The Digital Relationship Pyramid

This post was originally published on the Limelight Networks Blog as part of my responsibilities as the Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy.

Marketing is changing because of digital. It’s no longer just about convincing people to buy your product. There are thousands of you out there trying to do that. We call it the “noise”. So what can marketers do? They can tell stories. They can show video. They can engage.

They can develop a relationship.

For the first time, marketers are presented with a way to engage directly with their audience through their messaging. Imagine trying to do that with a magazine ad! But with Facebook and Twitter and blog comments, marketers can engage in real-time. The emphasis has moved away from just broadcasting a message (i.e., set it and forget it). Marketers are now equally concerned with delivering the initial content as they are with the direct followups that result from engagement. And just as much as marketers want to engage, the audience wants to engage as well; which makes it doubly important that marketers really understand how relationships work because they are more than just connections with new and existing customers. Relationships are the new form of currency in the digital world.

Working with lots of customers as they create, manage, and optimize their digital presence, we’ve started to observe a fairly consistent pattern of behavior with respect to how digital relationships develop. The pyramid below describes it best.


  1. At the bottom is awareness. The audience knows who the company is, but they don’t really think about it. The audience might say, “I know who Starbucks is, but I don’t go into their stores.” In the digital world, it’s very easy to become aware of a brand between social media, online search, and digital advertising. Brand is everywhere.
  2. Next is acquaintance. In a world of users wanting to engage, this is the first step. The audience might think, “maybe I would go into Starbucks if I was wandering down the street, suddenly wanted coffee, and that happened to be the only coffee shop in 10 miles.”
  3. After that is friend. The audience might say, “When I think coffee, I think Starbucks usually. I’ll branch out, just based on convenience (there’s a Dunkin Donuts right down the road, but Starbucks is a mile past that; yeah, I’m not traveling the extra mile). I do appreciate Starbucks product and their company. In fact, I like their Facebook page and sometimes check out their website for new stuff.”
  4. After friend is confidante. If an audience members is a confidante, they are sharing info with Starbucks who is trying to personalize their experience. Starbucks wants to connect with them personally. WITH THEM! And on a personal level, that feels good that this big company wants to connect and that makes the individual want to connect with them. Maybe it’s through their reward card. An audience might say, “I actively seek them out for my coffee fix. I might even walk a little further down the road to get to one. When I’m on Google maps, I don’t search for “coffee shops” I search for “Starbucks.”
  5. Finally, there is intimate. Every marketer wants an intimate relationship with everyone one of their digital audience. They want them to be their BFFs. A person who is Starbucks’ BFF might get into fist fights with people who dared to say that Dunkin Donuts’ coffee was better. This BFF might say, “I wear Starbucks apparel. I am active in their Facebook conversations. I share my Starbucks experiences with them. I am a loyal reward member and have provided lots of information to Starbucks that they use to make my experience with their digital presence and retail locations more personalized. I feel like Starbucks thinks I’m worthy to be their friend (you’d be surprised what people like this will tell you about themselves).”

So why is this important? First it enables marketers to better plan your approach. Knowing (or at least guessing) at what level the audience is enables marketers to better target content to them that will facilitate more engagement and, hopefully, a deeper relationship towards intimacy. Second, it shifts the focus away from calling our online audience “prospects” or “customers” or “converts” and starts to address them as “people” and “individuals.” An online audience isn’t a nameless group. They are a collection of different and unique people that want to be treated as such. Or at least feel like they are being treated as such. When marketers cross the boundary from “lead” to “person” they invite people to be vulnerable with them, to tell them things about themselves and their experiences with a product or service that they may only tell their closest friends.

An excellent Ted Talk by Brene Brown exploring vulnerability (and she’s a qualitative researcher so it’s not all fluffy feel good therapy stuff) provides some amazing insight into this.

The importance of digital relationships is forcing marketers to understand the psychology behind what makes people connect because understanding that drastically improves the success of people engaging through relevant, contextual, and targeted content.

Know your audience. Know them as people. Only then may you eventually know them as customers.

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