If you want to join the conversation, you’ll need a voice.

I like to think of the Internet as being like a person. It’s an analogy that plays out, believe me. But I don’t want to talk about how it was conceived behind closed doors or how when it was born everyone wanted to see it and look like they cared. I want to look at what it’s become.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Internet has grown up. It’s gone through its awkward teenage phase and moved out. It’s smarter than us and it’s having conversations that we can’t follow in languages we don’t understand.

Yet there are still a lot of companies (let’s, for the sake of the analogy, call them distant cousins who are only just coming up to speed) who are still treating it like they need to change its nappies.

Now, this isn’t true for the average business. But like all averages, the mid point exposes you to a bunch of people that are significantly better and an equal amount who, for whatever reason, don’t.

The biggest problem is, and it’s most likely one you’ve already mentally registered, is that the Internet isn’t a person at all. It’s people.  Billions of people. With different attitudes, likes, dislikes, tolerances and, yeah ok, I’ll go there, fetishes.

Yet businesses still try to talk to this mass of people like a child. “Do this. Do that” they’ll say. “Eat your greens. Don’t play with that.” The strangest part is, they get annoyed when their instructions fall on deaf ears.

These grown ups, some of whom have never known a life without the Internet, expect to be listened to. If they’ve got an issue with your business, they’ll tell you – often in the form of a snarky tweet or Facebook post, but they’ll passively-aggressively be hoping it hits the intended target right between the eyes.

In the days before the Internet, businesses could get away with advertising, for the most part, in a linear fashion. Each campaign followed on from the next, giving you a chance to build a story and paint a picture over time.

Today, businesses/organisations/brands that exist in the online world are advertising all the time. To survive, make sense of it and flourish, it has never been more important to know who you are and how you talk.

This requires a certain level of bravery and self-assuredness that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of businesses. These institutions are used to being in control. They’re used to having a corporate face they can put on when they address the public. It used to be all wonderfully stage managed  – “We’re talking now because we have paid to talk to you. You will now listen like good consumers.”

But now, the people on the other side of the glass are talking back. And more than that, they’re initiating conversations –some of which you wish they’d have kept in private.

But that’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s the transparent world we now live in. People are allowed to call bullshit on businesses that are being dismissive. It’s the new sword that companies should expect to live and die by. If you know who you are and how you talk, if you know your ‘voice’, then you’ll know how to respond to almost every situation the Internet throws at you.

And once you start speaking with that voice, you’ll find out who is attracted to you and who isn’t. It’s like people at a party: you’re not expected to get along with everyone, but if you’re going to put yourself out there, you need to be ready for rejection as much as you are acceptance. The more you try to be everyone’s friend, the less likely you’ll be to make a lasting impression on anyone.

* This article first appeared on The Brownbill Effect Blog on 19/02/2013

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