How to Join the Online Conversation: Part 1

Many of us have already taken a clue from “The Cluetrain Manifesto” (thanks, guys), but what can we do to truly embrace the “markets as conversations” mindset? How do we keep our monological, corporate-speak brochures from sneaking back into our marketing communications efforts? What steps can we take to change our approach and speak with and market for our customers? Yikes!

Prepare to enter the conversation mindset: First, scrub all corporate-speak from your lips. Then, think about an appliance or lawn tool you recently purchased. Remember how you researched, reflected, and considered options before you handed over the cash? Did you enjoy talking with the salesperson, and/or did he or she give you extra information on which to base your decision? Would you have felt comfortable returning the product because of the connection you made with that person? Hopefully, yes.

What a nice, secure, relaxed offline experience that exchange was. Now, consider the following example of an online business that hints of conversation but doesn’t quite follow through.

Gardening is big industry these days and fodder for much over-the-fence, over-the-phone, and word-of-web discussion among primo consumer markets (especially women and seniors). My colleague and I recently encountered a gardening site with incredible proprietary products (in addition to other products) and great (free) educational content behind its online presence. For gardening freaks like those of us in the Northwest, it was literally pay dirt!

Yet, upon further analysis, we realized that the strengths of the site were oddly hidden. Among other things, the gorgeous photographs of plants were not used well in the body of the site, but instead were used way “back” in the shopping area. Also, there was a place to register for a newsletter, but there was no content description or other motivation to sign up. There was also no immediate statement saying “Yes, the plants you’ve grown to love at your garden center are ours!” Consequently, this site missed several opportunities to connect visitors with its unique brand-name products and its wealth of informational resources that were available nowhere else.

There is much frustration in saying hello with no further discussion at this cocktail party.

In order to join your customers’ conversations, let’s consider the basics:

Why do people visit your site anyway? Go all the way back to the roots of the business exchange you envisioned for your site. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What role are you playing in your niche?

  • Are you trying to reach beginners or cater to a more sophisticated audience?
  • What are people hoping to find by visiting your site?
  • What type of experiences are people seeking there — shopping, learning, browsing?

By clustering the information you offer according to the experiences people seek, you build on your strengths and leave your weaknesses for the other guys. Conversations are much easier to start and carry on if you are building on what people are already expecting. Then, you can expand your offerings in response to their niche needs and are not playing a guessing game.

Where has the conversation broken down? Admit it, it is possible that there are some broken customer touchpoints on your site. If you review your last three to six months of customer service email requests and talk with your sales staff about their customer interactions, what filters to the top? Why aren’t customers finding the complete information on the site? And what about those exit patterns? Are people frequently leaving your site after viewing the home page or trying to fill out a cumbersome form?

Consider rethinking the ways you’ve always done things. These days, web consumers are much more savvy and aware of time wasters and marketing ploys, so review those areas that may grow unwieldy if left unchecked — like FAQs and in-depth content. A good example of helpful redesign is Ben & Jerry’s Consumer Assistance page, where you can link to the FAQ section and search for answers by category. Searching for information through their “social mission” category, for instance, is much more intuitive than paging through random questions or alphabetical lists, and it helps keep customers interested in the conversation.

Rethinking your online presentation from the customer viewpoint might also mean that you create summary documents or Top 10 tip lists from more lengthy documents, develop a quick tour of your product or service, or make it easier for web visitors to contact a live customer service representative. Let the customers decide which conversations they want to expand before they waste time in other areas, and they’ll return for more.

Are you willing to reorient your site to the consumer? The Eastman Kodak Company has done exactly that. It recently relaunched its web site with a more customer-oriented focus. The new site helps people learn how to tell a story with pictures, edit their photos, learn about photography, and share email postcards (using their own photos!), among other things. Now that’s thinking like your customers!

In Part 2 of How to Join the Online Conversation, we’ll discuss specific areas where conversations can be joined or started, customer experience as a priority, and the ways in which to keep conversations going with and among customers.

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