July 30, 2008
Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Lee Bush
Way back in 1999, before Facebook, Twitter or YouTube swept the country, a group of rebels ahead of their time drew up a constitution of sorts called the Cluetrain Manifesto. The authors (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searles and David Weinberger) described the language, ideals and deeply human structure of a future market — a market no longer limited by top-down information, crafted in corporate lingo or broadcast to consumers through mass media channels. In the new market, consumers would become humans conversing through a variety of networks. “Companies that don’t realize their markets are networked, person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity,” they told us.
Nearly 10 years later, despite the sweeping changes of the Internet, many corporations have not changed how they communicate. Rather than engaging our stakeholders in an online dialogue, we’re stuck in broadcast mode. We craft our talking points, add some nice graphics or even a video, and post our Web site as another means of broadcasting our messages. As the Cluetrain Manifesto laments, we’re still treating the online market as “eyeballs” rather than as people engaged in conversation.
Case in point: A pharmaceutical company recently launched a breakthrough smoking cessation drug with a broadcast advertising campaign and a well-designed Web site that includes valuable information on the drug, a quit-smoking support plan and access to more information. The campaign is creative and engaging, and no doubt has achieved its objective of getting smokers to discuss the drug with their doctors. What the site is missing, however, is a dialogue between smokers who are trying to quit. Where is that conversation taking place? You’ll find it on Topix.com, where there are more than 8,000 posts from smokers on their personal experiences with the drug (both good and bad), its side effects and success rate.
The old mass communications model of one anonymous sender and many anonymous receivers is quickly evolving. Taking its place is a model containing many senders and many receivers (usually with online identities) who are communicating in all directions. As Nigel Hollis, executive vice president of Millward Brown, a global brand strategy and financial consultancy, says, we have moved from “show and tell” to “engage and interact.” Though we often get stuck in the “interaction” part of the equation.
Why do we need to interact? The Cluetrain authors would say our markets are smarter than we are. Information once contained solely in the organization (and usually at the top) is now dispersed throughout the market at an incredible pace. Not only does interaction allow us to respond directly to misinformation or misperceptions about our brands, but it also tunes us to the market, gathering new insights that can help us develop better brands and corporate practices.
We may have to shift the mind-set in our executive offices when we join the networked conversation. CEOs spend their days trying to reduce risk by maintaining tight control over their organizational messages when the market has really already seized much control. They need to understand that ignoring the market won’t diminish the risk.
If a corporation decides to join the dialogue, it must have something relevant to add to the conversation, which means understanding the underlying purpose of your organization beyond making money. As Alan Mitchell outlined in his book “Right Side Up: Building Brands in the Age of the Organized Consumer,” the online market has moved beyond exchanging goods for money, and is organized around the more human exchange of shared interests, common values and higher ideals.
At the 2007 Conversational Marketing conference, Steve Hayden, vice chairman of Ogilvy Worldwide, told participants that conversational marketing is about “share of culture,” rather than “share of mind.” Our corporations are members of a community, and, like any other member, participating in the culture means we must take a position of relevance in that community. As a thought starter, Hayden stated: “(Insert brand or company name here) believes the world would be a better place if (insert purpose here).” For Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, that sentence read, “Dove believes the world would be a better place if women were allowed to feel good about themselves.” With this purpose, Dove facilitated a conversation that had been taking place among women for years, increasing its interaction with the community, strengthening its emotional bond with customers and earning double-digit sales growth.
Conversation is key — if we’re talking with humans, we need to communicate as humans, without corporate language that often seems contrived and outdated. As the Cluetrain Web site states, humans “communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, funny, direct and often shocking,” yet most corporations “only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal.”
So, how do we start?
Start with common values
Engaging in a conversation means that we must, begrudgingly, set aside our broadcast mind-set for a moment, look at the culture and determine what relevance our brand or company can bring to the conversation. Some brand categories are inherently more dialogue friendly than others, but when we start with common values, a conversation can emerge from any brand. One wouldn’t think of toilet paper as a conversation starter, yet the Scott brand built an online community around the value of common sense. At scottcommonsense.com, people from all over the world post tips on how to do everything from keep lettuce fresh to using dryer sheets as a mosquito repellant. For Scott, the world would be a better place if we all used more common sense and thousands in the online community agree.
For organizations squeamish about losing control of their message, adding a topical forum or weekly blog to your Web site is a safe way to start. The key is to ask, “Do our online communications include anything that facilitates a dialogue with the community?” You may have the most creative, dynamic Web site in your industry, but if it doesn’t include a conversation tool, you’re still in broadcast mode.
Join the conversation in progress
PR professionals have always understood the value of outside experts. Your expertise can augment a conversation already in progress if you link your Web site to other sites, blogs, RSS feeds, online articles or chat rooms. You provide the networked community a valued service and show you are part of the conversation.
And don’t overlook internal experts. As the Cluetrain authors state, your employees are already networked, so let them participate openly in the discussion. Hayden recounts when Sun Microsystems’ customers were perturbed over problems with a new product. An engineer discussed the problem online and let customers know he was working on a solution, and the response opened a dialogue about future uses of the product. One of the precepts of conversational marketing is that people are more receptive to and forgiving of individuals than the anonymous corporation.
It is also critical to participate in online conversations with absolute transparency. Many cautionary tales exist of companies who tried to fool the online community by creating false identities. The new world is transparent; transgressions will be revealed.
Speak the human language
You might want to rethink your home page if it leads with something along the lines of, “We are uniquely positioned to monetize full-service growth in the value-added canine provisions category.” Reversing the years of legalese is difficult, but the market demands we talk like humans. For this reason many PR firms have moved their clients from linear talking points to a message mapping system. Rather than follow a straight line, conversations jump from topic to topic.
Lastly, keep your online communications fresh. The networked market moves fast, and corporations must be nimble to participate.
In essence, conversational marketing is a natural progression for the PR profession. After all, Edward Bernays was the first to describe the relationship between organizations and publics as a two-way street. Today, the street just happens to be a superhighway of highly interactive communities. By joining the dialogue, we open myriad opportunities for building better brand relationships.
Lee Bush is an assistant professor at Elon University in the School of Communications. She was formerly a senior vice president and head of the brand marketing group for Ketchum in Chicago, and a former senior vice president of Ogilvy PR in Chicago and London.
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