A little over five years ago, I was driving from New York to Andover, Mass., with my friend Rick Bruner in the car. We had a long drive ahead of us, and we wiped one another's brains clean on the way up.
"Tell me everything you know about blogging," I said to Rick, and he gave me a huge brain dump on what blogging was and how it was done. It was that moment that kicked my enthusiasm for conversational marketing up to the next level.
Here we are at the end of the first quarter of 2009, and we still don't see conversational marketing as a line item in most marketing budgets. We don't see widespread adoption of conversation departments. There are a lot more cautious toe-dipping initiatives than there are full-blown conversational marketing programs.
Conversational marketing isn't dead. Nothing has happened in the past five years to convince forward-thinking marketers that engaging customers and prospects in a one-to-one manner is somehow a bad idea. But conversational marketing is being strangled in its cradle. There are a number of obstacles holding it back.
- The broadcast model hasn't collapsed yet. As I'll discuss in a minute, doing conversational marketing really well requires a good deal of institutional change. It also requires an acknowledgement of the weaknesses of the broadcast model, as well as a willingness to divert significant budget dollars away from the broadcast approach. The vast majority of marketers I know are not yet willing to take the risk of pulling out of broadcast advertising in a way that's significant enough to fund what they need to do on the conversational marketing side. Putting aside whether they're right or wrong for a second, they still believe that they can get most of the way to their business goals, if not all the way there, by investing in broadcast. Regrettably, I think it's going to take at least a partial collapse of the broadcast model to get marketers to move to conversational marketing en masse.
- Institutional inertia and confusion prevent organizational realignment. There's a heck of a lot of confusion about where conversational marketing belongs in a marketing organization. It seems like it naturally belongs in marketing, but its staffing requirements and workflow more closely resemble those in customer service. Conversational marketing requires skill sets often found in public relations, media planning, and media strategy. So where does it go?
- CEOs don't see good scale in CM, they only see bad scale. In other words, the only time people seem to be raising issues concerning conversational marketing is when nasty swear words are ending up on the Skittles homepage, or when mommy bloggers organize a revolt against Motrin. Usually when something is happening at scale in the social web, it's bad for the brand. Yes, it's true that this is largely the product of companies being unprepared or ill-advised when it comes to social media, but I'm talking about observable effects here, not causes. If we want conversational marketing to become a legitimate business strategy, we need some good stories and fewer bad ones.
- Temptation to use CM for evil purposes. There's often a really big disconnect between the personal and business sides of marketing people. I have run into marketing people who are Twitter users and can certainly comprehend how lame it would be for a brand to flood that channel with broadcast messages. Yet, when it comes time to discuss what the brand might be doing with Twitter, the suggested answer is "let's flood Twitter with tweets of our tagline." There are a lot of things that contribute to this apparent schizophrenia, including an inability or unwillingness to understand the nuances of the channel among folks further up the management hierarchy.
- Tools are still basic. We have some great tools that help us figure out what people are saying about our brands. However, few of them do anything to address the resultant workflow. In other words, the "what" is taken care of, but not the "what now?" Anyone remember how companies like Atlas and DoubleClick evolved after they debuted basic ad serving products? They started addressing the workflow of the media planner and automating a lot of the grunt work that was necessary to get advertising campaigns live. It's not a perfect analogy, but I expect that the companies in the space of measuring brand conversation will move into the space of addressing what brand people should be doing to address what they find out there in the blogosphere and on social networks. We need this.
I think that if we can get some of this stuff addressed, we'll see more companies addressing their customers in a one-to-one fashion without leaning on the broadcast model.