Of the many ways that the dawning of the digital age has fundamentally changed how we live, perhaps the most pertinent for corporate communicators has been the reality that the world is now, essentially, a 24/7 focus group. With every new product launch, business announcement or personnel change, there is a stream of reaction on Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere and a host of other social forums.

What this necessitates is the need for corporations to listen carefully to understand the context of what conversations are taking place and how they relate to the organization, its brands and programs. These are the insights that allow a company to interact with and respond in an engaged and authentic way to today’s highly immersed, informed and active consumers. Never before have consumers interacted with brands like they do today. They are the ambassadors, the curators and the reporters of brands more than ever before. As a result, consumer relations plays an incredibly important role within the communications function, and by extension, the health of brands overall.

This constant feedback loop provides us the ability to keep a pulse on consumer sentiment, and when necessary, to take the appropriate steps to serve the needs of consumers. For example, at its Mission Control Command Center, Gatorade grows passion for the brand among consumers by listening to social media conversations that are happening in real time. By understanding consumer preferences on such an intimate, current level, the brand is able to not only increase engagement, but also quickly respond to their needs.

Of course in some cases, it’s important to stick to decisions that may initially encounter resistance but will ultimately be beneficial for the business, whether that’s in order to maintain the company’s economic sustainability, adjust to the trends of the marketplace or meet evolving, but still unrealized, consumer preferences. For example, when Facebook first switched the design of its home page to a Twitter-like live stream, users were vocal in voicing their disapproval. However, the company understood that more and more, this streaming format was the way that people would be consuming information, an insight that over time, has proven to be true. Just as importantly, Facebook clearly communicated the reasons for the changes with its millions of users and why it believed it would be beneficial to their experience.

Similarly, when PepsiCo entered the nutrition business with purchases of Tropicana in 1998 and Gatorade and Quaker in 2001, and supplemented the portfolio with Wimm-Bill-Dann dairy in 2010, it may have seemed like a departure from its traditional business. But the company saw the expanding market for packaged nutrition, which has developed into an industry that is now $500 billion and growing – demonstrating that the decision to enter this market was a fruitful one.

In our jobs, we always stress that communication is a two-way street, between company and consumer. Before we can express the messages that will resonate with consumers, we need to understand their perspectives, their needs and their preferences. And with no shortage of social forums on which they are able to make their voices heard, it behooves us to listen intently and communicate business decisions – whether they are popular or not – in a transparent and respectful way. In consumer relations, as in life, that is the key to engendering long-term loyalty.