Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Marketing Conversations: Listen & Speak. Repeat.

Photo: Kimberly Faye

Peter Kim, whose eponymous blog can be counted on for smart insights and analysis, recently posted about the need to take the use of social media by brands to the next evolutionary level. His big points (which I totally agree with) are:
- Brands are using social media to be disruptive and get attention, but aren't using it to create relationships with their customers.
- Ad agencies are using social media the same way they've always used the web, as something scotch-taped onto their "real" campaign. Still clueless about real integration.
- As the Cluetrain Manifesto pointed out 10 years ago, companies are still clinging to the notion that employee, customers, partners, vendors, are all separate markets. They're not. Not only do the boundaries often overlap (employees are also customers, clients might also be partners) but these markets want to talk to each other. And those conversations are the ones that companies need to be enabling and participating in, if they're going to be competitive and survive.

Chris Hall referenced this post in his blog, but I think he may have missed the point a bit when he admonished online blogger and twitterer activists from "imposing their collective wills upon millions of other group members because they have realized that they have a platform."

First of all, I'd like to know how he assumes that this "vocal" minority doesn't speak for the majority. And second, taking a step back and considering the historical context, might provide a better insight into what's happening now, and what we, as marketers, should be doing to bring value to the conversation.

Of course, I had an opinion about all of this, and responded the following on Chris' blog:

I think what we’re witnessing is the messy business of evolution. For years (actually, forever), consumers had no voice. Marketing that drove the sale of products was a one-way conversation. They spoke, we listed. Recourse for complaints was limited to boiling your blood pressure trying to reach a human in customer service, sending a letter that, if you were lucky, got a form-letter reply, or boycotting the product which provided little beyond depriving yourself of something you probably needed.

Web 2.0 gave consumers a voice and the audience to speak to. Heady stuff for a group kept silent for so long. So it’s not surprising that anyone who got a little taste of the power of the pulpit could sometimes be a little indiscriminate in its use. Who hasn’t seethed at the cable industry’s arrogance, incompetence, and unapologetic disinterest in customer relationships? So bravo to the guy that recorded and YouTubed his cable service repair guy napping on the sofa because he’d been on hold with the home office for so long that he’d just dozed off. And bravo to the Motrin Moms for finally voicing the anger of so many women at Madison Avenue’s often reductive and insulting attempts to portray the complex balancing act that women who are some combination of wives, mothers, and workers, have to pull off.

It’s also not surprising that companies are reacting by sometimes overreacting. They’re not used to hearing from the great world that lives on the other side of the tv screen. Those nameless, faceless “target demos” who make up their customer universe. It must be a little scary to hear their voice after all these years.

I think, as marketers, consultants, and advisors, it’s our job to help both sides understand this new context. Motrin missed a huge opportunity to engage with this group of angry moms. As the incredibly prescient Cluetrain Manifesto guys (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, & David Weinberger) wrote, way back in 1999(!), “Markets are conversations. People are speaking to each other in a powerful new way. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.”

Instead of their knee-jerk reaction, Motrin should have started a real conversation. What were the specific things about the ads that offended women. If this isn’t the right way to portray them, tell us what is? How do these women see themselves? What are the important things in their lives?

It’s not a matter of simply listening. Conversation is an exchange of information, thoughts and ideas. The last word goes to Cluetrain: “The community of discourse is the market. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.”

What's your opinion?
Photo: Kimberly Faye

marketing, social media ,social networking, cluetrain manifesto