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How to Talk WITH Your Customers


A recent In Focus we did about what brands were doing with MySpace struck a chord (or nerve, as the case may be) with some of our readers-- to some, MySpace didn't count as true conversational marketing.

So what does count? As a follow-up, we reached out to some of the industry's brightest minds to get their different takes on what conversational marketing is, what sorts of brands it works for, and how best to talk with -- rather than at -- your customers.

We spoke with:

John Battelle, chairman of Federated Media, an entrepreneur, journalist, professor, and author who has founded or co-founded businesses, magazines and websites.

Tom Hespos, president of New York agency Underscore Marketing and a regular iMedia columnist.

Jackie Huba, the co-author of "Creating Customer Evangelists" and the forthcoming book "Citizen Marketers."

Mark Naples, managing partner for WIT Strategy, a strategic communications consultancy that serves clients who do business on the web in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.

Here's what they have to say about conversational marketing.

Author Notes:
Nanette Marcus is an editor at iMedia Connection. Read full bio.


Nanette Marcus: Would you recommend conversational marketing to your clients? Why or why not?

John Battelle: Absolutely. While traditional awareness and branding campaigns do well in blog- and community- driven environments, we've found that conversational creative -- campaigns that understand where they are, who they are talking to, and invite dialog -- do very well on Federated Media (FM) properties. Plus, audiences and authors alike respect the fact that the marketer is making the effort to understand the environment they are supporting.

Jackie Huba: For most companies, we would recommend it. Social media tools allow for employees to get more feedback from more customers more often than traditional feedback mechanisms, like yearly satisfaction surveys. This type of marketing also helps to create strong bonds of customer loyalty because customers have more opportunity to connect with employees one-to-one.

The only scenarios where I would not recommend this is if:
1) The company is very control-oriented and won't let critical content on exist on blogs, et cetera,


2) The company does not have the resources to actively write the blog or moderate the message boards, et cetera.

Tom Hespos: We would and we often do. The most compelling reason to recommend conversational marketing is that the broadcast model of communication is beginning to break down. Most people immediately recognize broadcast advertisements as such and most will immediately tune them out.

Yet, companies continue to spend money talking at people rather than conversing with them. What these companies need to realize is that there is an immense opportunity in adding a new conversational marketing strategy to their marketing plans.

If they take the time to listen and converse with people, the market will respond.

Mark Naples: I recommend conversational marketing, but only as an adjunct to well-executed stakeholder marketing. As a new segment of our industry, I regard what people now call conversational marketing from a somewhat jaundiced viewpoint.

Stakeholder marketing is how Washington-style public affairs campaigns have been managed for decades, with the idiom being that there are three dozen to 50 or so stakeholders in any vertical industry or influencer cohort that need to be inculcated toward your objectives.

Some practitioners call this idiom "No Surprise 35." If my client is willing to spend the time and effort needed to secure a critical mass from among these stakeholders, then conversational marketing makes sense. But, only then will I recommend it because only then can I assure them of some semblance of control. If you design and execute your stakeholder plan effectively, and you still don't feel as though you have the right kind of control, you'll never get it through conversational efforts, no matter how well-executed they are.

Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point" can probably recognize this. Malcolm cut his teeth in D.C., writing for The Washington Post. So, I should think he'd see this perhaps somewhat similarly.

Marcus: Can you give us a good example of conversational marketing?

Huba: One of the best conversational marketing programs is by Discovery Education, a division of Discovery Communications. (Note: we did help them with this program.) The division sells a product called unitedstreaming that teachers can use to download video clips to using in presentations and lesson plans. The division built a site called the "Discovery Educator Network" (DEN) that connects teachers around the country to use their product and other technology in the classroom.

The site contains blogs written by both Discovery employees and teachers, discussion boards, and a resource section where teachers can share PowerPoints and other helpful materials. Teachers who want to conduct local trainings can put their events on the event calendar. Discovery has seen usage and subscription renewals of the product go up after the DEN was started.

Battelle: Lenovo did it early (last Fall) with its "Black or Titanium" campaign. Dice did it with its "rant banner." Snap launched with a conversational campaign that invited authors and audiences to help them launch its new engine. Symantec, Microsoft and others have also done these kind of campaigns with us. For more, see our overview here.

Hespos: We've been working with AccuQuote for several months now, and they launched a campaign recently in which they asked their existing customers for feedback on their own customer service process in a thread on their blog. They let life insurance customers know about the thread by sending them an email. AccuQuote got a ton of comments, most of which were very constructive.

Here's the important part: they listened, and they then told their customers what they were doing with the feedback they got. They responded to every comment left in the thread, following up on individual customer cases. As a result, they wrote several dozen incremental policies, just by listening to their own customers.

We advise clients that the first step toward implementing an effective Conversational Marketing campaign is making a commitment to the conversation. If they're not prepared to do this, they shouldn't get involved in social media at all.

Look at it this way-- would you go to a cocktail party, mill around with the crowd and ignore anyone who tried to speak to you? No, you wouldn't. It would be rude. And that's a big reason why clients who can't commit to conversation should stay the heck away from blogs, community sites and social media.

Naples: Outside of our industry, I worked on some good ones in my D.C. days. There were many opponents to Affirmative Action in the early '90s. But, when the "Mend it Don't End it" campaign was in stride, nobody seemed to think it should disappear. What happened was that people began calling it "striving for diversity," and now it's expected in the workplace.

Within our industry, the conversational campaign that stands out is the one that PointRoll executed a few years back. They introduced FatBoy to much controversy, since the campaign seemed so insensitive. But, at the same time, they executed a smart byline effort with the users of their products being the ones singing its praises in the media. They knew their target so well, so they knew that the people who were using the tools, mostly young folks in the interactive arms of agencies, weren't going to be put off by the objectionable creative, they were going to laugh at it. The combination of these two created a buzz that helped move them from a fifth-ranked provider to the first ranked one.

Marcus: How about a bad example or something that could have been done better?

Naples: There are so many of these. It seems like every day that I get pitched for one or another. I don't want to call any of them out though. No need to make enemies.

Battelle: I can't think of one that comes to mind on FM sites, but there are certainly examples of this done with something of a tin ear. The Subway pitch comes to mind.

Huba: McDonald's has a corporate responsibility blog called "Open for Discussion". The company does deserve kudos for having a blog at all, but the blogger could be doing a better job at handling a recent issue that has surfaced. Environmental bloggers are criticizing the company for distributing 42 million Hummers as prizes in Happy Meals this summer in a marketing promotion with GM.

The McDonald's blogger has been very slow in approving comments on the blog that are critical on this issue. A recent post by the McDonald's blogger indicated that he is frustrated that more people are not commenting on the issue on his blog. He needs to realize that the dialogue is happening in the blogosphere and he should reach out and comment on the blogs that are being critical. The conversation doesn't always come to you; sometimes you have to go to where it's happening and jump in.

Hespos: Fake MySpace pages are a big drag. There are all these people out there connecting with one another in very human ways. They post messages back and forth, invite people into their social circles, engage in conversation-- basically they're living their social lives online. And then these brands come along and post pages for their mascots or their ad icons, and they think it's a success because people become "friends" with the icon. They say, "Ooh, look. A gazillion people 'friended' my ad icon. That proves that people identify with my brand." It's pathetic-- like those kids in high school who would compare how many people signed their yearbook as if it was some sort of validation that they were popular or something.

What these companies could be doing is empowering somebody at their organization to speak directly with the market. I know it's a scary concept because marketers think they have control over the marketing message. What they don't realize is that for communication to have credibility in this sphere, it needs to be a two-way dialogue between human beings, not a one-way message from a marketing department to a "target audience." When people within companies speak directly to the market, we recapture some of that "mom and pop-ness" we've lost over the years. Personally, I identify with brands that listen to me, demonstrate that my input is important and don't keep me at arm's length.

As far as things that could have been done better, I really identify with the idea behind Ford's Bold Moves campaign, but I think the execution could have been a lot better. They started a blog and I thought they were prepared to listen to the market and respond to reactions people had to what's on their blog. Instead, they simply comment on stories written about them in the mass media or on A-list blogs. They don't respond to the individual sports car enthusiast, for example, who shows up at their blog and wants to get involved in a discussion with someone at the company about why Ford can't seem to build a Corvette killer.

It's nice to acknowledge what's going on in the blogosphere, and that definitely is a step in the right direction. But I don't know that what Ford is doing is legitimately encouraging participatory dialogue. There are still a lot of people out there still being ignored.

Marcus: Some brands, big and small, are resistant to conversational marketing because it means that they lose partial control of the brand message. What advice would you give to these brands? Do you have any tactics or strategies that have worked for you?

Hespos: There are a few. We look for clients that can come to terms with the following without completely blowing a gasket:

  1. You've never been in control of the message because people are thinking human beings and they talk to one another.

  2. Conversations about your brand, product, category and customer service experience are going on every day without your input.

  3. It's best to participate in these conversations while you still have the opportunity to change people's minds.
We try to avoid pitching conversational marketing to companies that believe they control the brand message. The forward-thinking companies out there acknowledge that they've never been in control of the brand, and that sad fact has been merely demonstrated by the rise of the internet, not ushered in by it.

Naples: I would point to my response to your first question and admonish them to always retain as much control as possible over their messaging and brand alliances. This is far more science than it is art, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either selling you something, doesn't know what they're doing or is lazy.

Huba: Brands have already lost control now that anyone can blog or podcast messages about them to a worldwide audience. Citizen marketers are publishing and broadcasting about brands they love and brand they hate today. And as more and more people, especially Millenials, adopt social media tools, the amount of multimedia word of mouth on the web is only going to increase. Smart companies are embracing and reaching out to these vocal constituents and establishing a dialogue with them.

Battelle: If you can't have an honest, passionate conversation about your brand and how it makes folks lives better, well, what's the point? The best brands are always built by word of mouth, right?

Nanette is iMedia Communications' executive editor.   In addition to her roles at iMedia, Nanette has served as a specialist in content marketing, editorial content, public relations and social media for various clients. She's contributed to...

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