The Invisible Back Channel

Perhaps you’ve heard about “BusinessWeek” journalist Sarah Lacy’s now famous interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the SXSW Interactive Festival. If you haven’t read about it, and believe me there’s plenty out there, don’t worry. The real story isn’t the “what.” Hey, stuff happens, as we say in Austin.

Instead, the story is the “how.” Let’s examine the increasingly present social communications channels that permeate the marketplaces in which we operate. Forrester Research’s Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff make the point in their book “Groundswell” that the conversational view wrongly held by too many marketers is that it exists between the brand and the customer. Instead, it exists between the brand, the customer, and all of the other customers. The difference between these views is dramatic, and it’s all about the back channel. What happened at SXSWi is a near perfect metaphor for what’s happening to marketing and marketing communications and how the back channel is exerting itself.

How did the Lacy/Zuckerberg interview go wrong? Sure, there were some minor things that many of us have gotten wrong ourselves at least once in our past (no one is perfect, right?). More pronounced in this instance, though, was the role of the back channel — in this case the combination of SXSWi’s Meebo and the general use of Twitter during panels. There were essentially two conversations going on: the one the interviewer was having with her guest and the audience, and the one that the audience was having with itself. In the Zuckerberg interview those conversations collided, to put it mildly.

The conversation onstage was being dissected, word by word, gesture by gesture, in real time by the audience. Unbeknownst to the interviewer, her interview was being slowly ripped apart. Problem was, Lacy couldn’t see it happening beyond the occasional shout-out or interruptive comment from the audience. Because she couldn’t see it, she couldn’t respond or adapt her interview in a way she might have otherwise. As a result, momentum built and a revolt occurred. There’s an incredibly detailed account that provides great insight into the importance of listening to your audience and should make a believer out of anyone who thinks social media lacks for metrics.

The bottom line is this: when the audience is ignored, revolts occur. Of course, that’s not news in and of itself. It’s a theme that’s been played out in real life periodically for a few thousand years. Phrases like “No bread? Let them eat cake!” come to mind. What’s new is the presence of an active social back channel that can make a mob out of an otherwise nearly mild-mannered crowd.

How does this connect to marketing? As a marketer, you can tap into the back channels. You can use the social Web to learn about what your customers are saying to each other and to your potential customers. You can gain insight from conversations occurring now. A great example of the way in which real-time monitoring and the response of channels like Twitter can help you is the subject of this recent TechCrunch post detailing Michael Arrington’s experience with Comcast.

Whether or not you sanction or participate in these conversations makes no difference: they are happening. Because they’re happening, your audience is building conversational momentum. It may be positive (woo hoo!) or negative (distinctly less woo). Further, because they are sharing and learning from each other in this way, your audience assumes you can participate, too, if you really care about what they’re saying. In other words, if you don’t participate, the assumption is you don’t care. Ask Lacy what the result feels like, then ask yourself if you’d have wanted to be her for that hour, heading blindly into the jaws of death.

If you think this new back channel is pure uncontrolled evil, take heart. It’s not. It’s nothing more than the basic, genuine sharing of thoughts. And it cuts both ways. Also at SXSWi was a panel dedicated to social media metrics. Basically the same setup: panel starts, audience drifts, back channel engages, revolt ensues.

Unlike the ill-fated Zuckerberg interview, in this case, the moderator and panelists — once fully cognizant of what was happening — snapped into action and pulled it back. They effectively leveraged the back channel and learned from it on the spot to produce what was in the end arguably one of the best panels at SXSWi.

Here’s how it went down: About 10 minutes into the social media metrics panel, a gentleman stood up, took the Q&A mike, interrupted the panel mid-sentence, and asked, “So, are you going to talk about metrics or not?”

Moderator Tom Parish and panelist Rohit Bhargava probed a bit, then took the panel directly into metrics. Panelist Ynema Mangum delivered a great presentation on Giovanni Gallucci’s quantitative work around a specific social media campaign. The audience was fully engaged for the balance of the panel, with some great questions attesting to this at the close. My take on the panel was videotaped immediately afterwards. I’ve included the video because it again shows the back channel, using a different medium — video — in operation. Note how quickly and easily social content is created and spread. And social media becomes a force for change and continuous improvement, not to mention a permanent record that ends up being posted back into channels like, you guessed it, Twitter. Speaking of, if you’d like to follow me on Twitter, I’m “evansdave.”

As you think about social media and how to apply it, consider the role of the invisible back channel. It’s right there, waiting to be picked up. Best of all, you won’t even need x-ray specs to read it.

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