Way back in 1999, the authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" boldly asserted that "markets are conversations." Their overarching thesis (teased out over 95 smaller theses) was that markets were originally places where people met face to face to discuss ideas, buy stuff, and, by extension, talk about the products they bought. Mass media, they said, had made the conversation one-way, but the Internet now had the power to reopen the channel to the producers, creating a global marketplace online that truly had the power to be a real conversation.
This idea shook the business world, rocketing "The Cluetrain Manifesto" into the top 10 business books for 2000 and became a mantra for the new economy. CEOs everywhere asserted they weren't marketing but conversing with consumers by allowing for customization and taking in user feedback through their Web sites.
Over time the idea has become a sort of gospel for online marketers. And since the dawn of social media, the idea of markets as conversations has morphed into the popular meme of brands as conversations. Just google the phrase some time if you want to see how far the meme has spread. In fact, Federated Media's Conversational Marketing Summit even uses the phrase as its slogan and guiding principle.
But are brands conversations? It might be nice to think so, but as many bloggers would probably tell you and as CNET staff writer Elinor Mills points out, many folks aren't all that sanguine about the idea of conversing with advertisers. For all the talk of how feedback and social media channels have allowed consumers to have a voice, if you look at most companies' behavior and their reticence to truly open themselves up to bloggers, commenters, and users freely contributing content, the conversation, while ostensibly open, is fairly one sided, with the brand acting as final arbiter over what gets conversed about under its official umbrella. Bloggers, tweeters, and social networkers might converse until they're blue in the face, as long as that conversation doesn't happen on any official sites or make its way on to any "official merchandise." Users contributing media can go as nuts as they want with their conversational elements -- as long as what they contribute doesn't violate copyright or any number of other rules. God forbid anyone's brand actually get sullied by any truly open conversation. It'd never recover, right?
What most marketers have missed when it comes to misapplying the conversational mantra to their online marketing (especially in their social media marketing) is that a true conversation is built on a lot of factors that turns the blood of most brand managers ice cold. A conversation is built on respect. It's built on equality and equal participation, and it's built on credibility. Most of us who thought we were having a conversation with another person would quickly change our perception of what was going on if the other person handed us a list of rules before we could talk, moderated out comments she didn't like, or (worse yet) barred us from talking to her if we openly criticized anything she did. A conversation that requires a disclaimer isn't truly a conversation.
Once you get outside the realm of the official brand properties, consumers are talking to you. And they're saying pretty much anything they want about your brand, regardless of what you'd rather have them do. I do a lot of higher-education marketing, and I always point this out to clients when they start to get nervous about really participating in social media. "What about our brand?" they ask. "What if someone says something that doesn't reflect well on our school?" "Well," I always tell them, "go search for your school on CollegeHumor.com."
Try it yourself. Search for your alma mater at CollegeHumor. Chances are, you'll be surprised. While there's plenty of tame (or mildly amusing) content associated with where you got your degree, chances are a lot of it is NSFW (define) content that'll make you blush. Talk about brands gone wild!
While this kind of content would have never made it into the comments section of most schools' official blogs or comment areas, it's on a site that's frequented by a lot of college students and prospective college students. And it doesn't have to be CollegeHumor that you need to look toward: most user-contributed media sites have plenty of examples of brands and their marks being used in ways that I'm sure their creators (or managers) never intended.
While it's debatable whether most brands are having conversations with their customers, be assured that those customers are having conversations with each other. For the lack of true access or openness, they're talking behind your back. And you can't stop it. No matter how much work you do to manage your brand, it's really out of your control.
So what do you do? You can do what a lot of big music companies do and fire up your legal team to squash the conversations with your brands that you don't approve of or that don't follow your version of acceptable use or intellectual property protection. Or you can embrace these conversations and figure out how to incorporate them. You can move from the somewhat bogus notion of brands as conversations to the bold idea of brands as collaborations.
That's the true genius behind what we just witnessed with President-Elect Obama's on- and offline campaign. This was the first major campaign where people were truly invited to collaborate in the building of a brand rather than simply watching it from afar. The deft use of social media to organize grassroots efforts; the utter genius of the Obama campaign's iPhone app, which turned individual supporters into one-person call centers; and the embrace of tactics such as the MoveOn "Obama Loses By One Vote" video generator are great examples, and there are plenty more.
However, there's one key factor used by the campaign that made the difference: the constant and successful soliciting of millions of small donations from supporters. Why? Because by asking people to contribute any amount of money (and often rewarding them in small ways for it), the Obama campaign made sure that people were invested in the process. There's a big difference between watching from the sidelines and being a contributor. Once you're a contributor, you have some power. You're on more equal footing. You're now part of the conversation.
The campaign incorporated the contributions of millions and brought them into the overall creation of the Obama brand experience. They understood that this was a two-way dialogue. You need only look at image that became the de facto grassroots brand image of the campaign, the Hope poster, and watch how it was embraced by the campaign and the constituents to see this. You need only see how the official Obama site's social networking features allowed for easy group creation and grassroots fundraising. And you need only look at the volume of e-mail traffic coming through the lists maintained by the official site. The brand was collaboration on a grand scale we haven't seen before.
But while it could have dissolved into the complete free-for-all we all worry about when getting into social marketing (and sometimes did), the Obama brand survived and prospered. Yes, there were plenty of deft moves by the official campaign team, and those shouldn't be discounted. But there were also the unwavering core values of the brand (illustrated by Obama himself) and the true and open participation and collaboration facilitated by the campaign that made this happen.
Why? Because conversations, or better yet, collaborations, can only happen between people who are mutually invested in the conversation and its outcome. The participants don't necessarily have to be equals (parents can have real conversations with children without ceding their positions), but they do have to be open, honest, and above all respectful. That's when you have a true conversation.
Are you ready to have true conversations with your customers?
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
December 12, 2013
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