In the blink of an eye, the world changed around us. We now watch video clips from complete strangers on YouTube, we can read their personal diaries (blogs), we can compute and communicate wirelessly on our mobile phones, we have a mainstream green movement, and we join people lining up for a $4 cup of coffee.

Did you ever imagine you'd see these things as commonplace in our culture? Technology rules, time is the most valuable resource, and getting your marketing information and sales pitches through to your customer is more challenging than ever before. Uniqueness is the key to getting noticed.

The average American is exposed to over 3,000 commercial messages a day. In 1971 this was 560. Advertising, marketing and even news are now viewed skeptically by consumers regardless of the media — so how do you get your message through to your customer and prospects?

  1. Get to the Source.

    We've all had our fill of being on the receiving end of cold calls and direct mail. You must know your customers and prospects as individuals, not just professional contacts. In sales and marketing meetings most people refer to the client by the company name as in, “We need to land that XYZ, Inc. account.” When, in fact, the more accurate focus needs to be “I need to reach William of XYZ, Inc to really get his attention.” After all companies don't buy products — people do.

    So take William. What do you need to know about him? What is his background, interests, family situation, hobbies, favorite sports teams, magazines and vacation spots? This isn't intense research; this is normal conversation on a “touch and go” visit. I make notes after the meeting or I'll forget some of the most important minutiae — which are the most important to being unique when you make your next approach.

    Now that you have this information, it's time for the “Shock and Awe” approach. In the office of the CEO of Nationwide Insurance I found a virtual museum of John Wayne memorabilia. Everyone quickly recognized his interest there and loaded him up with one more piece of John Wayne stuff. The uniqueness was gone. However, I also noticed framed on his wall was a framed certificate from Starfleet Command. He was a Trekkie! I asked him about it and it was a rediscovery for him because no one ever talked about that. His enthusiasm talking about Star Trek told me it was a rare discussion.

    After the meeting I went back to my office, went to eBay and found a collectable Star Trek metal communicator, which in essence was a large lapel pin, created from the original series. I also found a Klingon red war pin. I sent them both to him with these instructions - “When your want to send the message to your staff they need better communication, wear the communicator pin. When it's time to kick some butt, wear the war pin.”

    Not only did he appreciate the small gifts (which cost me less than $20 total) but he loved the ideas I suggested. I tried to connect with the person instead of quoting annual report information back to him. Get to the source of the decision-making, be unique in your approach, and be heard above the noise of information.

  2. Feel the Pain

    If you aren't selling solutions, no one is buying. As much as you'd like to get new products into the hands of your customers, as splashy as you can make your brochures and marketing materials, it doesn't matter. The customer isn't concerned with helping you achieve your profit targets and quotas. They are most concerned with finding answers to their problems.

    Funny how customers can always find the money when they want something badly enough — don't let them say otherwise. You must learn the pain points the customer is suffering from. What are their biggest problems? These are the problem that can either be very public, very expensive or very costly to their customers. What are their constant nagging problems? Every business has ongoing nagging problems that are often accepted as a necessary evil and a constant pain in the caboose. What are their most costly problems that occur rarely? These are major malfunctions, shutdowns or breakdowns that require huge repairs. How would they define “disaster”?

    I frequently ask my customers and prospects about their disaster recovery program. Frequently, I get blank stares or fumbled words indicating they actually have no clue. Get your customers to define what they would consider a disaster and then see if they have a formal recovery program from such a disaster. 9/11, Katrina and other unforeseen disasters have impacted hundreds of companies. Those who are prepared survive, those who aren't, don't. To be part of someone's survival plan is to be part of them with a vested interest in their recovery — which makes you a partner.

    These are all opportunities to help your customers. The better you understand the definition of these very different issues, the better you can offer solutions through your products and services.

    Want to be unique? Here is an example of addressing a pain point. Hotels are concerned with a drop-off in guests due to airlines adding all these new fees, the most pain-inducing being the charge for checked luggage. How are they dealing with their customers' pain points? They are experimenting with essentially refunding those fees, The New York Times reports. For instance, Loews Hotels through Sept. 1 is giving guests who provide proof that they paid a bag check fee a credit on their hotel bill. Hotels.com is mailing gas cards to some customers. Being on the leading edge of such pain-reducing services puts you on the leading edge of a customer's preferred list.

  3. That Technology Thing

    My Verizon LG phone stopped working. I couldn't hear who I was talking to, yet they could hear me fine. I went to the Verizon website for some troubleshooting ideas. Not only did I find troubleshooting ideas, but there was a place to email my specific concerns to tech support and the ubiquitous toll-free help line.

Then there was the unique option I chose. They also had a chat box where I could have online chat immediately with a live person. I clicked the box and within 20 seconds Gabby responded; we worked on my problem in real time. Although in my case I did have to return the phone for a replacement, I was able to run through the basic options with her to determine that it was in fact a malfunctioning unit.

What about your website? Where are you positioned in the Google search? What is on your site to attract prospects and customers? What help opportunities are available to your customers who are having problems? In fact, what are your online strategies?

OK, breathe. I know you are not the size of Verizon and don't have that kind of staffing. I know that you have limited resources and this whole Internet thing is completely different from how you are used to attracting customers. I also know that this is the “new” marketplace that is making phone books obsolete and snail mail a poor choice for marketing, and offering the opportunity to inform prospects like never before.

You need to have an Internet strategy in your strategic planning process. Let's begin with Google search. If you are not on the first page, you are lost in the shuffle. People are impatient and consider the first 10 offerings as their only choices. Like the old yellow pages ads where the bigger the ad-boxes were, the more they got noticed, position is also important today, just of a different sort. With Google you need keyword strategies and a links strategy to stay on the top of the list. Consult people who are experts in this new marketing area.

What is your presence in online social networks? Facebook and MySpace began as gathering sites for young adults and now they are becoming the domain of businesses and commerce. LinkedIn is designed more for businesses, based on the same concept. Creating a presence on these sites is fast, easy and costs nothing other than the manpower to keep them updated.

Your own website is your new front door in the marketplace. How do you compare with your competition? Some B2B websites are creating virtual trade shows where visitors can review your products, the detailed information about those products, see videos of the products in use and then ask live questions expecting immediate responses. Are you this far along the Internet highway? If not, these things take time, but unless they are on someone's to-do list, they will most likely get lost on the priority list because it's not ingrained behavior yet.

Your website needs to be a place customers and prospects want to visit, are driven to, and is user friendly and informational enough to keep the visitors there. All print marketing should be designed to drive people to the website. A recent study found that 92 percent of Americans over the age of 45 with Internet access will check out the website for additional information on print marketing that gets their attention. Are you prepared for that traffic?

Reaching customers and prospects has entered a new age that requires behavior modification. A savvy combination of using the technology while still maintaining the individual relationship with the person with the decision-making power will yield better results. Then you can sit back, check your messages on your Blackberry while sipping on your White Chocolate Mocha, and say, “what a world — I'm lucky to be in it!”