Harnessing the power of virtual conversations
Simon Roberts explores the importance of conversations in networked
markets. Brand Strategy, November 2000. Brand Strategy
In a previous article for brand strategy, Bruce Davis wrote about the creation,
through technologies, of vast communicative webs. This article looks again
at these webs and what they contain, what drives them and the implications
What links Starbucks, Greek market-places, the internet, coffee shops
in 18th century London, operating system design and forward thinking
The answer is quite simple: they all exist for, support and thrive on
conversations. Conversations are an emerging phenomenon; the development
of which is increasingly shifting the agenda for corporate brand
communication. Conversations exist between people and are characterised by
exchange and sharing. They involve listening and speaking and require all
participants to do both, though not necessarily in equal measure.
Interaction is the hallmark of conversations. If one participant stops
listening or stops talking, the conversation dies a quick death and the
interchange of ideas and perspectives fades with it.
Companies too must be participants in conversations if they are to
communicate with, rather than at, their customers or audiences. The word
'audience' suggests passive consumption of others' messages. For companies
it is time to realise that customers are not passive but, as in the show
De La Guarda, integral participants. Performers almost. After this
realisation it is time for action, time to actively encourage a dialogue
between your company and its customers.
Ever since the agora of ancient Greece, the market-places in which
everything including ideas and conversation was transacted, societies have
created spaces in which discussion and debate can take place. Through the
ages these have differed little in structure and varied little in purpose.
They are arenas that facilitate the sharing, creation and transmission of
perspectives, arenas in which, from a clash of opinions, outlooks with
creative potential are constructed and traded. They are the environments
where thinking moves on.
The internet is a similar type of space. From the very outset in the
earliest days of its conception and development it was about fostering
conversations and cooperation between academics. Although it has changed
in nature and scale it remains an arena of interaction and the interchange
of ideas. Where this is most significant is in its ability to provide
channels of conversation between companies, their staff, partners,
suppliers, customers, critics and advocates.
The webs of communication it supports in the commercial sphere are
highly diverse and complex. The net presents an entirely fresh set of
challenges and opportunities for companies through its ability to tear
down corporate firewalls, change the importance of geography and the
relationship between who a person is and the value or importance of their
input into the conversation.
The internet differs from physical spaces, such as coffee shops, in
that it does not demand the physical presence of people in order that they
participate in conversations. It has removed the necessity of being
somewhere in order to join in. It has unhinged questions of geography from
access to information and products. It has dissolved the geography that
tied consumers to certain markets or products. More profoundly it has
effected a transformation of the traditional relationship between physical
location and access to social information. Where someone lives and who
they are now less important than ever in defining questions to access. You
no longer need to be there and it no longer matters who you are, you can
have a role in a conversation and people will listen. As one cartoonist
has put: "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog."
These conversations have many of the facets of those discussed above.
They fundamentally transform the relationships between consumers and
companies and between companies and their employees. They position brands,
advocate products and 'construct' companies.
What has profound implications for modern companies, especially those
that want to ensure success and make an impact in contemporary markets, is
the tendency of the internet to break down the relationship between social
status and a person's ability to be part of the debate. The relationship
between who a person is and the perceived value of their input into the
debate or conversation is challenged. An employee is no longer just an
employee, but a representative of the company, a new status that requires
the brand manifesto, if such a thing exists, to travel beyond the
marketing department so that all employees can 'be it' in conversations
Some companies have recognised the need to join in conversations that
the internet has facilitated and encouraged. Notable examples include The
Body Shop, Intel and Saturn Cars. Other companies have adopted an
ostrich-like posture but that does not mean that the conversations ignore
them. Paradoxically, a failure to engage in those conversations
facilitated by the internet leads consumers and employees to do the
talking for and about the company.
The emancipation of conversation means that the marketing department is
not the only place that does, can or should communicate between a company
and the outside world. The upshot of this for companies is that they are
more transparent, whether they want to be or not. It is no longer
sufficient to have a nice outer layer to project what you see as your
image (which is the overt role of most marketing departments).
The age of conversations requires robust companies that are coherent in
everything they communicate from the invoices they dispatch to the staff
they employ. Consumers can hold a multitude of conversations with a
company across a range of media. The upshot is, as the authors of the
Cluetrain Manifesto put it, the community of discourse is the market and
companies that are not participating in these discussions might as well
A fine example of this failure to engage in the conversations of the
market comes courtesy of United Airlines. The carrier attempted to
circumvent criticism and comments from passengers by not providing
channels for their opinions to be vented. The result is the ironically
titled www.untied.com, a forum where disappointed United travellers can
voice complaints. The site is the alter ego of the official www.united.com
site that presents the starkly efficient and corporate face of the
airline. Untied is the direct result of United's desire to face down
complaints, to pretend they don't exist and, by extension, a denial of
their potential not only to improve the United offering but to give the
airline a human face. Other examples exist, such as www.thevault.com, and
those who work in the higher echelons of large companies might be
interested to see what their and others' employees are conversing about.
All such sites thrive on the existence of companies that attempt to live
behind their firewalls and exist as commercial organisations that want a
presence on the internet. Such a pick and choose approach seems destined
What also seems doomed are companies that believe that the world of
conversations still allows consumers to be communicated at or to in the
same old way. As the Cluetrain Manifesto reminds us: "The first markets
were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they
were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and
sellers looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first
markets were places for exchange, where people came to buy what others had
to sell - and to talk."
What the internet, and the conversations it fosters and encourages,
means is that markets are in some ways similar to the bazaars and, even
though business gets bigger, consumers increasingly want to communicate
with companies in an honest voice and be talked to, not at, in an honest,
The conclusion of all this is that conversation is not new - people
have always created places in which to discuss issues and share relevant
information. The internet and other communication technologies have
certainly heightened the velocity of these conversations, but they have
also increased their intensity. In August this year 580 million SMS
messages were sent. These are both conversations that would and wouldn't
have otherwise occurred.
The challenge for companies at this juncture is not only to be the
subject of conversations, but instigate, facilitate them and use the
medium through which consumers communicate (if, unlike Starbucks, you
can't provide the actual location). The challenge is to be part of these
conversations and learn to thrive on them.
Our stance in this conversation is that companies ignore conversations
at their peril.
At a glance
- Companies must be participants in conversations if they are to
communicate with (not at) their customers
- The internet is an arena of interaction and the interchange of ideas,
providing channels for conversations between staff, partners, suppliers,
customers, critics and advocates
- The internet has dissolved the geography that tied consumers to
certain markets or products
- Companies must be coherent in everything they communicate from the
invoices they dispatch to the staff they employ
Copyright © 2000 by Centaur Communications.