Conversation is at the heart of what we do

About 2 years ago, I read a post from Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing about conversation over content, and the importance of conversation. I even gave a short talk about it during iMedia 2008. In fact, a lot of people talked about the power of conversation over those 3 days. And sure enough the idea of conversation caught on and it became a Big Thing, and now like all Big Things, we’re seeing people rally against the idea.

Numerous posts have come to my attention recently of people rejecting conversation. Excellently argued pieces all, the gist is that most people don’t want to have a conversation with a brand, so this is not what social media marketing is about.

Where I disagree is that I think these pieces take the idea of conversation too literally. As argued elsewhere on this blog, social media is really just the internet being used as it was always intended to be used – to enable conversation and dialogue. Anyone unsure about this point should watch the first episode of the BBC’s frankly excellent Digital Revolution program, which outlines the origins of the internet, and it’s role in counter-culture, free speech and open conversation.

So if Social Media is really just the internet returning full circle to a more open, free conversation, and rejecting the brochure-ware business-style sites that many brands felt comfortable with, then “conversation” becomes more than just literally “having a conversation with your customers”. There are many facets to this, but open conversation – the ability to talk with each other without being censored – is key to all of it. Brands can get involved in a variety of different ways, and below I’ve tried to outline a few of my early thoughts:

Facilitating the conversation. Brands can facilitate people having conversations through custom social networks, via applications such as Facebook and Ning or bespoke sites. At Reading Room, we’ve had successes with sites such as Fairtrade Towns and Taste The Glenlivet, by simply providing a platform for like-minded people to meet and discuss what they’re passionate about. Our Facebook page for the Department of Health is also proving to be a great place for people to meet and discuss the challenges of quitting smoking. The key to this is not to regard is as a direct conversation between brand and consumer, but simply a place where the brand facilitates conversation between people. The brand acts as ambassador, setting guidelines, explaining why people could have posts removed (use of very bad language for example) but aside from that, allowing the conversation – and with it the community – to develop organically.

    The benefits to being seen as the facilitator should be fairly straight-forward. It brings a closer connection to your brand (you are seen as someone who helps to create their world, who facilitates what they find fun and enjoyable); it also gives you a place where you can test ideas and discuss new concepts, and if required, it offers you a direct mouthpiece to some of the most dedicated advocates of your brand.

    Starting the conversation. Let’s be quite clear – there is nothing new about this idea. Good advertising has started conversations for years. My argument is just that it is the conversation – the passing of your message on a peer-to-peer level – that is the powerful part of this process. And the internet makes it easier to pass on the conversation to more people. Anyone talking about virals really just means something that is cool enough to get people talking to each other about it. If they do that talking face-to-face, over email, or over a social network, is there really any difference?

    Again, with Taste The Glenlivet, we successfully started conversations with in-depth articles on interesting subjects – these were interesting enough for people to start talking with each other on our site. Look at projects such as Andy Goodridge’s Code Organ or the ongoing work that Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon do for Sony Music (all projects I have to admit that I had nothing to do with, other than retweeting them and suffering a sense of professional jealousy). These are projects designed to do one thing – get people passing it on, talking about your brand, having a conversation about you. And they’re brilliantly successful at it.

    Having the conversation. This is a good example of how digital changes the way we do business, and not just the way we do marketing. The value to having a conversation from a marketing point of view might be limited (Neicole Crepeau makes the very valid point that most marketing doesn’t support a message to customer ratio of 1:1). However, the value to a business, and ongoing effect this could have on a brand, is much greater. Ford in the US use Twitter to help with customer service, actively responding to customer queries. There’s a great example somewhere of them helping one customer locate a place to purchase a replacement key for a spare fuel tank. Now that’s a niche request. You can image the person thinking “how on earth am I going to find this”, and tweeting more out of desperation than any real belief they’d get an answer. Imagine what a great experience it is to get a reply helping you, and not just from a friend, but from Ford themselves. Twitter and other real time social networks allow you to perform active customer service; not waiting for the customer to call you, but actively finding and solving problems. Answering customer queries and problems on a wider scale also helps position you as an expert in that particular field.

    Behaving in a human way here is key. No-one wants to talk to the loud, boastful oaf in the corner of the pub. I always liken it to chatting someone up at a bar – would you start by loudly talking about yourself, or by paying them a small compliment and asking them a question about themselves? And remember, the internet is open, which means your conversations are typically available for everyone to see. The internet amplifies conversation – good and bad – so when you reply or engage with one person you’re actually reaching a whole host of others. Just taking Twitter as an example, if anyone replies to your brand, all of their followers can see that response. Not all may pay attention of course, but the potential for your conversation to get noticed is there.

    Listening to the conversation. Numerous tools exist to allow you to listen to conversation on the internet, all of them with their own benefits and flaws. The important element of this is that you can actively search out what people are saying about you, listen and learn. Most companies are willing to spend time and money on focus groups to research what people think about particular issues, but yet seem strangely reticent to see what people are really saying on the internet. Listening to the conversation will give you insight into what people really want from your brand, and should probably inform your ongoing attempts to produce something that starts a conversation.

          That’s sort of what I’m thinking right now. I’ve probably missed a load of other examples or opportunities, and would love to hear other people’s thoughts.

          Just a quick note: some of the examples I’ve used above are from the agency where I work, Reading Room, and whilst the work is ours (and very proud we are of it too), any views expressed above are of course just mine.