conversation about the brand.

Here are three steps marketers can take to further develop relationships with consumers, whether selling products or doing market research:

1. Identify your most valuable sources of feedback. These are the hard-to-reach customers whose input you need to make smart, well-considered decisions about how to run your business. Seek them out and find them. If you can make them come to you, so much the better.

2. Invest in the relationship. When you find the partner you've always been waiting for, the proverbial "diamond-in-the-rough," you don't try to get something from them and forget their number. You hold on tight and invest in the relationship. The same goes for your customers. Demonstrate appreciation for their feedback and close the loop, pushing value back to them to create a virtuous cycle.

3. Cultivate the community. Humans are social animals. Help your customers build and nurture relationships among themselves. Encourage cross-collaboration and authentic connections. Make your brand a positive force in your customers' lives.

People aren't naturally averse to giving brands their opinion -- they're just sick of doing so in a way that's impersonal, intrusive and insincere. Fortunately, today there are better ways to get the job done than surveys or irritating unsolicited phone calls. The most forward-looking companies have seen this coming and have already invested in better ways to talk to their customers. The dawdlers can thank the FCC for pushing them to change before their business goes the way of the robo-call.

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