For a long time, customers have made it clear that if brands want to capture their attention in the inbox, those brands should have something valuable to say. Not just valuable information, but information that is valued by the individual recipient. In other words, a brand’s messages should be individually relevant.

This is a high standard for any brand. Most cannot live up to these expectations. A few have set up dynamic marketing programs which use each customer’s known interactions with the brand to predict what else might be relevant. Brands that are able to run these programs generally see a positive ROI as purchases go up. Yet these programs are only as effective as the customers’ level of known engagement with the brand. So only a small universe of customers (including “look alikes”) will receive relevant communications. Consequently, the ROI impact is small relative to its potential.

A small universe is not enough. As marketers, we seek to expand that universe so we can be relevant to a greater number of our customers and achieve a broader ROI impact. Fortunately, a new set of tools is just beginning to emerge, which will help us reach a greater number of customers with relevant messages.

These new tools are going to create a new sub-industry known as Social CRM.  Social CRM is going to help us listen to our customers and give them the relevant messages they want. It is also going to help us partner with our customers to make our products and services better.

By partnering with our customers, we can create products and services which more closely match to customer needs. Some of those customers will let their friends know about these great new products and services because they are relevant and have value. In turn, some of their friends will become our customers, and will opt-in to receiving relevant communications from us, and to sharing their public musings.

By listening to what our customers say in public, we can adapt our messages and make our email communications more relevant. This can only be done with customers. This can only be done with customers who opt-in to this type of communication. And this can only be done with an understanding of where to draw the line on privacy. But because this is a new source of data, we have just expanded the universe of customers who we can speak to as if we were their next door neighbor or friend.

Going forward, the brands we each interact with (and opt-in to) will be respectfully listening to what we say in public. And they’ll be changing the messages they send us to make sure they are as relevant as possible.

Customers have demanded relevance for years. Are they ready? Are you?

Originally published on MediaPost’s Email Insider blog. Read comments there.