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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 for companies.

What links Starbucks, Greek market-places, the internet, coffee shops in 18th century London, operating system design and forward thinking companies?

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 with customers.

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 not exist.

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 to fail.

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, humane voice.

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.




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