What are all these ‘conversations’ anyway?

By August 17, 2007 4 Comments

You may have seen back in June there was a bit of drama (see Valleywag – Microsoft pays star writers to recite slogan) when Federated Media drafted in a bunch of A-List bloggers (Om Malik, Fred Wilson, Paul Kedrovsky, Mike Arrington) to write blog posts around the slogan ‘people-ready’ that Microsoft is pushing.  The idea was to ‘start a conversation’, Neil Chase of Federated Media described it thus:

It’s making people like you and me, who came from the world of traditional newspapers, have to learn about three-way conversations. We have already witnessed the evolution of the two-way conversation among authors and readers that is replacing old-fashioned one-way journalism. Even our old employers (yours at the Financial Times, mine at The New York Times) are now actively bringing their readers into two-way conversations.

So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM’s authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.

The big debate at the time centred around whether writing blog posts like this somehow compromised the integrity of the authors.  The posts were not on their own blogs.  That is an interesting question in and of itself, which you can follow in the comments to the Valleywag post above.  What I want to focus on here though is what it tells us about the nature/essence of conversational marketing.

Firstly it is a further reminder that it is still very early days for this concept.  It is a term that is starting to get bandied around all over the place and applied to lots of different things.  To my mind there is a big difference between some A-List bloggers writing posts about a brand/topic and a brand engaging in hundreds or thousands of micro conversations with everyday people who use their products.  It is the second of these that is much more significant.  Check out this site for a list of unofficial Habbo Hotel fansites which have sprung up – this shows real passion for a brand and is the sort of evidence that tells you your conversational marketing strategy has succeeded.

Which brings me to the second point – there aren’t many brands that have managed to generate this much passion though (at least on the positive side – remember Dell Hell) – so for companies like Microsoft trying to kick things off with a small number of high profile conversations might be a good start – it generates some buzz and some column inches after all.  And maybe buzz is what it is all about at the end of the day.  Ideally that is the buzz from thousands of independent conversations going on all over the place, but if it comes from more directly sponsored activity that can work as well.

As with many things social media and marketing the question then starts to turn to authenticity and genuineness – and the debate starts to get a bit religious.  For lots of folk anything that isn’t 100% pure in motive is BAD.  Full stop.
It is for this reason that some are scornful PayPerPost – the market place where advertisers pay bloggers directly to endorse their products (where my new partners at DFJ have an investment) – yet my understanding is that despite the obvious conflicts advertisers are flocking to the platform and the business is very successful.  It generates buzz, and in the words of Deep Jive Interests :

[Buzz] is really what conversations are

Since the beginning of time (or the beginning of TV anyway) there have been great adverts, good adverts and not so good adverts.  They are all adverts though, and companies have paid for them with an idea of what they would get in return.  Maybe this is the way to think about conversational or buzz marketing as well.

This line of thought challenges a couple of internet principles – one – the idea that the internet is somehow fundamentally a more honest and genuine medium than TV, print or radio, and two – the notion of measurability.  It is as hard to measure the quality and effectiveness of buzz as it is a TV advert.

Which gets me thinking that in some important dimensions brand marketing on the internet looks a lot like brand marketing has always looked.  That makes a lot of sense to me.