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Monday, April 20, 2009

When Conversation Doesn't Matter

People who work in social media spend a lot of time talking about conversation. We (I include myself in this category) talk about having a dialogue with customers, about encouraging two way interactions and generally being more open with how business communicates. But does the weary business traveller finally arriving at her hotel after a long flight really want a conversation? What about the embarassed boyfriend who is sent to the all night pharmacy to pick up feminine hygene products for his girlfriend? Or a mother trying to quickly finish an errand before a sleeping baby wakes up?

The point is, there are many valid business situations where a conversation is actually the last thing a customer wants. All the examples I used above are real life situations, of course, but are there similar situations online? Here are three common ones:

  1. Price comparison (using comparison engines to find the best price online for something)
  2. Bill paying and online services (financial accounts, egovernment tasks, etc.)
  3. Time sensitive information seeking (such as movie or flight times)

There can still be an important role for social media to play in each of these situations, but if it is focused on generating conversations, it is likely to fall short. The lesson in this is that conversation shouldn't be a blind ambition with social media, but rather an end that you seek strategically ... and one that you are willing to leave behind when it seems ill advised or just plain wrong.


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Interesting point. I'm continuously fascinated with the idea of "trying" to do anything in social media. The idea of "trying" to monetize social media and "trying" to create conversation, and "trying" to create great content is somewhat amusing to me. It's funny because, the people who created Twitter and Facebook, MySpace and Flickr, etc. were really just trying to create community, weren't they? Yet you have marketers and people in business saying, "this is great all these people together, let's sell 'em something!"

You're right, conversation for conversation's sake is often pointless. This is how we end up talking about the weather so much! To me the idea is to create kick ass content that stimulates conversation and to your point, maybe it has a voice, maybe it's just left behind, but the onus is on the writer to come up with something worth discussing instead of inane nonsense about things that no one cares about.

People hate committees for a reason. Not everything needs to be discussed 10 different ways to get largely the same answer. You've named 3 great examples of when conversation is largely useless. Sometimes we just need easily accessible information...not a Twitter presence.

Conversation also doesn't matter when we engage in it without a clearly defined objective. We could talk all day long with consumers and never get them to move along the decision making process toward a purchase. It seems that in all this "Join the Conversation" talk we have decided that Conversation = Marketing. But I would argue that Conversation, by itself, does not equal Marketing. As marketers we need to participate with clearly defined objectives if we hope to use social media for marketing.

I like to call this contextual marketing. A brand will have most impact when really needed.

I think the key is knowing your appropriate point in the buying cycle. Social Media (with the exception of sites like Yelp) falls very much into the brand-building category. That is, there is no immediate tie between the conversation and the end purchase. The conversation can only build warm attitudes that will eventually affect the purchase decisions of that person standing in the aisle at CVS.

Most of the example situations you listed are POP decisions. These people are executing their final decisions, and whether they realize it or not, the pre-formed attitudes of conversations past are there in the store with them, even though they are currently disengaged. That's why social media (and other branding activities) can be such a hard sell when money is tight- they are not meant to generate immediate sales; they are only meant to create latent attitudes.

Very good points. It is interesting how conversations are - by far - the most talked about part of brands moving into social media. I think that this makes strategic sense - people are already discussing their lives in the space, how can you encourage them to discuss your brand while doing so?

That being said, a large part of our online life doesn't revolve at all around conversations. Take Search as an example. When I'm looking for an answer to a question, I don't want to have a discussion about it, I want to find it, immediately. If it's for a new product or service, I might want to read some reviews before making my decision (especially if they are from my friends or within my Facebook profile) but the first objective on my mind is finding the answer I'm looking for.

Conversations are critical to ensure brand success and creating the 'social objects' that ignite them is a driving force behind great digital communications. That being said, sometimes consumers what to achieve their task quickly and simply.

Nice post.

I agree that not all conversations are helpful for all people. People, now more than ever, are able to manage their experience and find exactly what they want -- like prices.

However, there is some substantial value that conversations pierce into deeply -- discounts from merchants. This is how discount communities like SlickDeals and RetailMeNot have been so successful. People help people save money. Surely, these merchants are aware of such conversations and apply various restrictions or even generates buzz and keeps these folks in close quarters to their marketing teams.

Again, I go back to my point -- people are empowered to manage their online experience. If I want to find the cheapest price, I head over to PriceGrabber; if I want to see even stronger discounts, I head over to RetailMeNot; if I want to find the best headphones for under $100, I ask my question on Twitter for recommendations.

Good entry, I very much agree with your take on it. :)


The point isn't to always have a conversation. The point is to be available for a conversation. Even in your examples it can be appropriate - if the customer wants to ask why your price is 20% higher or lower, you better be ready to respond in an interesting and interactive way. The more interactive you are in all aspects of your business the more likely a 'conversation' will occur, even though it is on the customer's time schedule, not yours.

Good post!

People don't like being bothered when they are doing a chore.

A very large part of communications is listening and understanding. Yet very few consider that when they plan their messaging - they often choreograph the talk, the push, rarely the listening part.

Conversation is the availability to converge, eventually to connect. Matt here brought up the term contextual. Giving you the information you're looking for is user experience to you, it means thinking through the conversation you have in your head to the provider.

We have conversations in our heads all the time. Few of us admit to them :)

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There is another question. Why enter a certain social networking site in the first place?

Actually, there's a much broader point to be made about all this. All markets are *not* conversations. Only bazaars are conversations, where you haggle and drink tea and practically have to marry to rug dealer's daughter to get a good deal on a rug. In the modern marketplace, you go in the Home Depot, the rug hanging up has a flat price on it with a UPC, and you pay it at the register, end of story.

In fact, most buying of food and necessities and even luxuries does not need or want a conversation, and in fact a conversation might lead to deception or even buying or paying more.

So really the question is to isolate what on earth all this frothing is about, this idea that you need some sort of big convo to buy something. You don't. You only need the palaver to sell something. But that's not my problem, it's yours.

A lot is made of social media being all about conversation but I get days when all I want to do is listen. The days when I do nothing but listen are some of my most productive and I would encourage everyone to have days when they are just tuning in to the noise without participating.

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