Marketing in the Age of Conversation

by Chris Kenton on September 7, 2007

Arun Rajagopal has a great series unfolding on his blog that he’s calling The Social Media Challenge, in which he’s trawling the Internet to parse the meaning and practice of social media with a beginner’s mind. It’s a good roundup of ideas and theories with a lot of good links.

Arun sent me a link and we started a conversation, and I want to bring that conversation into a broader dialog because he touches on a lot of important issues. The one that sparked my interest today was a link he sent to Gavin Heaton’s blog, and a discussion about what marketers need to do to run effective campaigns in the age of social media. It’s a good post. Gavin obviously has a strong grasp for connecting lofty concepts with tactical marketing execution.

But in all this discussion about how marketers need to be effective, there’s an element that often seems missing.

Marketers are striving to understand social media in terms of the tactics and the technology. They’re trying new things, mashing them up with old things, and trying to figure out “what works”. This is all good, however it misses one fundamental point about social media. Its popularity stems from the power people have to easily connect and share ideas based on their interest and passion. It’s relevant to marketing not because of the great opportunity it presents for marketers to more effectively reach consumers. That’s a marketing-centric view of the world, and it isn’t marketers who put this juggernaut into motion. It’s relevant to marketing in large part because it demonstrates how disconnected marketers have come from consumers, and gives rise to the very real prospect that marketers can be dis-intermediated from much of the purchase decision.

In the context of commerce, people are connecting online because they can get much better information from their peers than they can from marketers. As tactically effective as marketers might become at joining those conversations, they won’t be materially effective if they’re joining communities to put the same crap over on consumers they have with Advertising and Direct Response for the past century. It’s the age-old metric driven mentality that led marketers to believe that gaining 1.5% conversion rates was a great success, while dumping the remaining 98.5% over the transom. I don’t know what it will take for marketers to understand that consumers want value, not conversion tactics, and social media gives them a choice.

I often hear social media pundits talk about the importance of "listening" as part of true engagement. It’s true. But we’re not talking about going through the motions of listening. We’re talking about hearing and understanding what your customer communities have to say. I think all of the points that Gavin makes in his post are spot on, but they have an underlying pre-requisite. Before you can carry out any of those tactics successfully, you have to be a member of your community, not a mole. You have to have a real interest and passion that connects you with people in your customer community–not just an interest and passion for converting them into dollars. People have a remarkable capacity to see through marketing. They’ve had a lifetime of practice.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Fields September 7, 2007 at 1:34 pm

Chris:

Funny how similar things are on the mind of more than one person. Having just joined Facebook a short while ago, I was thinking about the same thing, albeit from a different and slightly more tactical level.

Because consumers have choice, social media may utlimately force brands to, as you say, provide real value. Part of that value equation is for brands to figure out how to be “useful,” so there’s this utility component. Of course, there will continue to be the component that’s about brand as identity marker and, while that may not lessen, the utility piece may be on the rise.

My two posts (thusfar) on the subject are:
http://www.marketingpopculture.com/the_spark/2007/09/facebook-and-br.html

and

http://www.marketingpopculture.com/the_spark/2007/09/facebook-and–1.html

Gavin Heaton September 7, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Good post, Christopher. As you say, it is vitally important to actively listen to what is being said. When agencies or companies are planning an integrated campaign too often they do not plan for conversation. Sure they like the buzz, but they don’t plan for how to handle it and resource it and where to take it when it happens.
Many brands are not active members in their communities or could not even find their online constituencies. An integrated campaign can help them do so … but it is pointless and could be damaging to their brand if once activated, they walk away. So yes, it is important to listen, but it is also important to PLAN to listen well in advance. As you say, otherwise consumers can see right through it.

Chris September 7, 2007 at 7:49 pm

Hi Rob! Great to hear from you! I’ll check out your posts. I totally agree with you. I think a big problem with the last generation of marketing is that it’s not based on listening or learning. It’s based on extracting intelligence when necessary, in order to mesmerize with irresistable messages and spin. And in the absence of the irrestible, it settles for manipulation and pestering with a large club. That’s a hard mantle to give up in return for… what? Listening? Participating?

Chris September 7, 2007 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for stopping by to post, Gavin. I really enjoy your blog. I’m glad to find we’re in a growing camp of like minds. Look forward to reading more of your blog.

Arun Rajagopal September 8, 2007 at 4:31 am

Dear Chris, Gavin & Rob: This is shaping out to be a great conversation. I come from an environment that is very new to social media, but is very much taken in by the technology and tools it offers. Consequently, there is this immense pressure to be a part of this ‘new in thing’ without quite understanding the basic forces that drive social media forward. It is important for brands to realize pre-requisites such as being a part of a community, engaging in conversations and listening to be successful in the social media space. Today you haven’t cracked social media if you have just launched a corporate blog with a trickle of visitors each day. The point which Gavin makes about most integrated campaigns not being designed around creating and sustaining conversations is so true – most brands point, fire and then duck for cover!
For my next social media challenge, I’m thinking about exploring a few brands who are role models in effective use of social media.

Chris September 8, 2007 at 9:31 am

That’s a great idea Arun. I’d be interested to see who you identify as effective role models. I’m also interested to see how those role models break down into industries. There’s a lot of fodder for exploration there.

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