Stop the Insanity! Don’t Call It “Conversational Marketing”

My thinking here is very clear – despite a lot of people whom I respect using the phrase “Conversational Marketing” to describe the new way companies are relating to customers, it devalues the underlying shift which is, in Doc Searl’s words, of “greater significance”. While the word marketing is intended to get the attention of those corporate folks who are somewhat attached to their titles and have budget, the language devalues the importance and ends up missing the point.

In the world I inhabit, Marketing has become a four letter word. It has come to mean interruption, manipulation and pushing messages into people’s heads. As David Weinberger says, “somewhere along the way, markets, what we do together, became marketing, what we do to other people.” It seems to me that Conversational Marketing is in danger of ending up becoming something that traditional marketing people use to do TO other people rather than understanding it is something that we do WITH other people.

This was one of the chief concerns that Stowe Boyd rightly brought up in our little ‘kerfuffle’ earlier this year about the Social Media Press Release. That marketers would use the tools without understanding the underlying shift in strategy, intention, process and purpose that is at the heart of human to human communications (H2H) that is the hallmark of our new world.

As an abstract management term, it is seemingly technically accurate, but the spirit is missing from the language. In this case, I think it is the spirit behind the ‘meme’ that makes it powerful and will accelerate the greater transformation it represents. Of course, as someone who has been active in defending the often debated phrase of “social media”, I am a bit sensitive to the challenge we face in the conversation about this new business practice. In fact, I have been reluctant to bring this issue up – especially with the upcoming Conversational Marketing Summit being put on by the folks at Federated Media, who I respect very much. (especially after some of great conversations I had with Chas back in June)

Everyone I know who cares about this emerging practice has clearly been influenced by the Cluetrain, so I don’t know why we would want to move away from their description and intention. For me, it is not Conversational Marketing, it is Market Conversations. I realize I am splitting hairs here somewhat, and that no one can really win a semantic argument such as this, but I think that the intention we bring to this new era is evidenced strongly in our language. For me, conversational marketing makes it seem like more of the same old same old, rather than a real transformation in the very nature of how businesses operate. Our intention should be reflected in our language.

More broadly, I think what is happening is really about Market Engagement – how companies interact with the market’s they serve – how companies relate to the people within those markets through product experience, conversations and media. This can simply be thought of as first person, second person and third person. A conversation is not an advertisement, not an email newsletter, not a podcast, not a press release, not a ‘contrived’ focus group where management watches real people from behind the glass – these are all pieces of communication. A conversation is a human interaction between two or more people, which involves listening, speaking and responding.

So on Sunday, here at Gnomedex’s Unconfernce, UnGnomeCamp, I will be leading a session to delve into this topic more fully. I hope you can join us and let me know what you think. Am I hitting the nail on the head here or am I out of touch?

  1. #1 by David Weinberger - August 11th, 2007 at 08:44

    Exactly. Just because markets are conversations doesn’t mean that marketing is.

    Marketing has to change. It has to recognize that market conversations are now the best source of information about companies and their products and services. It has to recognize that those conversations are not themselves marketing — you and me talking about whether we like our new digital cameras is not you and me marketing to each another. Neither is our conversation a “marketing opportunity.” But the temptation to see it as such is well nigh impossible for most marketers to resist.

    Fortunately, the people leading the thinking about this generally do honor the conversation as the thing that must be preserved. How the meme gets taken up, however, should worry us. We need to help marketers resist their deeply bred urges. We need to make preserving the integrity of the conversation as central a marketing tenet as is not lying about product specs or prices.

  2. #2 by David Weinberger - August 11th, 2007 at 08:47

    Ack. I should have added that I disagree with you in that I don’t much care about whether the phrase “conversational marketing” is used or not. I use it at times myself. What counts is how marketing adapts to the era of market conversations, of course.

  3. #3 by Chris Heuer - August 11th, 2007 at 12:42

    Thanks David. Admittedly I have used the phrase myself on occasion as well, but I wanted to point out the power of the intentions behind the words. To ensure that the importance behind what we are working towards is not lost.

  4. #4 by tom troja - August 23rd, 2007 at 11:22

    The turn of a phrase matters. As someone who has been talking with big brands about Conversational Marketing, I find they are intrigued by the concept but most get bogged down in the fear of the negative, the corporate structure of how to talk and the manpower required.

    Maybe the subtle shift you suggest is not so subtle as it turns it round from a corporte enterprize like PR and marketing to something different, the market is first. A big chalenge is shifting the mindset about blowing the horn about the brand to letting people talk about themselves in relation to what you do.

    David’s comment that “We need to help marketers resist their deeply bred urges.” Is right on but what do we say to the brand dollar boys, how do we show the value, What do we say to the ROI question? That is holding this back and I would love to get your thoughts on how you position this as an investment worth the risk right now.

  5. #5 by Soumya Dev - August 30th, 2007 at 15:33

    I feel the underlying thought that the Human-to-Human conversations pose a danger of losing the essence of inter-personal conversations, can help evaluate what’s ethical to be done and what’s not.
    My personal take is: Brands do have a right to express themselves or their views… as long as they do not over-do it… for the simple reason that it involves the “market” … call it “Conversational Marketing” or “Market Conversations”.
    Why have a monolgue? If you are talking brands, let brands also talk…

  6. #6 by Soumya Dev - August 30th, 2007 at 16:01

    Hi Chris,

    For the last couple of days, have been thinking why has it become a “must” for brands to leverage the power of conversations on the Web 2.0 platform. And this is what is in my mind…
    Brands today cannot expect to ‘Influence’ decisions … the game now is all about collective intelligence, or perhaps what you can call as ‘Confluence’.
    Confluence = Content –> Conversation –> Influence

    Learnings from disastrous mistakes of known brands and stupendous feats of ‘little-known’ brands have made it clear that you cannot be successful by shouting aloud (it’s not about your ad-spends alone) … often, people respond better to lowered voices spoken in credible tones.

    What does the consumer do on Web 2.0, perhaps a mix (or all) of the ones below:
    – Collect (alerts, feeds, …): How important is it to SHARE about your brand???
    – Entertain: Can you make him to ENGAGE with your brand???
    – Network: Can he be – the brand EVANGELIST???
    – Express views: Does a DIALOGUE help to make better products or offer better services???

    In short, it helps you SEED your brand in the minds of the consumer, and drive brand loyalty!

  7. #7 by Soumya Dev - September 18th, 2007 at 12:49

    My previous post “Conversational Marketing v/s Market Conversations” completely missed out on the other side of the coin, but this post by Rajesh on Blogger Outreach (by communications professionals) is an interesting insight. Check it out here:

    “A case of bad reputation, for the keeper of reputation itself”

    Taking the cue from Rajesh’s view – How to play it right???
    Some good blogger relations campaigns (as suggested by some Bloggers on their blogs) have also had their share of criticisms.

    The Ogilvy Blogger Outreach Code of Ethics is a great start. Blogger Outreach as a concept is too new to have error-free standards, quite controversial to entail accusations on breach of conduct, vulnerable enough for ‘bad’ practices to threaten it, but viable enough to become the driving aspect of future marketing efforts.

    This leads to another question of playing it right?

    What is the role of a campaign blogger?

    What is the Best Practice for a blogger who participates in a campaign?

  8. #8 by michael brito - November 8th, 2007 at 18:54

    Hey Chris – great post. I’m here at BlogWorld in Vegas and “conversational marketing” has already been mentioned more than once; and it’s still the first day.

    Conversational marketing, market conversations or as you mentioned “market engagement”…to me, they all mean the same thing. As long as marketers stay true to the characteristics mentioned in Cluetrain, I really don’t think it’s an issue, nor will dilute the true intent of online conversations.


  9. #9 by Kip - March 1st, 2008 at 12:14

    I’m not too up on conversational marketing, but I do believe in having conversations–it’s called salesmanship. Your efforts are all going to boil down to WHETHER OR NOT the receipent of the communication LIKES YOU, that will decide if anything you do or say is going to have an impact on your bottom line. If he doesn’t like you (and you’ll never know because nobody is a mind reader) forget it. No about of scientific data or metrics or data is going to answer this question for you. That’s why marketing never definitive–it’s just learning what worked and what didn’t work and following trends.

    It seems that many master-degreed stuffed shirts who are accountable only to their budget spend, have it all figured out. They THINK that as long as they have the mission internally defined for themselves, that the customer will just trip over him or herself to buy this product, while completely sabotaging the relationship and “real person” and “this is a product that will truly benefit you”.

    Peace out.

Comments are closed.