I think it might be, especially by marketers as everyone is trying to find the next right answer to growing a business. And maybe doing so without spending too much time on the actual business plan. I'll pick that one apart another time. The issue, as I see it, is that the term "conversation" is being misused -- or misunderstood.
After dinner with Geoff, C.C. Chapman, and Doug Meacham last night, we shot an impromptu video while we each replied to the question -- do you think that the term "conversation" is getting overused? Has it lost some of its meaning?
This morning I am speaking about The Age of Conversation with members of the Direct Marketing Association of Washington, D.C. -- the topic, not the book, although I am planning to raffle off one paperback copy of the book to illustrate what it feels like to receive something unexpected, for free. The discovery made over time -- and the value the book will acquire -- will be learning about the opinions and thought process of 103 marketers and writers. That is very much what it feels like to learn about blogging.
Back when the French fries became "freedom fries" because of disagreements on intervention in Iraq, I worked for a French company. Citizens being patriotic especially in the agricultural world, many of our customers shared publicly that they intended to boycott our products, even though our affiliation with the French parent was two-degrees removed and we employed mostly US citizens. An argument that is born around emotional issues cannot be helped with rational reasoning -- it needs an open dialogue.
So that is exactly what we did in response. Our CEO called each of our customers and had a very candid and open talk about their concerns -- listening and addressing each one with them. While the ultimate goal was to remain a viable company, the purpose of the call was to address our customers' issues. That was an example of approaching business with an attitude of transparency and honesty. That is the attitude of social media.
Why use social media? If you look through my very cryptic deck, while most organizations still see themselves talking though an org chart, that never existed -- it is the remnant of an era since gone by where command and control got the job done. Now even the military thinks more about leadership than many of our businesses. And where is the customer according to that? Way out there is outer space.
Guess what, people self organize around networks and the dynamics of work look more like the following image with clusters of influencers, connectors and their niche groups, to which your customers belong. People get things done without the chart. So while it's important to acquire academic and theoretic knowledge (that is the Accademia di Modena, the Italian West Point), in a one to many format like this one (that is if the audience has not jumped in here yet); it is here (small street in Modena) that we learn about the stuff people do, by talking with each other. Yes, that was after we won the World Cup.
What are these magic concepts that make a difference in this brave new world? Maybe there used to be a core group of people inside a company, then the customers outside. I think today we have three layers -- the company/entity with its rules and processes, the employees with their skills and stories and the customers. More and more as employees are exposed to social media at home and in their personal circles and networks, they feel less and less associated with their organization. So the entity that does not open up runs the risk of having to make itself relevant to two groups -- one is internal, one is external. It depends on both for its survival.
Get out there and talk with your customers (Jeff Bezos, Amazon), be open with other entities and governments (David Filo, Yahoo with a delegation from Singapore). Is your business model market-driven?
Direct marketing is an approach -- the one to one business development model with the intent to elicit a response, translate in % of sales and lifetime value. No matter what people are doing online, they are spending more and more time there -- and they might be your customers/prospects doing it as well.
Do you have a blog? I know the VP of Communications and Campbell's is blogging her way to 50 -- what a great way to try the tool, figure out how to do it and celebrate a life stage. She gets it. When you start publishing you figure out early on that unless you put your voice and personality out there, your work will read stilted, just like carefully crafted and absolutely meaningless company statements.
I'm hesitant in writing it, this is another one of those overused words -- your customers want authenticity. Pick the product manager, the product development people, someone who has the pulse on the content, the stuff that makes you who you are as a business. Most importantly, pick someone who is willing and able to talk with your customers.
Participation goes a long way to counter balance perfection. How can you align with your customers' problems? What is of value to them? What is the market doing? The meaning of communication is the response it elicits, not your intent. You are the message.