Marketing In the Age of Conversation

by Chris Kenton on November 7, 2007

Cross-posted at Marketonomy.

Arun Rajagopal has a great series unfolding on his blog that he’s calling The Social Media Challenge, in which he’s trawling the Internet to parse the meaning and practice of social media with a beginner’s mind. It’s a good roundup of ideas and theories with a lot of good links.

Arun sent me a link and we started a conversation, and I want to bring that conversation into a broader dialog because he touches on a lot of important issues. The one that sparked my interest today was a link he sent to Gavin Heaton’s blog, and a discussion about what marketers need to do to run effective campaigns in the age of social media. It’s a good post. Gavin obviously has a strong grasp for connecting lofty concepts with tactical marketing execution.

But in all this discussion about how marketers need to be effective, there’s an element that often seems missing.

Marketers are striving to understand social media in terms of the tactics and the technology. They’re trying new things, mashing them up with old things, and trying to figure out “what works”. This is all good, however it misses one fundamental point about social media. Its popularity stems from the power people have to easily connect and share ideas based on their interest and passion. It’s relevant to marketing not because of the great opportunity it presents for marketers to more effectively reach consumers. That’s a marketing-centric view of the world, and it isn’t marketers who put this juggernaut into motion. It’s relevant to marketing in large part because it demonstrates how disconnected marketers have come from consumers, and gives rise to the very real prospect that marketers can be dis-intermediated from much of the purchase decision.

In the context of commerce, people are connecting online because they can get much better information from their peers than they can from marketers. As tactically effective as marketers might become at joining those conversations, they won’t be materially effective if they’re joining communities to put the same crap over on consumers they have with Advertising and Direct Response for the past century. It’s the age-old metric driven mentality that led marketers to believe that gaining 1.5% conversion rates was a great success, while dumping the remaining 98.5% over the transom. I don’t know what it will take for marketers to understand that consumers want value, not conversion tactics, and social media gives them a choice.

I often hear social media pundits talk about the importance of “listening” as part of true engagement. It’s true. But we’re not talking about going through the motions of listening. We’re talking about hearing and understanding what your customer communities have to say. I think all of the points that Gavin makes in his post are spot on, but they have an underlying pre-requisite. Before you can carry out any of those tactics successfully, you have to be a member of your community, not a mole. You have to have a real interest and passion that connects you with people in your customer community–not just an interest and passion for converting them into dollars. People have a remarkable capacity to see through marketing. They’ve had a lifetime of practice.

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