Q You're going off to grad school and the love affair is over. Response, once mind-blowing, has turned frustrating. Shutting down just happens. That's it. It's time to do a back up and get a new computer. What do you do first?

a) Message your friends and ask them to rate their laptop's cool factor
b) Search blogs and tech review sites for the naked truth about what's out there
c) Stop your TiVo to watch the commercials because you know that brands always tell the truth

A A toss-up between a and b. Would eat dirt before doing c.

For brands, all the fuss when it comes to digital boils down to one big behavioral shift: consumers are talking to each other before they are talking to brands. Brand websites increasingly are not the first stop on the decision-making voyage, and sometimes not visited at all, but only after determining what brands are worth even hearing from.

Welcome to the world according to, well, me. Or others like me.

Brands increasingly use the term "conversation" these days to talk about the relationship they have with consumers. But a lot of that is wishful thinking. Brands are struggling with an above-ground consumer intelligence network that passes around information on products in rooms where brands can't even buy a vowel. Social networking is just one way this works, but it can be so incredibly effective that brands have rushed to create Facebook pages and twitter in an attempt to look like just another person. And who can blame them? You go where the fish are, right?

But the problem is it takes more than just throwing out a line. It's all about what's on the end of the hook. Brands are spending an awful lot of time trying to figure out how to make the digital space work, and not nearly enough time trying to deeply understand how to make their brand work.

Consumers want brands to exceed their expectations. We call it “delight.” Others call it the WOW factor. But whatever you call it, consumers want it. They want to have a brand surprise them with what matters most to them in the category. For some categories, that's customer service. For others, it's product design. Or it's the ability to customize and package offerings. It's different across categories. But if a brand has done its homework and knows what matters more than something else, then building a digital face from that knowledge just became a lot easier. Then, just maybe, the brand will have something worth listening to.

Back in the day, brands used to call this “strategy.” And, under all this year's jargon, that word will make it way to the top again, because it's what makes the difference between targeted tactics that ring the register and the spray-and-pray approach of just being somewhere because you're afraid not to be.

In this marketing pond, it's not just friendtelligence that matters. It's brand smarts, and that's always worth listening to.