Friday, October 1, 2010

Monologue, Dialog or Conversation

I have seen a lot of discussion and debate lately around the idea of conversation in the online social world, particularly in the context of brands and their consumers. Conversation is a word I have been using with clients for a long time to express what I feel they need to be part of in the social realm. My take on this discussion is that we need to look at the types of communication brands and consumers have online in the context of the relationships that those communications reveal. So the question is not merely “are you engaged in a monologue, dialog or conversation”, but it goes deeper into “is your consumer an audience member, a professional acquaintance or a friend”.

Most people enjoy a good monologue. It is something we experience for the most part passively with limited engagement. We might laugh, applaud or express other momentary responses, but primarily the speaker speaks and the audience listens. The relationship established between the speaker and the listener is primarily one-way. Any familiarity or feeling of closeness between the speaker and the listener is incidental and non-essential. By that I mean, while it is possible the speaker has some type of personal relationship with one or more listeners, the method of discourse does not necessarily require, develop or encourage it.

Dialog on the other hand, involves give and take. It is a two-way form of communication in which the parties both speak and listen. There is often either a pre-existing relationship between the two parties, or one is desired, however there is also often an underlying element of commerce or exchange involved. We dialog with purpose, we have an intention or motives. There is something to be gained. We have dialogs with bosses, employees, teachers, students, sales clerks and taxi drivers. There is a sharing of information and often a building of consensus. A good dialog makes everyone involved feel as if their voice was heard and they had the opportunity to make their point and effect the outcomes.

A conversation takes a dialog and adds an element of intimacy or familiarity to the discourse. We have conversations with friends and loved ones. We can use vernacular and turns of phrase that are uniquely understood by the participants. A conversation requires and reveals a true relationship between the speakers. Often a conversation exists in a much looser framework of sharing with each other and caring about each other. Conversations often happen for their own sake, with little or no quid pro quo involved.

In my experience working with brands and evaluating their efforts online (and those of their competitors) it has become clear to me that most brands that have ventured into the social arenas of Facebook and Twitter are still at the monologue stage with their consumers. They want their consumers to “like them”; to become “friends” or “followers”; yet their style of discourse betrays the fact that they are not ready to commit to friendship. There are some brands that have ventured beyond the audience relationship with their consumers and are attempting to engage in a dialog. You will recognize them because they sometimes actually respond to questions or comments on their Facebook wall, discussions tab or in tweets. There is still a formality to the discourse but at least it is more often a two-way street. Where I believe most brands desire to go, is to the point where they are engaging more in conversations with their consumers than in dialogs. There are brands out there that do this and are doing it well. You can recognize them because they do not just respond to questions or comments, but solicit, start and engage in conversations.  They will make wall posts that are conversation starters and then stay engaged throughout the comment thread. They even occasionally make posts or tweet about things not directly related to or concerning their brand, just because they know their friends will find them interesting or helpful. When you see a Facebook wall or Twitter stream or message board that belongs to this kind of brand you want to become part of the conversation; part of the circle of friends because it really does feel like a community.

So, the question to ask yourself as a brand is: where are you on the path from monologue to conversation? Do you treat your consumers like an audience or like friends? 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don't Build Your House on the Sand

More and more client engagements are including “we need a Facebook App” as a starting point. It is not difficult to understand why clients are asking. With over 500 million registered users and with every digital strategist and social media guru telling them they need to be active on Facebook, it is a natural assumption that a Facebook application would be a good “next step” for most brands.

However, there is a problem that has been growing in scope over the last year that in my opinion casts doubt on the wisdom of Facebook applications for most brands. The Facebook Platform is not a stable enough foundation to try and build your brand’s digital/social reputation on. A quick survey of developers that work on Facebook applications will provide you with countless tales of frustration due to changes in the platform and lack of proper documentation. Facebook applications have had to be totally re-written based on new API methods and “rules” about what can and cannot be done on brand pages and within custom tabs only to discover that the new rules are returning to the old rules in a few weeks.

Brands have rightly moved to Facebook to try and better engage with their consumers. Recent research has shown that consumers want to engage with their favorite brands on social networks like Facebook and that the ones that do are more predisposed to make brand purchases. However, your consumers’ perceptions are influenced by every single interaction they have with your brand. Providing robust interactive functionality on your Facebook page is an excellent way to enhance their perceptions, when it works. The problem being encountered more and more often however is that a change in the Facebook API could at any moment break your rich interactive brand experience, and, your consumers do not care that it was Facebook that broke it. They also do not care that it is because your developers will have trouble finding adequate documentation as to exactly what has changed and how to work with the new platform that there is a good chance that it will remain broken for a while. They just care that it doesn’t work.

So, you have to be on Facebook. You want to engage your consumers and provide them with rich brand experiences. But building on the Facebook platform is like building your house on the sand. What should you do?

My recommendation is that you concentrate on what works, build on what is stable and what you can control, and use Facebook for what it is best at: conversation, feedback and traffic flow. Your brand’s rich interactive experiences should take place on properties you own and control. Your brand web site is a good place to start. There is also a place for product or promotion specific micro sites. If you want to develop an application that provides useful and rich functionality to your consumers, build it as a web application. Follow the rules for good web application development and make sure it works well across all browsers and platforms including mobile (or build a mobile specific version if necessary). Then drive traffic to your web application from your Facebook page. Use Facebook as an advertising platform that attracts users to your web application. If you feel the need, provide limited, simple interaction on the Facebook page (for example collect a little data using simple form elements) but then pass the interaction off to a site under your control for the “heavy lifting” and rich presentation. This is the best way to ensure that your application remains stable and continues to function as expected for your consumers.

Social networks rise and fall. Platforms shift and change. Build your brand’s reputation on the rocks of what you can control instead of someone else’s sand pile.