Sustaining the Conversation

On the third morning of Advertising Week, I received a curious e-mail from my colleague Max Kalehoff, who was smack in the middle of a panel:

“Someone needs to put the word ‘conversation’ on hiatus — at least for a bit.”

The message struck a chord. First, I’m probably the biggest abuser. Second, I’m hearing it everywhere. It’s like someone made a billion copies of the first page of the “Cluetrain Manifesto” and paper-bombed Madison Avenue, or wherever the marketing community lurks these days.

Worried we might be over-buzzing a word that probably deserves a more sustainable shelf life, I immediately put a set of questions to my Facebook Consumer-Generated Media group:

Are we as marketers over-using or abusing the term “conversation”? Are we truly credible in putting that term to use? Is “conversation” as we see it synced up with how consumers truly view that term? What will it take to ensure the term works for the long term?

I was surprised by both the volume and the immediacy of the response. Rather than edit and synthesize, for the sake of conversation, I’m letting the responses all hang out. Keep the discussion going: send your own reactions to ClickZ and check the Feedback page for your and others’ comments.

Yes, we’re overusing the term…it’s the latest catch phrase for the cool-kid marketers, most of whom have never really engaged a market in dialogue. As marketers, we’re masters of the crafted message, disciples of the branded monologue. We’re the last people consumers/customers would trust, since the perception is that we’re slick, biased shills. What we need to be successful long term is to help the C-team understand this massive volume-level increase in the voice of the consumer, i.e., their voices are as loud or louder than marketing and the marketing budget. Once they understand and get over it, management must grant us the authority to actually engage our customers in true conversation — one that’s not vetted by legal and PR.

–Erik Weaver

It’s not about conversation. It’s about the outcomes it creates.

–Steve Rubel
Micro Persuasion

I don’t think consumers give a rat’s ass about the term “conversation” or its use or abuse by advertisers. Seriously. If you did a Jay Leno interview on the street in any town and asked consumers to define the term “conversation,” I guarantee it would have nothing to do with advertising, advertising agencies, marketing, etc. Consumers care about their needs, desires, their day, their families, their jobs, their careers, their children’s education, finding solutions for their problems. And the only conversation they want is the one that gives an immediate solution to their problem and lets them get on with their [lives] and on to the next challenge, item, task on their list, at the very least to get home.

–Zane Safrit
Conference Calls Unlimited

“Conversation” is the new “engagement.” It’s a mostly empty term bandied about at conferences by people who want to appear forward-thinking. (What qualifies? Putting an “e-mail us” link on a Web site? How about running one of those consumer-generated ad stunts?) The conversation is in the eye of the marketer, who will assuredly claim to be having a conversation with customers. This is not unique to digital: the regular ad world throws out the big idea at the drop of a hat without much thought. But a larger issue is whether it’s all a crock. I don’t want to talk to my toothpaste.

–Brian Morrissey
“Ad Week”

Marketers aren’t using it enough, and most of those who use it aren’t really trying to create conversations with consumers. There are some, like Dell, who do seem to really want to hear what their customers and constituents have to say, while many others just give it lip service. Just because it’s thrown around a lot meaninglessly doesn’t mean we should kill it off before we really understand it. Yet consumers aren’t going to talk about having conversations with marketers, products, or brands. As a consumer, I don’t want to engage in a conversation with Tropicana because I drink its orange juice every morning or J. Crew because I shop there. Heck, people don’t have time to have all these conversations. They just want value, performance, style, utility, or any of the basic attributes that the brand or product is designed to give them. Once in awhile, for some brands that truly matter to them, the consumer will take the time to engage in a conversation.

–David Berkowitz
Director of emerging media and client strategy

Credibility and quality of conversations do and continue to play a significant role in measuring the impact of peer-to-peer recommendations. There may be differences between the way a consumer views an everyday conversation versus the way a marketer might define and measure a conversation. With the advent of new communication tools, we’ll see the distinction between face-to-face, IM, Facebook messaging, and e-mail erode.

–Idil Cakim
Golin-Harris and WOMMA

I think today’s landscape is much more about brands carrying on a conversation with consumers versus simply trying to tell them things. It’s not “command and control” anymore when it comes to PR; it’s got to be much more of an honest conversation, where smart companies participate and engage with bloggers, journalists, and ultimately consumers. I also think this plays into improving the image of advertising. As it becomes less about “this is what we want you to think” and more about starting a dialogue and building a relationship with consumers (e.g., the Dove campaign, which is all about starting a dialogue about beauty and image issues, and not about how great the products are), it will be perceived more favorably, I think.

–Cathy Yingling
Managing director

I don’t believe most marketers are really having conversations with consumers. But I believe we are moving slowly toward more interaction, but we will only get momentum if marketers are rewarded on long-term measures, such as how well their relationship with their customers is, and not on short-term measures, such as number of SKUs sold in a promotion or how well they sold a plan internally. The only way to truly engage with your customers is to listen and act on what you have heard. But listening, especially listening to negative comments, is the hardest thing to do, not only for marketers, but for people in general. Our first reaction (that’s nature) is to defend ourselves and to feel offended. If you then also take into account that most corporate cultures equate leadership (success) with assertiveness and pushing your ideas and not with responsiveness and changing your mind based on input of people smarter than you, it should come as no surprise marketers are still very much on the advertising end of the continuum.

–Liselore Crul

As with any industry, those of us involved in social media/Web 2.0 speak a different language. We adopt terms and phrases used in other contexts to convey what we do. The term “conversation” is just one example. We use the term “conversation” to mean engaging in a dialogue with our users or customers. People outside of our industry use the term “conversation” to mean they spoke with another person, face to face or on the telephone. Are we overusing or abusing this term? As marketers, I don’t think so. Granted, some people in our industry use the term “conversation” loosely, but it still conveys the intended meaning. Is it credible to use a term like “conversation” to describe what our business does or attempts to do? It’s credible only to the extent that we deliver on what we claim. If we claim to embrace virtual conversations but don’t, then we lack credibility.

The way to ensure the term works for the long term is to avoid pigeonholing the term to mean just one thing. Once an association is made to an exact definition, when the term is used out of context, people have a negative reaction.

–Gary Gil

I don’t believe consumers view interactive marketing or even what brands consider “two-way” marketing as a “conversation.” Most consumers perceive a conversation as something that takes place between individuals versus brands/corporate entities. Consumers probably do, however, view customer service interactions with brands as a conversation versus the advertising and marketing communications efforts which are still primarily a one-way dialogue and where most brands focus their attention and budget.

Absolutely there are opportunities to remove the warts. The brands that are becoming increasingly transparent and incorporating consumer feedback and opinion into the way they do business, not just marketing but business (product design, customer service, packaging, pricing, etc.), are making strides. Brands should care about how consumers perceive advertising, as the brands that connect best with its customers are the brands that will be rewarded in the marketplace (with sales, loyalty, and advocacy).

–Leslie Forde
VP of Strategic Alliances

I will say this: at times, I do feel like I’m having a meaningful conversation with fellow colleagues.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.