The hype around social media as conversation has become deafening.
Much of the hyperbole comes from agencies and consultants who have seized upon social media as the next wave; their motivation is self-serving, of course. Promoting their credentials as social media experts enables them to attract clients, launch new projects and grow revenues. Still more hyperbole comes from pundits seeking to grow their audience for blogs, speaking engagements, books they’ve authored, podcasts, etc. (You know who I mean.) These are all classic examples of early hype cycles.
So much of the rationale on why this matters still comes back to audience size (expressed in terms of new social media metrics that replace the old-fashioned “eyeballs” and page views of the early Internet days). Here’s a great example of this argument:
But all this attention on numbers makes it all too seductive for marketers to do the same old things in a new way. Where’s the conversation?
I Love the Concept – Now Engage in Conversation
Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of conversational marketing between brands and customers – I just haven’t seen much evidence of it.
Outside of email or phone, I’ve not yet had a single “digital conversation” with any service provider to my business or any brand whose products I buy. Most of what I receive from vendors is predominantly email marketing (this is true in both my personal and business life).
Most of the activity I observe in the social media world today is the result of people who earn their living via social media and who actively promote it as the next new platform for marketing or company-customer-brand interaction.
Today’s Practice Is Rarely Conversational, With a Few Exceptions
In the B2B world webinars are often effective conversation starters. The Q&A that follows webinars is a good example of conversation, one that’s triggered by a digitally hosted event that’s happening in real time. But these conversations are heavily dependent on human voices engaging in dialog.
I see lots of examples on Twitter of employees talking up their company’s products or services – especially when something new is being launched. For example: You should have seen the noise in the Seattle area as the Windows 7 launch neared! It was obvious Microsoft’s PR team had initiated a concerted effort to galvanize the employees to talk up the launch. Local tweet-ups abounded…
But on a day-to-day basis Twitter is loaded with examples of self-promotional messages or personal brand building. (I have engaged in this myself.) Who really cares what I’m cooking for dinner, or that my high-tech cats know how to turn on my Mac?
When I’ve found tweets to be most useful is when someone points out a helpful resource they’ve found on Slideshare or someone’s website. This is what I call the “signpost” form of tweet… It’s rarely conversation.
The Medium Limits the Message
As for conversation, the 140-character constraint on tweets means that at best each message is a quip or a retort. Maybe it serves as a conversation starter, but I’m still looking for evidence of real conversation happening in the Twitter world.
There are a few highly talented people who’ve mastered this medium, but in general what you see on your Tweetdeck sounds more like cacophony.
Blogs Still Rule
The best examples of online conversation take place in good-old-fashioned blogs: when someone writes a provocative post, and lots of people respond with interesting commentary or alternative points of view.
Conversation occurs when someone speaks, people listen, the speaker responds, and multiple parties engage. Yes, conversation of a sort takes place when lots of people speak all at once, but it’s ineffective if no one is listening. Or if so many people are talking that they drown out each other’s voice.
Blogs are the best online vehicle I’ve seen for asynchronous online conversations. They also offer the benefit of allowing late arrivers to benefit from the conversation after it has taken place.
Late arrivers’ role is generally limited to listening because the active conversationalists have moved on… Archived webinars can perform a similar function, but are often closed to the general public or to nonpaying subscribers.
I also see occasional signs of conversation within LinkedIn’s network, sometimes sparked via Q&A; more often by the conversations that take place privately when LinkedIn enables former colleagues to find each other and reconnect over email and then phone.
Plaxo seems less effective at this – perhaps because of its hybrid mission as address book updater and personal news flash publisher. (I’m finding Plaxo more and more annoying, and have had to turn it off because it causes Outlook to crash on a daily basis.)
Facebook fans rave about the conversations they have there. Due to social media fatigue and too many other demands on my time, I haven’t yet found the time to invest in building a Facebook presence. So I don’t have enough personal experience with Facebook to comment.
Conversations with the People Who Matter
Perhaps due to our New England upbringing, my family has found more value in a “gated community” we’ve established for private conversations and memory sharing using 37Signals’ Basecamp. It has proven to be a wonderful platform for re-uniting a distributed family and enabling very thoughtful or even tearful conversations. This has been a true cross-generational conversation – but it’s not conversational marketing, as no brands are involved. There’s no opportunity for anyone to monetize what’s taking place.
And as for my real friends: we talk in person or by phone; occasionally by email, but always as a prelude to a real-world conversation or get-together.
So, yes, call me a Baby Boomer. Even though I’ve been using computers and email for literally decades, my conversations still tend to take place “off the grid” and face to face.
But I’ll be happy to engage in a dialog with my favorite brands, once they have mastered the art of conversation.