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Can marketers ever start conversations?

Thanks to everyone who commented on the PR Pains... there were a lot of interesting perspectives.

I thought today about the whole "if in doubt: push don't pull" imperative when C. Sven Johnson pointed to an opinion piece on CNet by Elinor Mills following a conference called Conversational Marketing.  

...I'm suspicious when the "conversation" is initiated by the marketer and not the consumer.

I think people are generally. They're wary of brands, of marketing, because basically experience tells them to be.

I can't help but view conversational marketing as a thinly veiled attempt by the ad industry to insinuate itself into the popular social media craze. Calling it a "conversation" makes it sound benign and implies that it is consensual. Sure, I don't mind hearing about discounts on products I buy, and between all the outdoor, print, TV, radio and traditional online advertising, it's a safe bet that I will have heard about new products that I might want.

C. Sven Johnson's not so sure that there are no situations when a marketer can't start a conversation...

I’d also concede that because someone can be both a consumer and a provider, there are times when the “conversation” can be initiated by a marketer. But it’s rare.

There we have it. So, if you can't be out there starting conversations left right and centre as a brand what can you do?

Well you can learn about context and about the way that the web works as a pull medium. You can build the right content and the right spaces so that when people want something from you, or even might want to start a conversation with you, you're there.

Plus, you can listen, really listen, to what people are talking about and learn when the right moment is to join in - not to deliver a killer call to action, but just to be helpful, useful.

I'm not entirely sure what Elinor means in her summing up, though:

But let's not confuse plain old advertising and gimmick marketing with a new form of commercial digital communication that ostensibly gives consumers more control.

The only thing they really control is whether they reach into their wallet.

That seems a bit pessimistic. I'm an optimist when it comes to the empowering effect of social media for people in all areas of their lives.

When cynical people say "conversational" or "word of mouth" marketing they might mean "letting people think they're in control while we get our messages into their brains"

: : Marketing & Strategy Innovation (an aggregation of some top marketing bloggers) one of those great feeds I drift in and out of reading, but am always glad when I get back in the groove with it again. So many good voices on it.

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I'd like to point out that in my comments I included one other thing which, I believe, can be done: marketers can be genuinely passionate about their products. I believe it's "rare" that marketers can start a conversation simply because in my experience so few are truly passionate about the product they're pitching. For most, it's just part of the job.

I've discussed this particular issue before if you're interested: http://blog.rebang.com/?p=427

Thanks for adding with that comment - and for the extra link: most welcome...

It's kind of obvious but for me 'conversational marketing' is, well, still marketing and not genuine conversation. The problem is that unlike mass comms/marketing 'conversations' genuine conversations don't scale. The solution for tradtional pr/marketing types is - like you say - to act as facilitators for other people's conversations. But then if there's a short cut like devising 'conversational marketing' it's inevitable that lazy companies will go down that route.

The key is to separate individuals from organisations.

Absolutely marketers, as individuals, can and should be starting conversations. But they should be conducted in a way that is sympathetic to the environment, and follows the old sales adage: a salesperson has two ears and one mouth - they should be used in that ratio. So marketers should and can start conversations, but they should be actively listening, learning, finding out, not shouting, prodding, promoting.

But when it comes to the marketing function of an organisation, not an individual but at SCALE, that's where starting conversations en masse, single point to multiple point, is very hard not to be a broadcaster shouting loudly in a new environment. That's where it can end up being 'ad agency thinly veiled' type thing.

Marketers forgot how to start conversations, and how to listen, and now they're remembering that and they (we) should be encouraged.

So any suggestion that marketers shouldn't start conversations is bullshit.

Brilliant breaking down of the issue there, Will: "Marketing" shouldn't start conversations, people who work in marketing should, is what your saying?

That works... as long they are listening and understanding first... just like real people do.

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