My friend Gilles Arbour tells a story about his early days in network marketing. After explaining his opportunity to a prospect, the man said, “You mean, like Amway?” No, Gilles hastened to assure the man—that is, yes, it was the same general idea, but no, in this way and that way and these other ways, it was really nothing like Amway. “That’s too bad,” said the guy. “I like Amway.”

The point: don’t assume you know what the other person thinks. Because you don’t; not, at least, unless you ask.

That was the thing about classical advertising, what Seth Godin calls “interruption marketing”: it never asked us what we thought. In fact, it told us what we thought.

Classical advertising started out by telling us what they had. A pretty straightforward message: “We have Coke, and it’s delicious.” Sometimes it even got a little bold, and told us what we ought to do about that. “Buy it today! Don’t delay!” Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, it went to school on psychology and realized it could do a great deal more: it could tell us what we wanted.

Until our televisions told us to, most of us had not really thought about ring around the collar, the germs that can cause bad breath, or those unsightly split ends. We did not realize how profoundly and desperately we wanted—nay, needed—to rid our lives of these scourges, until the idiot box (as my mom called it) told us so.

Mass media: mass hysteria.

The web is actually a type of mass media, too, only it behaves in a personal way. It doesn’t tell us what we want—it asks.

Ironic: for too many years, network marketers have been a personal medium that behaved in a mass-market way. In my first year in the business, I was actually told, “How do you know if you’ve got a prospect? If he can fog a mirror!” Then there was the networking legend who would walk into a crowded elevator, wait until the door closed, then face the group and say, “You probably wonder why I invited you all here!”—and pitch his opportunity.

That was slash-and-burn prospecting, and it hurt the human soil as much as its agricultural counterpart wrecks good loam.

Marketing is finally growing up: now that we’ve externalized our nervous system and stretched it around the planet over fiber-optic threads, we finally have the capacity to market far and wide through human conversation. That is, to treat consumers like people.

This should be, and can be, our moment in the sun. Let’s make sure we grow up along with it, and leave the slash-and-burn, mass-attack methods back in the twentieth century where they belong.

A revolutionary approach to marketing: ask me what I want.

JOHN DAVID MANN is Consulting Editor to Networking Times.