Once upon a time, we were consumers. We consumed things. We took in the messages that were communicated to us. We didn't really get to talk back. If we had a good or bad experience with a product or service—we told a friend. Maybe that friend told a friend. Maybe, just like the shampoo commercial from advertising's golden age, "They'll tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on…."
Marketers are finding themselves in an increasingly frantic race to get people talking about their brands. The desire to produce something "viral" is nearly ubiquitous in the marketing world. But it's unclear who exactly "consumers" are these days. We don't even know what that word means any more. Can consumers be producers? Yes. Can they be users? Yes. Can they be active participants, members of niche communities, or even critics capable of effectively mobilizing others? Yes, yes, and yes.
Therein lies the problem. A consumer can be any number of things—sometimes all at once. And that fact is driving marketers, businesspeople, and brand managers nuts. So what do we do? I propose we become conversation architects.
The Medium Is the Message
This is not about creating a snazzy new job title—we've got enough of those. This is a shift in mindset, in how we think about connecting with "consumers," for lack of a better word. Here's how I break this down: Marketing has traditionally been about messages. If your messages were really good, they became a form of storytelling (think Marlboro Man or Apple's (AAPL) 1984 ad).
Enter the Web. Already, online technologies have evolved from simple, brochure-like representations of our businesses to rich, interactive experiences that mimic or simulate how we interact with brands in the real world. Think Nike (NKE) iD, which allowed site users to create and customize their own running shoes—and broadcast the designs in Times Square.
But great experiences aren't enough. It's entirely possible to design and develop a rich, immersive, experiential Web site, only to have light traffic and little return on investment. Bud.TV, for example, is falling short of its goal of 2 million to 3 million monthly visits. Many fault the registration process. In spite of a slick interface and highly produced video, Anheuser-Busch (BUD) doesn't seem to be reaping what was sown. Why?
It's the conversation economy, stupid. One of the engines that is driving "2.0" growth is the fact that communities are forming around popular social platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Ning, Twitter—the list goes on and on. These platforms facilitate conversation. Conversation leads to relationships and relationships lead to affinity.
Brand affinity, as companies such as Harley-Davidson (HOG) have proven, often drives communities to form around them. This is why anyone who plays a role in branding needs to become a conversation architect. Marketers, businesses, and designers must have an intimate understanding of how these platforms are evolving and influencing human behavior. There has to be an in-depth understanding of why some us of love to incorporate these services in our digital lives.
Case in point: I hardly watch TV, and when I do it's pre-recorded through TiVo (TIVO). In addition to maintaining my blog and keeping up with the demands of life, family, and career, I've been spending time on the much-hyped Twitter service. But why is Twitter so hyped? Why all the fuss? I believe it's because Twitter has evolved from a simple service that initially allowed users to express mundane thoughts into a robust "conversation ecosystem."
Twitter allows users to send and receive abbreviated communications or "digital shorthand" from a computer or mobile device. These are called "Tweets." The open-source nature of the application has spawned countless "mash-ups" where Twitter technology merges seamlessly with other open-source technologies such as Google (GOOG) Maps. Widgets and desktop applications such as Twitteroo and Twitterific take you outside of the browser and act as a sort of social instant messenger, sending and receiving rapid bursts of text and links.
Twitter can send and receive feeds. I now receive my news headlines from the service, getting up to speed from media sources such as CNN and The New York Times. That's why I call Twitter a conversation ecosystem—it supports multiple touch points of content and dialogue.
Think about the implications here. Just as YouTube changed how we watch and share videos, some emerging media applications are changing how we interact with each other and with brands. Does this sound like marketing? Well, it is. It's how we market to each other. Yes, that's right—we market to each other. We always have, in fact, but now we're doing it in a more digitally connected way. When we find our friends on any social network (pick one) we swap stories about products and services we like or dislike. We share knowledge and expertise. We define a new kind of currency fueled by conversation and founded in meaningful relationships.
Conversation architects move marketing beyond the idea of one-way messaging. Traditional marketing efforts were founded on this tried-and-true format and are still prevalent within the industry. Consider the example of a typical creative brief template, which usually says something like, "What are we trying to communicate?" Can you see the old-world residue in the word "communicate"? It lacks the dimensions of experiencing something and having an ongoing two-way dialogue. "What are we trying to communicate?" implies a one-way conversation. Maybe we should ask ourselves: "How can we facilitate?"
Even media outlets such as USA Today have recently revamped their sites to support reader feedback in the form of comments. Users can also upload photos to the site (though I'm not sure why this is useful). As I write this, journalist and influential blogger Jeff Jarvis, who once flamed Dell in the famed "Dell Hell," now blogs about his positive interactions with Dell (DELL) representatives as they engage him and invite him to their digs in Texas.
Jarvis says this of Dell's practices: "This isn't just crowdsourcing. This is crowdmanaging." Dell has overhauled its culture since Dell Hell. It currently has several sites that support user-generated content and give its customers and community a voice.
I've personally witnessed Dell's change of heart in the form of an unsolicited comment on my blog from a Dell employee in regard to a post I had written about my experience talking at Loyola University. I had asked the graduate students there whether they had heard of Dell Hell (approximately 90% of them had not). But that didn't stop Dell from hearing what I said. With the use of Technorati, Dell can easily search for phrases such as Dell Hell and decide whether they want to engage consumers.
Since my blog has high traffic it would have been a missed opportunity if they hadn't. So, not only did the Dell representative take the time to read my content and refer to it, he addressed how Dell is changing. And even here you can see the power of conversation, as I'm calling out the positive interaction I had with Dell—even though it occurred on my blog.
But is engaging people on their own blogs marketing? If you think of marketing as facilitation as opposed to communication, it is. My background is in design, and I like to think that at the core, design is about facilitation. We designers should stop talking and start designing conversations. We should convert from marketers and information architects to conversation architects. Information is a one-way street, conversation isn't.
The same goes for businesspeople—the new consumer class that can be anything and everything at once is looking for meaningful dialogue. Some brands and businesses are going out of their way to provide this. Some are going through the motions. And some are doing business as usual. Which camp do you fall in?