Two years ago I completed my master’s degree with the only class that has ever really changed my life.  It wasn’t a study in public relations, marketing or business.  Instead, it was a course on cultivating conversation and self-participation in research.  Scholarly lingo aside, the basic idea of the class was that sometimes in order to understand others’ behaviors you have to insert yourself into the interaction for a bird’s eye view of what exactly is going on.

As you might imagine, there are a weighty contingent of prominent scholars who scoff at the notion that participatory research can be trusted because of the inherent biases and emotional conflicts that self-involvement creates.  In theory, this makes sense – it’s hard to be objective when you’re overly happy, sad or ticked off.  For decades, brands have listened to these scholars and by and large the reams of data collected from surveys, questionnaires and consumer intercepts paid off.  Companies were able to take this one-way communication from purchaser to seller, analyze it, create appropriate messages and respond with a volley of reverse one-way communication via advertising, old school media relations and white papers.

But then, the craziest thing happened.  Consumers decided they wanted more.  They decided they were no longer satisfied with isolated strands of one-way communication separated by months, miles and the masses.  Talking to a brand was no longer cutting it because interacting alongside a brand was so much more interesting.  And thanks to an Apple, a songbird that wouldn’t stop singing and a Harvard nerd with attitude – technology graciously acquiesced.

And the chorus of “traditional” researchers, scholars, media and well, traditional everything, suddenly sounded a little softer because the “nontraditionalists” just wouldn’t stop talking.  And texting.  And Tweeting.

Now, don’t get me wrong – self-participation in a million conversations with a million customers who dictate the success or failure of your endeavors can be quite…tricky.  Ask Dominos.  Or Nestle.

But also ask the NBA – a professional sports governing body perceived by many to be the ugly stepsister to the NFL and MLB in American spots, but somehow manages to nearly triple the NFL and sixple (no it’s not a word, but you get the idea) the MLB in Facebook fans with nearly 6.7 million.  Throw in a billion (yes, with a B) video views at NBA.com and a fan base so enamored with basketball fever that 70% actively promote the league through word of mouth and that’s stock I’m buying.

The explanation?

“We believe sports are communal experiences,” said Melissa Rosenthanl Brenner, the NBA’s vice president of marketing, in a recent interview with FastCompany.com.  And their recent activations indicate that Mrs. Brenner isn’t just paying lip service.  Communal, huh?  Somehow that sounds a lot more like that birds eye view than a ream of data that sits in the “stuff to read” folder until the paper turns yellow with procrastination.

In short, market research will never be an exact certainty – it won’t, can’t and in an age where technology continues to change at such an incredible pace, it probably shouldn’t.  But what is certain is that the days of simply talking to customers are over.  Instead, try talking, engaging, interacting and celebrating with them.