Once upon a time in the history of marketing, brands said something to the marketplace, and the people responded by taking action.

It was a simple equation: Message X Distribution = Action.

Today, that equation is laughably inadequate.

Today, the relationship between a brand and its audience is not nearly as transactional as it once was; today that relationship is a partnership – or at least it should be.

The reason is simple – the customer has more control now. Where once the brand had the final word on the state of the relationship, now the customer does. There aren’t any lifelong commitments to brands anymore – it’s an open relationship.

Marketers can lament that the old relationships are dead, or they can acknowledge the new reality and act accordingly.

And the reality is that consumers have more choices than ever before. They can buy locally, they can buy from the next town over or they can buy from halfway around the world. They can examine many different buying factors in depth – price, quality, suitability, etc. – and find out what others are saying about their experience with the brand. And then they can reevaluate their decision post-purchase and even change their mind. The customer is in control of the new buyer’s journey.

So, if your brand no longer has the upper hand in the relationship, should you quit? Or should you be a good partner and try to make it work?

The answer is obvious. Today, brands must act as partners with their customers. They can’t treat them as transactions on a spreadsheet; they must treat them as individuals they value. To do this requires a commitment on the part of the brand – a commitment to two-way, value-packed communication. Ideally, this attitude will extend through the entirety of a business, to customer support, sales, and even internal-facing functions. When it comes to marketing, it requires an acknowledgment that the conversation has to be a two-way give and take. “Talking at” no longer works. You must “speak with.”

Content marketing can play a significant role in fueling this relationship. A great content marketing program is akin to being a great conversationalist at a party – well informed but not a know-it-all, opinionated but open to the thoughts of others, as good a listener as a speaker. Those are the people we want to have relationships with, and those are the brands we want to have relationships with.

As Jay Baer says, it’s about help, not hype. Brands can be better partners by delivering value to their customers, by not being stingy with their products, services and thinking, and by placing the needs of the customer in front of their own.

Transforming your transactional relationship with customers into a partnership is not easy. It requires an organizational mindset shift.

But if you can do it, you’ll have something better than a customer.

You’ll have a partner.