Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
Yes, we live in the "age of conversations." Even though "Marketers and consumers have always had conversations -- they’ve just been slow," as Casey Jones, VP of Marketing at Dell, observed, the velocity of both market conversations and marketers trying to join them, has significantly picked up. Companies such as John Battelle's Federated Media (FM) are smart enough to validate this trend by enriching the grand meta-conversation called "conversational marketing" with thought leadership and platforms such as a namesake conference. The Conversational Marketing Summit, hosted by FM last week in San Francisco, gathered 300 top marketers who are either leading the conversation or are eager to become a part of it. If you suspect this to be a solipsistic dialogue of the in-crowd, you may have a point, but it was actually a fantastic forum for meeting interesting people, hearing inspirational ideas, and having a lot of -- well, conversations.
The blogosphere is wild, violent, and nasty, and it can kill you.
I missed the opening sessions on the first day but the second day started off strongly with Steve Hayden, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Mather Worldwide, who provided a solid framework of conversational media by elegantly weaving together old and new school marketing, from the origins of TV advertising to the 1984 Apple "Big Brother" commercial to today's social media. His reflections on "marketing in a post-apocalyptic, fragmented, converged, and blogorific world" were spot on and came from someone who had obviously seen all parts of the long tail. Hayden began with examining the long tail of the blogosphere and provided some interesting base data: An estimated 2,600 blogs have 1,000 or more inbound links, 400,000 have 20 or more, and 100,000,000 have fewer than 20 incoming links. So, the big question for marketers is "How do you organize the long tail?" "The blogosphere is a new form of behavior," Hayden reminded us, "and not just a new media format. The blogosphere is wild, violent, and nasty, and it can kill you." Therefore you don't have a choice, you just have two options as a marketer: "Amplify or attenuate your message."
Hayden provided a convincing raison d’être for conversational marketing: As the "marketing confidence gap" -- that is, the gap between advertising dollars spent online and consumer time spent online -- is widening, "conversational marketing is the primary way to close that gap." Money follows eyeballs, and eyeballs follow conversations. It's as simple as that. However, in order to have true conversations, marketers have to give up their fixation on message consistency and repeatability, in one word: they have to learn to let go. Hayden: "In the age of conversational marketing, you have to move the message forward because that's the nature of conversations. If you don't move the message, you don't have a conversation." Hayden suggested replacing the "big idea" (the Holy Grail of marketers) with the "big ideal:" "A big ideal keeps your long tail from falling off." While the big idea meant "share of my mind," the big ideal was about "share of culture," and Hayden illustrated this juxtaposition with a nifty chart:
For Hayden, the big ideal can be defined by asking a simple question:
[Insert brand] believes that the world would be a better place if [insert assumption]
- Dove believes that the world would be a better place if women felt better about themselves.
- Coke believes that the world would be a better place if we saw the glass as half-full and not half-empty,
- Virgin America believes that the world would be a better place if flying was fun again.
- Fanta believes that the world would be a better place if we didn’t grow up and had more time to play.
- Lynx believes that the world would be a better place if it was easier for men to have sex whenever they wanted.
…and so forth.
Hayden emphasized that it didn’t matter if the ideal was good or bad or a noble cause, as long as it was authentic and connected a cultural truth with the brand's authentic "self." To prove his point, he showed this over-the-top ad, courtesy of Lynx:
So what if a conversation such as the Lynxjet stirs controversy (remember the Chevy Tahoe campaign)? "Stay the course," Hayden recommended. It is paramount to deal with critical or nasty comments and accept them as an integral part of the conversation. At the end of the day, capturing hundreds of thousands of eyeballs outweighs any naysayers. And yet: "The best way to make money is not to focus on making money but on making a difference."
The Old Guard: Yes and No
It was good that the "old guard," earnestly and openly focusing on money, was represented at the summit as well, but as executives from Dell, Symantec, and HP proudly presented their recent forays into conversational marketing, the gulf between old and new school became evident. Casey Jones, VP of Marketing at Dell, was determined to get everyone excited about "the new Dell." I didn’t count but I bet he used the word "astonishing" a dozen times in describing Dell's "astonishing" culture. Even more astonishing was his answer when John Battelle asked him if he would move marketing dollars from traditional advertising to conversational marketing in the digital space: "Yes and no" (he actually got away with that).
James Rose, Vice President of Brand and Global Marketing Communications at Symantec, had brought his agency lead and had him run through a number of PowerPoint slides that were over-populated with data trying to prove the effectiveness of their blog campaign. Still, to really gauge the marketing revolution that is taking place, it was enlightening to see that Symantec, which had not allowed its employees to read blogs two years ago, was now launching a blog with user-generated content around security issues. The times they are a-changing.
HP is poised to move the needle, too. However, in referring to internal barriers in her organization, Daina Middleton, Director of Global Interactive Marketing in HP's Imaging and Printing Group, admitted that 66 people had been part of the decision-making process at one point or another. This was inadvertently proven by her presentation, which was the exact opposite of having a conversation with your audience. No one asked questions, and one of the FM hosts had to politely volunteer to save face. Bottom line: All these brands are on the right track, and their efforts to embrace new formats may be laudable, but, boy, do they have to work on how they talk about them!
Much more entertaining was Johnny Vulkan, a partner with Anomaly, the cutting-edge agency darling of the moment. He was in character as agent provocateur (the Brits just get advertising, for some reason). Johnny presented some case studies to illustrate what he propagated as the "three principles of conversational marketing:"
1. Leaning into the frame (in other words, hijack someone else’s conversation, for example by way of being the first in line for the iPhone release to promote a charity…). Best suited are market conversations with a built-in emotional response (sports, high-involvement consumer products, weddings, baby products, etc.). One could also call this the "wedding crasher" effect.
2. Branded utility (i.e. ShopText, an instant commerce service that lets you purchase online items via text messaging)
3. Fundamental goodness (i.e. Virgin America’s “Name a plane” campaign)
Vulkan argued that effective conversational marketing should always look for win-win-win situations between brand, consumer, and a third party, and that good advertising, in particular, should add value for the consumer if it really wanted to cut through the clutter ("value-added advertising") and, yes, "stick" (we all want to stick, somehow). He is right and his quick session demonstrated that conversational marketing is fun. As the socialization of the web progresses, marketing can in fact become the social glue when it no longer feels like marketing. And increasingly it doesn't. To quote Owen Van Natta, Facebook's Chief Revenue Officer and VP of Operations: "We know that many Facebook users click on ads and don't know even know they do. They don't perceive the ads as ads because they are so organically embedded in the content experience."
Destination Internet is dead – here comes the Distributed Internet
Speaking of Facebook, of course it was all the talk and became the main proof point for the summit's main theme: The days of "destination thinking" -- the idea of driving as many eyeballs as possible to a certain site ("one audience, one time, one venue") -- are numbered. Instead, "It's a distribution game now," as Jon Miller, former chairman and CEO of AOL. remarked. We are witnessing the rise of the "distributed Internet:" pushing the brand via branded content out to where the audiences already are, through "branded micro-networks" (Johnny Vulkan) such as Facebook, which essentially is a micro-Internet. John Battelle was one of the first to theorize on the emergence of "conversational media" over "packaged goods media." Not sure what's chicken and what's egg here but conversational media propel the verticalization of the web into specialist-driven content offerings with distinct micro-foci and micro-formats (case in point: "Seven Minute Sopranos" = seven episodes of the Sopranos in a seven-minute YouTube clip). In a nutshell, the history of online marketing goes like this: First came email, then web portals, then search (aggregation), and now there is the distributed Internet with its myriad atomized blogs, widgets, voice posts, Twitter grams, RSS feeds, and social networking hubs. This poses new challenges, for example the question of how to scale a micro-campaign and ensure its repeatability. Aren't conversations by their very nature designed to be unique and can hardly be repeated? The trick, I guess, is to design them such that they can feed themselves and stay. Of course this is easier said than done.
Alright, let's talk about metrics…
Ok, but how to measure if conversations actually have an impact on brand recognition and, excuse my old school lingo, "revenue"? In other words, what are the metrics of conversational marketing? Many speakers at the summit asked for new "engagement metrics" (i.e. time spent online + interaction with content) and "return on objectives" rather than "return on investment" for conversational marketing campaigns. There was also a strong need for some kind of consistent dashboard that consolidates different metrics into one easy-to-use solution for marketers, kind of like CRM software for conversational marketers. ComScore's "Conversational Media Report," announced during the conference, is a first and promising attempt in this space (are you listening, Technorati?).
Certainly, the 80/20 rule (20% of the visitors create 80% of the page views) no longer applies, nor is it all about reach. Many panelists agreed that the effects of the "distributed Internet" will likely cause a gradual decline in the number of web site visitors and page views on traditional brand and news portals. "Context of the conversation" is becoming more important than unique visitors, page views, click through rates, and CPMs. Frequency is another new factor that marketers ought to take into account when committing to a long-term social media engagement: Facebook has 40 million active users and half of them return every other hour. Moreover, the Pulse feature lets marketers survey thousands of Facebook users (or even just hundreds in highly targeted groups or networks) in instant polls. That's pretty powerful.
At the end of a day rich with conversations, I got the message: It's time to walk the walk. "It's a different organizing principle that is going to dramatically change the playing field," said Ross Levinsohn, who famously acquired MySpace for Murdoch and then got ousted: "Some marketers will lean forward, some will lean back. But if you lean back, other marketers may effectively outmarket you." In this new Cluetrain world of marketing, brands can either be the subject of conversations or they can host conversations, moderated by either brand advocates or brand atttractors, and facilitated by marketers whose titles should consequently change to "chief facilitation officers" or "chief listening officers." "Spend your money listening," was one of the watchwords of the summit, and in a variation of David Ogilvy’s famous "the consumer is your wife" quote, one could perhaps contend that in the amateur-driven, democratized conversational marketing world of today your spouse may in fact be your best marketer.