Markets Are Conversations

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View this presentation — “Markets Are Conversations” — on Prezi.com

From Conversations to Monologues

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind their readers that, for thousands of years, markets were conversations. These were places for exchange where buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met and connected. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, advertising and public relations. Customers talked among themselves about products and merchants, giving each other their recommendations. Words of mouth were a powerful tool of advertising.

Then came the Industrial Age and with it mass production, mass consumption and inevitably mass marketing. Ever since, market conversations have been interrupted. In their places are marketing messages that businesses push onto consumers. Marketing becomes a profession, an applied science, the engineering of desirable responses through the application of calibrated stimuli. A new metaphor, “business is war”, has taken hold. “We launch marketing campaigns based on strategies that target markets; we bombard people with messages in order to penetrate markets… Business-as-usual is in a constant state of war with the market, with the marketing department manning the front lines”. There is one big problem with this:  marketers are trying to do all the talking; but people do not ask for all these marketing messages and do their best to tune them out. All the sophisticated marketing research techniques and promotional tools have proven increasingly less effective. Marketers and consumers become disconnected from each other.

The video clip below — “The Break Up” — says it well. It is “a story of love gone wrong” — all she (the consumer) wants is genuine affection; all he (the advertiser) offers is loyalty reduction. A break-up is bound to happen.

Back to the Future

Once again the world is changing. The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of social media enabling users to create and contribute content and to network online have altered the balance of power in favor of consumers. These are not simply new channels for marketers to continue broadcasting their messages more widely and cheaply. Instead, they are new virtual spaces where people can gather around topics of interest to them, learn and talk about products, brands and their consumption experiences, and recommend directly to each other what to buy and what not.

The Cluetrain Manifesto proposes several dozens theses about the impacts of the Internet on markets and organizations. Among those is “markets are conversations”. The book was published in 1999, long before the proliferation of social media tools. Its theses were way ahead of their time. On the 10-year anniversary of the book, a 2009 video clip by Jacobsland Partners highlights some of the key theses.

Market conversations are back, but with one major difference this time: the marketspaces are highly networked. Because people are more widely connected online, their conversations can expand far and wide, spread from one forum to another easily, and get picked up by other media instantaneously. All of these can take place with or without participation from marketers.

Ignore Market Conversations at One’s Own Perils

Good, bad or ugly as these market conversations may be, their reach and impacts can be wide and serious. Ignoring them does not make them go away; and there is no realistic way of crowding them out with advertising blitz. Instead, participation in these conversations is often a smarter choice while keeping a distance and being silent can be a costly mistake. The experience of the leading computer maker Dell with Dell Hell serves as a vivid reminder of this. In June 2005, blogger Jeff Jarvis posted on his blog Buzzmachine (http://www.buzzmachine.com) his complaint, entitled Dell Hell, about the failure of Dell’s customer services to repair his laptop. It quickly attracted thousands of links, comments and emails from other aggrieved Dell customers, and became the third most linked-to post on the blogosphere in the following weeks (Gupta, 2005). At the time Dell had a “look, don’t touch” policy regarding blog commentaries in effect. So, it did not respond to this brewing negative publicity until Dell Hell received wide coverage in the mainstream media (including the New York Times, Slate, CNN, Business Week, etc.). By then, according to an analysis by Market Sentinel (2005), Dell had badly lost out to Buzzmachine and other blogs as the source of information on Dell’s customer services. Coincidentally or not, Dell’s sales growth stalled and profits fell. Eventually, Dell had to take a series of corrective actions, including the creation of a blog, known as Direct2Dell, to engage in candid conversations with its customers.

Be Authentic

Conversations occur in human voices as being from a person with authentic identity, a point of view and a passion, not a legal entity trying to deliver a message or keep them on message. They are two-way communications involving both listening and talking; they need to be authentic and transparent to gain the public trust. The goal is not to build a walled garden of content that hold consumers hostage to the marketer’s brand messages but rather to create a “public square” — a virtual meeting place where customers come back for the rich and engaging experience (Tapscott and Williams, 2006).  So, lighten up, loosen up and listen for a change. Only by presenting itself as a human face and by engaging its constituents (e.g., customers, suppliers and employees) in meaningful conversations can a company or institution have a fair chance of influencing consumer opinion. When frustrated customers launched a blog recounting the hours Jet Blue left them stranded on the tarmac during a snow storm, the carrier responded quickly, not with a traditional press release, but by posting on YouTube a video of an apology from its CEO. Its response received favorable and supportive comments and e-mails from thousands of customers (Eikelmann et al, 2007).

The price for not being authentic can be high. In September 2006, Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization founded by the public relations firm Edelman, sponsored a couple for their trip by a recreational vehicle (RV) from Las Vegas to Georgia. The couple maintained a blog named Wal-Marting Across America where they wrote about the lives and stories they encountered on their journey, including the many employees who reportedly expressed their love of working for this giant retailer. The couple was real and they already had, prior to the sponsorship, a favorable view of Wal-Mart particularly for its policy of letting RVers park for free at its parking lots. However, the failure to disclose the sponsorship raised suspicion about the authenticity of this blog and led eventually to its exposure as a “flog” (or a fake blog) and plenty of uproars in the blogosphere (Gogoi, 2006). Subsequently, the president and CEO of Edelman had to apologize publicly for its failure to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers (Siebert, 2006).

Have Thick Skin

Joining a conversation takes much more than simply adding social media to the marketing communication tool set. It also means embracing a new management mindset — ceding control in order to build relationships (Li, 2004). This can be a challenging and risky move for marketers who accustomed to controlling their messages through one-way broadcasting media. The publicity surrounding GM/Apprentice advertising campaign underscores the potential risk of ceding such control. In 2006, GM launched a promotional web site in partnership with NBC’s “The Apprentice” to offer consumers a chance to create their own advertisements for the Chevy Tahoe SUV (sport-utility vehicle). Environmental activists, consumer safety advocates and many anti-SUV consumers quickly seized on the opportunity to create many advertisements that slammed on the Tahoe for its adverse impacts. These videos quickly found their way onto YouTube. GM management was slow to respond to these negative advertisements at first but later decided to face these head-on, trying to clarify the facts (e.g., pointing out that the Tahoe outperformed other competing SUVs on fuel economy, safety ratings and engine emission) and to put a positive spin on the whole campaign. Writing on GM FastLane blog, Chevrolet General Manager claimed GM management had expected this sort of campaign would not come without risks but “adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate… In our opinion, this has been one of the most creative and successful promotions we have done. And we invite you back to the final ‘Board Room’ as we select the winning entry.” (Peper, 2006).

Loosen up Control or Lose Control

While the risk of ceding control on marketing messages is real, the ability to control such messages has been sharply reduced, if not totally eliminated, by the rise of social media anyway. In the age of user-generated content (UGC), there is little that marketers can do to prevent or stop consumer from posting and spreading messages, negative or otherwise, about their brands. By embracing social media, instead of rejecting or ignoring them, marketers can at least become part of the conversations and be better placed to shape consumer perceptions. Not all was lost for GM in the GM/Apprentice campaign, according to Charlene Li of Forrester Research (2006). “By losing control over the brand experience, Chevy actually brought more people into it — witness the debate over the campaign itself. The environmental and SUV fuel economy debate has always existed outside of the Chevy experience, but by bringing it into chevyapprentice.com, Chevy has harnessed it into a promotional benefit”. The key lesson is “…in the social computing arena, you [marketers] have got to have thick skin and be ready to engage in the messy world of your customer’s opinions. Marketers that have the guts to turn over their brand to the public will in the end win over their customers.”

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