For some reason, I’m kicking off another blog with another favourite saying from a parent. This time, it’s from my father: ‘It’s not what, but who you know’. Yes, it’s a truism you’ve probably all heard plenty of times as well, whether in relation to scoring a job, swinging some sort of deal, or just getting a proverbial foot in the door. Though more applicable in some cultures than others, it’s fairly universal too.

But if you’re in marketing, there’s one person whose perspective you must familiarise yourself with intimately to move both yourself and your organisation ahead. It’s not Kotler, Ries, Drucker or Porter (Wikipedia links included for a quick review of the greats). And as much as I’d like to tell you it’s Wilson, it’s not.

The person you truly need to understand is, of course, your customer. It’s somewhat of a cliché, and yet I challenge you that you probably don’t understand your customer nearly as well as what you think… at least, not anymore.

In fact, one of my partners and I spent 45 minutes yesterday in an enthusiastic discussion about exactly what it takes to know your customer in the 21st century. Specifically, can we still apply all the consumer behaviour knowledge gained in the field over the last hundred years, or have the rules changed as completely as some would have us believe? The answer, we came to agree, lies somewhere between the two. Underlying human characteristics havent changed and likely never will, so much of the old stuff remains valid. However, peoples perceptions, expectations, and behaviours have changed rapidly in line with changes in their environment, so many of the rules have indeed changed.

The key difference for todays marketer, then, is the evolving environment: to understand your customer, you need to understand the new world in which they live and interact. The part where this gets difficult is where you look for trusted names (like those listed above) to provide a solid framework to steer you through the new landscape… there simply arent any. By nature of the very environment itself, the theory is fragmented and sometimes plain contradictory, much of it is supposition rather than research, and it’s so new that good case studies are hard to come by. Also, much of the material comes from self-proclaimed experts. That’s the beauty of online publishing: no matter who you are, you have a platform to share your ideas with the world, irrespective of whether or not they’re of any actual merit. At least in the print days, we had editors to screen them for us. (In some online cases we still do, thanks Kate!)

What is the solution to understanding it all, then? My advice is simple: jump in. Participate. If you don’t have a Facebook account, start one. If you’ve read about Twitter in all sorts of other media but don’t even know what an actual tweet looks like, sign up. Heck, be a leader and get on what I’m predicting to be the new craze: Posterous. If you consider yourself too old to start now, consider that 60% of Twitter users are over the age of 35. Sure, understanding the mechanical aspects of these platforms won’t make you an instant social media expert, but at least it will demystify them for you. If nothing else, you won’t be so easily verballed into things by your agency (who may or may not understand any more about it than you do at this early stage).

If you’re still asking if it’s really necessary to engage in social media yourself before you can be a part of creating it for others, let’s return to the earlier discussion I had with my partner. He drew the humorous analogy of a criminal defence lawyer defending a client charged with murder: most lawyers in that position, he observed, have never had to defend themselves of the same crime. I’m willing to concede the point – but I’d argue that if they had, they’d probably do a much better job.

So what are you waiting for? You’ve obviously read one blog (thank you), so skip on off to a few more, attend a conference, or listen to a webinar. Who knows? You may even get hooked.