Can marketing be conversational?

Not long after came out, Jakob Nielsen floored me by pointing out something that should have been obvious but proved easy to miss: that the authors “defected” from marketing and took sides with markets against it. When we wrote we are not seat s or eyeballs or end users or consumers, and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it … the first person we was individuals seeking to escape marketing’s grasp. The second person we were addressing was marketing itself. I think this is a very big reason why Cluetrain still resonates today. Marketing is hardly any less graspy and barely more conversational, except in a few places. Such as, presumably, the Conversational Marketing Summit.

In the weeks leading up to the Summit my friend Peter Hirshberg urged me to provide helpful input for a white paper he was writing with others, including Steve Hayden of Ogilvy, a legendary copywriter (Apple’s “1984”, among countless others). The white paper was to frame its thinking around Cluetrain, eight years after marketing began not to get its points.

Here’s what I sent him, which now runs at the front of the White Paper (warning: it’s a .pdf)…

The framing for conversational marketing should be conversation, not marketing. Think about what you want in a conversation, and let that lead your marketing.

  • The purpose of conversation is to create and improve understanding, not for one party to “deliver messages” to the other. That would be rude.
  • There is no “audience” in a conversation. If we must label others in conversation, let’s call them partners.
  • People in productive conversation don’t repeat what they’re saying over and over. They learn from each other and move topics forward.
  • Conversations are about talking, not announcing. They’re about listening, not surveying. They’re about paying attention, not getting attention. They’re about talking, not announcing.
  • “Driving” is for cars and cattle, not conversation.
  • Conversation is live. Its constantly moving and changing, flowing where the interests and ideas of the participants take it. Even when conversations take the form of email, what makes them live is current interest on both sides.

What this means for conversational marketing is that brands must be living things too. Not just emblems. Those that succeed will be as liveas open to the flow and diversion of ideasas the market conversations they participate in.

Live brands participate in market conversations in a manner that is:

  • Real. Conversational marketing is carried out by human beings, writing and speaking in their own voices, for themselvesnot just for their employers.
  • Constant. Conversational marketings heartbeat is the human one, not some media schedule. Brands need to work incessantly to be understood within the context of the market conversation and to earn and keep the respect of their conversational partners.
  • Genuinely interested. Intellectual engagement cant be fakedat least for long. Current interest is what keeps conversations going, and its the key to sustained brand presence.
  • Intent on learning. Every participant who stays with the conversation learns. Humans are distinguished by their unlimited capacity to learn. This should be no less true of brands than it is of individuals.
  • Humble. The term “branding” was born in the cattle industry and borrowed by advertising and mass media at the height of the Industrial Age. In those days the power to inform was concentrated in the hands of a few giant companies. Now it’s in everybody’s hands.
  • Attentive. In the old days, brands wanted everybody else to pay attention to them. Now brands need to pay attention to everybody else.
  • Personal. No individual outsources their conversation or their education. This is no less true of brands than of people. Because brands today are people. Smart brands reward individual employees for engaging in market converstions.

Can marketing be all those things? I have my doubts. So does this blog (not sure who the writer is), which offers a paragraph that makes me wince:

‘There is no audience in a conversation.’ I agree with this, however there is an audience for a blog. Labeling people in a conversation a ‘partner’ suggests equality. But as this applies to marketing it is the wrong suggestion. A partner doesn’t try to get you to buy stuff you don’t need/want. The implication that the blogosphere is a conversation; that we are all partners; therefore people marketing to us in this ‘conversation’ are our partners is creepy. Another point to note is that there is a backchannel in the blogosphere. Many of us get emails requesting this that or the other get some exposure. Conversations are transparent to all participants.

I remember struggling with a term that wasn’t “audience” and was truly conversational. “Partner” was the best I could come up with at the time. What else do you call someone you’re in conversation with? Maybe one of you can come up with a better answer. In any case, point taken. In fact, it’s a point I’d make as well. The jury is out on whether marketing can be truly conversational. Peter and Steve believe it can. I’d like to help them try, which is what I’m doing here. If anybody can do it, they’re the ones. But the jury is still out. That’s the rest of us.

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21 Responses to Can marketing be conversational?

  1. Doc,

    The point I think I’m making here is one of terminology. Is the term ‘conversation’ being used because you really believe that these interactions are true conversations; or is the term being used to encourage the target to let down their defences a little?

  2. Mark Silver says:

    The term in question is ‘marketing,’ I believe. When I think of marketing, I have images of the old-style souk- the marketplace. Stalls, vendors- conversations. You weren’t being convinced to buy something you didn’t want- you browsed, and when you found something you liked, you sat down and talked about it.

    Other cultures (ours used to) have had in their history customs of sitting down to tea with a proprietor and exchanging all sorts of pleasantries and conversations, during the negotiation. The merchant wanted a profit, but may refuse to sell if the customer wasn’t engaging with him/her.

    We experienced that recently when we bought Turkish rugs- friends of ours have a friend who is a Turkish rug merchant. He comes over to the US once a year or so to sell rugs. He has stacks of them. He unloads them into their house, and they invite friends over. We all sit around talking, conversing, – and they explain the rugs, displaying them one by one. We take breaks, eat cakes, drink tea, back to the rugs. By the end of the night people have bought rugs, or they haven’t. But, the enjoyment of the interaction is in the forefront.

    The first time we did it, we didn’t buy rugs. Two years later, we did.

    I believe that many web-based proprietors are trying to re-engage this aspect of ‘marketing.’ But, in order to succeed, the marketer has to prize the conversation as highly as the customer does. And, the marketer has to be willing to say ‘no’ to customers, as much as customers might say ‘no’ to the merchant.

    This brings a sense of ease, equality and, yes, partnership to the experience.

    What do you think, Doc?

  3. Doc Searls says:


    I love this:

    I believe that many web-based proprietors are trying to re-engage this aspect of ‘marketing.’ But, in order to succeed, the marketer has to prize the conversation as highly as the customer does. And, the marketer has to be willing to say ‘no’ to customers, as much as customers might say ‘no’ to the merchant.

    This brings a sense of ease, equality and, yes, partnership to the experience.

    And I totally agree.

    I also have to wonder, addressing Matthew’s question, if the professionals we call “marketers” are ready and able to engage in this kind of dialog. Because that’s what’s really required. And not just of marketers. In fact, marketers should either — as Ted Turner so perfectly put it — lead, follow or get out of the way.

    On the other hand, if marketers are just using the c-word to encourage “targets” to let down defences, woe is them.

  4. Matthew: The term is being used to encourage the target to let down their defences, a lot.

    This has been said over and over, by various people, in a critique of the evangelism.

    The proof that it’s all not a conversation is that YOU WON’T HEAR IT BECAUSE IT’S NOT MARKETED.

    The evangelism is repeated over and over, because it serves marketing, because businesspeople can make money off it by emotional manipulation of the audience. The refutation is marginalized, since there’s no incentive for A-listers to echo it, except in weak response to the constant sales-pitch (or plain old reactionarism, there’s some of that).

  5. John Cass says:

    I think people have too much of a hang up with the word marketing. Most people think it means sales or advertising rather than what is really means. (Though I could be convinced that if enough people believe a word to not mean the dictionary definition then its time to change the definition.)

    Here’s one standard definition, Marketing is the process of understanding customer wants and needs and satisfying them efficiently and profitably. That last word ‘profits’ means that the merchant does not have to agree with everything a customer wants if they don’t make a profit. And at the beginning of the definition of marketing the definition describes how people use the term to understand or listen to customers in order to satisfy their needs. No real talk of partnership but in my mind that was how I always understood the definition. Sorry I really don’t see where the definition of marketing differs from what you are talking about. Now, reality in action is a whole other gambit I would agree.

    Oh, people at the company formerly known as Macromedia gave me some really good examples of where customers gave feedback and made suggestions about a software product. The product builders at Macromedia determined the suggestions were not worth implementing because software production schedules would be put off significantly and the price of the software would rise too much. Rather than respond negatively to the answer ‘no’ from Macromedia customers were even more enthusiastic towards the company because there was an explanation that made sense, there was discussion. Saying ‘no’ when you have a good reason is something companies should not be afraid of. I had another example from Microsoft where Microsoft shut down customer service on a version of software, customers responded further online and stated they would pay more for a discontinued service, Microsoft reconsidered and both parties were happy, the customers with the old version of software had continued service and Microsoft made a profit on the service.

  6. Mark Silver says:

    I agree, Doc- woe is them. Unfortunately, our culture has become very materialistically driven, and the mistaken belief that more money will make you happy pushes making the sale up to the top where it doesn’t belong.

    The funny thing is, that I truly believe that marketing can be a force for healing (yes, I used the “h” word) on the planet- if it has this sense of integrity and connection – of being in the marketplace with equals.

    If it’s just about making a buck, then… it’s clear those folks will lose out in the medium-to-long term. That’s okay. I can out wait them. So can my customers. We’re loyal to each other. 🙂 While they’re scrambling around trying to ‘make things happen’- I’m in the souk, sitting back having a cup of tea with my customers…

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  8. Emily says:

    This is a great conversation! Yes, the pun is intended. Conversation in marketing in today’s world can happen in many ways, including in a blog as this. New technology has given us the opportunity to converse with our customers in a way that was not possible before. A blog can have 200,000 visitors a day and be a conversation vehicle with all the visitors. The vistors, however, have more power to decide not to respond by using the power of the “click”.

  9. Lotus says:

    Perhaps participants instead of partners. A conversation requires the active participation of two or more people and can have an audience that listens but does not engage. People do not have to be partners to have a conversation but there does need to be a give and take, a back and forth. In the blogosphere virtually all can actively participate in, or passively watch, these conversations. This does not mean that participants don’t attempt to control conversations though. The impetus for a marketer vs. a friend to engage is often quite different although I’m sure we’ve all had friends who’ve tried to “sell” us something in the context of a conversation.

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  13. Steve says:

    Doc, Your article is exactly what all the great IMer’s have always said. Another way to say it might be, “Don’t even try to sell and then you will.”
    If it’s anything but a conversation from one friend to another, it’s never going to connect. So why even give a “sales pitch?”
    Good stuff.

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