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July 17, 2008
The Art of Conversation - It's About Listening Not Marketing
Discussions and debates on the viability, necessity, and effectiveness of conversational aka social media marketing continue to roar across the Social Web.

There are three sides to this equation:

- New media pioneers and practitioners who defend and evangelize the art of conversations because they're investing in people and their feedback and have the experience to showcase value and ROI.

- Social Media marketers who embrace social tools and promote their use in corporate/brand marketing and Public Relations, learning in the process and building relationships along the way. They may or may not be tying these initiatives to business metrics.

- Some experienced business and marketing professionals who view conversations as potential distractions that are immeasurable, expensive, not scalable, and ineffective in purporting corporate messages to their "target audiences." To them, Conversational Marketing and Social Media are buzz words without substance or statistics to support their reason for being.


As Social Media continues to impact everything from journalism and communications to customer service and the foundation for Website design and network dynamics, it's also inspiring a new army of purported and legitimate "experts" who are offering assistance to those companies seeking to understand and engage in online conversations.

Social Media Marketing combines, in a perfect world, the most effective attributes of PR, Web Marketing, Customer Service, and a working knowledge and genuine enthusiasm of the social networks and tools to listen to, spark, and engage in relevant discussions - not all but, those with influence. Marketers in the social realm will also embrace social sciences to observe and understand the online cultures and social dynamics where they ultimately wish to participate, while also maintaining a working knowledge of their company's business model and markets.

Social Media experts must have the ability to determine which networks are relevant to the businesses that they represent, why they need to pay attention, how to listen, and how and when to engage. Most importantly, they must connect participation to brand resonance, customer loyalty and also the ever prominent “bottom line.”

Without a deep understanding of customers, markets, online communities, and the dynamics of their company’s business model, Social Media Marketers will succumb to the brilliance of shiny new social objects and remain hypnotized by their allure and promise - missing the true opportunities of engagement in favor of popular social tools.

Let me tell you where I stand...

Conversational Marketing and Social Media Marketing, to me, aren't truly rooted in marketing at all, nor should they be. This is about learning from listening first, and engagement afterward.

It's not a miracle cure for years of one-sided, top-down push marketing.

Assuming that we can change the greater public perception one conversation at a time isn't realistic and it isn't scalable in the short term, but that doesn't mean that there isn't value by investing in the future, now.
If a conversation takes place online and you're not there to hear or see it, did it actually happen?

Influential conversations are taking place with or without you. If you're not part of the conversation, then you're leaving it to others, and possibly competitors, to answer questions and provide information, whether it's accurate or incorrect.

The ability to listen to public impressions, questions, and discussions that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or unanswered tell us everything. And, the exercise of genuinely engaging and helping forms valuable relationships and inspires brand enthusiasts in the process. These conversations are an opportunity to change perception through dialog, but more importantly, by feeding the information learned in the field back into a company can improve product development, enhance service, and educate executives through real world feedback.

But words aren't a means to an end. Everything starts with listening and observation and as always, actions speak louder than words.

It's not the act of conversations that immediately provide value to an organization, it's the listening, observing and ability to then learn from the inspired engagement.

Are the results of conversations trackable?


Is activity measurable?


Are relationships scalable and able to demonstrate a return on investment?

That's the million dollar question.

How do you measure the value of online relationships right now? It can't simply be tied to sales when referrals, word of mouth, brand awareness, and evangelism are priceless and mostly immeasurable. And, there's no price too great for paying attention.

I wrote about the concept of Conversational Marketing vs. Market Conversations almost a year ago. I believe it still holds true today... If it’s one thing that we can learn about Social media is that people and the markets they represent have rallied against marketing and slick marketers and have demanded personalization, transparency, and sincerity.

They don’t want to be told what to buy, what to think, or have their views and opinions disregarded simply because they are not classically trained in the art of service, design or marketing.
Brands have become democratized. Audiences have evolved into factions of people linked together by common interests and populate and define communities throughout the static and social web. In some cases, there are thousands of conversations taking place across multiple networks.

Is it possible or even warranted to have a Community Manager track and respond to everything?

No way!

The chances of a company releasing a perfect product and having the public embrace and accurately share its benefits, applications, and value proposition through their peer networks is implausible. It's called the grapevine and the story will lose precision and factuality in the process of storytelling. And since we live in the real world, not every product or service is perfect, therefore they require listening and discussions to improve them over time.

Perception management is the process of reaching out to these communities and quite honestly, it's nothing new. The social tools available today only provide an easier solution for listening and reaching people. It's still designed to create champions and enthusiasts who can help you tell your story within peer networks, accurately and passionately.

Not only can we learn from these real time focus groups, we're also guided towards the development of more informed and poignant outreach moving forward.

As Sean Maloney of Intel says, "It's not what you say about you, it's what they say about you."

Talk is indeed cheap and a complete waste of time if conversational marketing is used to spin products or services into something they're not.

However, if your company, and a completely renewed and redesigned infrastructure, is ready to change based on those conversations to improve product/service design and quality, as well as becoming a proactive resource to their communities, then talk begets action, and action is toll for change.

But participation for the sake of participating or engaging in online conversations must be more substantive than hosting one-off conversations in order to truly impact communities and have positive influence on the economics of business.

Richard Binhammer, a primary community leader at Dell, recently commented, "My actions on behalf of Dell are not mere talk and conversation. Everyday we follow up on the online listening and the learnings we get from customers, fixing issues and bringing customers' perspectives inside Dell -- real time, real views and real customer experiences. We believe that is improving our response times, contributing to better products and services and making us a better company, that is directly connecting with customers who care enough about us to talk about us on the web every day."

As I've said before, it's so much more than the ability to guide companies on how to create fan pages on Facebook, islands on SecondLife, accounts on Twitter, Pownce or (insert microblog of the month here), and profiles on YouTube and Myspace.

Businesses who socialize their marketing because Social Media is the New Black, are in for a rude awakening. Those who realize that conversations are taking place with or without them, invest in the process of listening to reveal public perception and identify the networks where meaningful conversations take place, engage with those seeking a response, and analyze the feedback to improve processes as well as future products, are investing in a brighter, more profitable future.

Insight can not fall upon deaf ears. And, silence is never golden.

It's the listening, analytics, charting social maps, drafting strategies for meaningful engagement, understanding our relevance in the short and long tail, and the definition of metrics and ROI that count for everything to businesses and respective decision makers these days.

  • Traffic
  • Links
  • Trackbacks
  • Comments
  • Threads
  • Registrations
  • Referrals
  • Sales
  • Loyalty

Functional, real world, and measurable attributes can be tied to any community-focused program today. But, we need to start first start backwards and work our way forward in order to determine and track ROI.

Remember, it’s what you say about you, what they hear, how they share that story, and how you weave that insight into future conversations that underscore meaningful community-driven efforts. And, everything starts with listening and observing in order to maintain relevance to the very communities we wish to reach, learn from, and inspire.

Tamar Weinberg includes my definition in her post, "What Traits Define a Social Media Marketer." It also includes quotes from Chris Brogan, Valeria Maltoni, Jason Falls, Geoff Livingston, MG Siegler, Allen Stern, Laura Fitton, Darren Rowse, Muhammad Saleem, Chris McGill, Adam Metz, Louis Gray, Jane Quigley, and other incredible voices.

Connect with me on Twitter, Jaiku, LinkedIn, Pownce, Plaxo, FriendFeed, or Facebook.

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Brian Solis is the author of "Engage," a new book that helps businesses build, cultivate, and measure success in social media. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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