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? 

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