September 12, 2007 8:00 PM PDT

Want to 'converse' with advertisers? Me neither

Want to 'converse' with advertisers? Me neither
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SAN FRANCISCO--I admit it; I'm cynical when it comes to advertising and marketing. I believe that the sole purpose of advertising is to convince me to part with my well-earned and limited supply of money and persuade me that I want things I don't really need.

So, it was with some skepticism that I covered the Conversational Marketing Summit hosted by Federated Media at San Francisco's Presidio on Wednesday. The notion is that instead of bombarding consumers with generic messages whose success rates are hard to measure, companies can use the Internet to deliver targeted messages that consumers will want to hear, can learn from customers through interactive features, and can entertain them with funny videos. Federated Media connects the many blogs in its network--including BoingBoing, Digg and Techdirt--to advertisers who are seeking that audience.

"Conversational Marketing is an exciting new practice that engages rather than dictates, invites rather than demands, and listens as much as talks," the Federated Media Guide to the conference states. "Advertising is becoming a three-way conversation, as marketers join readers and authors online. All three parties seek appropriate principles by which to hold these commercial conversations."

"Conversational Marketing is an exciting new practice that engages rather than dictates, invites rather than demands, and listens as much as talks."
--Federated Media Guide

Hold on. Who asked marketers to join readers online? I know blog publishers need to make money, and they do earn revenue off regular old text, video and banner ads. But I'm suspicious when the "conversation" is initiated by the marketer and not the consumer.

And what's this with the slogan of the conference--"Brands are conversations"? No, they aren't.

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.

Long before conversational marketing was a buzzword on Federated Media's letterhead, General Motors learned the hard way the risks associated with giving Internet users a way to "interact" with a brand. People turned an online contest to promote Chevy Tahoe trucks and the TV show The Apprentice into an anti-GM, pro-environment statement with creative twists on user-generated video ads.

But then there's the example of the Dove Real Beauty campaign in which the company tackled common perceptions of beauty and showed scantily clad or naked models who were larger than typical models or were women over 50. Billboards showed aging women and asked "wrinkled" or "wonderful?" A popular video displayed on YouTube showed a woman become model-perfect with the help of a lot of makeup, hairstyling and Photoshop tweaking.

The Dove campaign generated a huge amount of debate and buzz on blogs and even mainstream media, and it contributed to an additional $500 million in sales, said Carla Hendra, co-chief executive officer at Ogilvy North America, the ad agency for Dove. More videos will be posted on YouTube on October 1, she said in a presentation at the conference.

But really, isn't that very similar to traditional branding, except using the Internet as a distribution channel? Pretty much, agrees Deborah Schultz, a blogger who advises Procter & Gamble on social media marketing.

The emergence of user-generated content has given average citizens a forum for recommending and denouncing products in a way they never had before. "I call it the 'relationship economy.' You value and feel empowered to control your time," Schultz said. "Do you really want to have a conversation and relationship with every product you buy? No."

Even session moderator Jonah Bloom, editor of Advertising Age, questioned whether "conversation" was the most accurate word for advertisers interacting with consumers online. "Seems almost the traditional (ad) model brought to the social networks," he said.

"The dialogue is real...when you find a way to combine commercial content with editorial content in a way that truly adds value," said Owen Van Natta, chief revenue officer and vice president of operations at Facebook. The popular social network offers a feature called "Pulse" that allows companies to ask questions of members and get answers back quickly, he said. "Users want to interact through these channels," he said. But, in my opinion, unless the marketer actually uses the feedback to change products or services that's more like free market research.

The most genuine conversation occurs when it is started by the consumer/reader or the blogger. A blog post about a product or company that elicits a response from the company is very effective, said Barak Berkowitz, chairman and chief executive of Six Apart. In another example, he said the makers of the movie Blood and Chocolate won major accolades when they allowed people to chat online with a character in the movie.

Even Google reaches out to the public to build its brand, mostly in other countries, said David Lawee, vice president of marketing at the search giant. For instance, the company has a "Doodle for Google" campaign in Australia that encourages students to create a doodle and logo. "It's a great way to localize and get people interested," he said. But again, that's not really changing the dynamic of marketing.

Just as advertisers have been able to get their ads printed on stickers on supermarket fruit, tattooed onto people's skin and even written in the sky, they will surely blanket the online world in ways we can not even imagine. 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.

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13 comments

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"This 'conversation' is over" - Fight Club, 1999
...
Posted by W2Kuser (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Conversation Displosal Machine
In Kombinat! Manifesto from 2005 we read:

Listen. In Cluetrain = Markets are Converstions. In Kombinat! = Kombinat is The Market and Conversations are its byproduct.

Kombinat! gives birth to conversations for no other reason but to dispose of them right after birth. It is by the constant generation of conversations Kombinat is able to make profit from the noise of conversations.

Conversation is currency. We Are Kombinat! We are profit driven. In Kombinat! Conversationas are Waste, a byproduct. Kombinat! keeps profit, conversations we throw away.

We begin with Finished Goods. We make profit by Breaking Up the Signal into Noise.
We break up the Noise into Profit to keep and Conversations to throw away.

Listen. You are not a consumer. You are a Producer. Kombinat! consumes you.

K!
Posted by Kombinat! (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Conversational Marketing
I believe that conversational marketing or interactive marketing is going to be the wave of the future and will make a huge impact in online business promotion
Posted by mscsrrr.com (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Marketing and marketing
I work in the field of marketing, but have been involved in the
social media thing for some time, so can probably see both
sides reasonably well. I am also English so hate to be sold at so
that also may introduce some bias.

Essentially I think that marketing comes in many degrees. For
me it is fine to use say Google adwords and SEO to ensure that if
someone searches for a generic term our name comes up. I
don't even have a problem with advertising against a competitor,
or them advertising against us. This seems like it is offering the
consumer another option that they may like to consider. Another
thing I think is reasonable is using Google's content network to
serve ads to blogs and website that may be discussing things
relate to your product.

Yet another thing that is acceptable as far as I am concerned are
things like white papers that provide valuable content, and the
added marketing benefits of incoming links to your site.

Having said what I think is acceptable I have been reading
research recently that discusses reducing spending by
enmploying people to 'seed' blogs. This is a conversational form
of marketing but in my book is just not acceptable. Involving
yourself in blogs and conversations should only be done if you
genuinely have something to add to a conversation, and not as a
way to sell your product. Why, because it is intrusive and often
done in a misleading manner, with the person in many cases
failing to declare their interest, or conflict of interest.

In short I believe that there are places to sell in a blog, but these
should be clear that this is what is happening. After all if TV
programs now have to declare their interests, why shouldn't
bloggers and contributers do the same.
Posted by funkygorilla (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Going, going, gone
I don't mind Google style text ads. I find them useful and click through frequently. Flashy banners and annoying video ads get blocked - I rarely, if ever, see one.

When advertising is subdued and non-intrusive, I use it. When it is annoying, I block it. If I can't, I make a point to: 1. NEVER purchase anything from the advertiser and/or 2. Avoid the site in the future.

The marketing folks can get pushy and call it creative. But we can push back.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Brands are conversations?
Well, OK. But if that's true, they go something like this:

"Well, enough about me and my brand. Let's talk about you. What do you think of my brand?"

Brands are conversations?

So, the golden arches are a "conversation"?

The swoosh is a "conversation"?

Mickey Mouse is a "conversation"?

*** is that supposed to mean, exactly...brands are conversations? About what?
Posted by devbost (82 comments )
Reply Link Flag
great piece, Elinor...
thanks for calling this out

I think behavioral targeting is a much more interesting (and real)
force in online advertising, with value for all parties...

that's the one to watch! this "conversational marketing" notion is
just that -- all talk
Posted by GraemeThickins (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Product Placement
With a large number of people "skimming" magazines and only
reading what they want (raise your hand if you do that) and
TiVO's in a good number of homes... Add's are starting to be
worthless and ignored.

I have a spinnoff of TiVO but it works even better. Record my
show, go into edit mode and cut out the commercials. Takes
about 8 minutes for a half hour show, but HECK why watch the
advertisements if I can avoid them.

With more people like me doing this, they are going to need to
go to what was done in a show I watched (Alias) years ago. All
the phones used were Nokia, they even talked in one episode
about a new hybrid car they were in, a 15 second bit, but I'm
sure Ford paid for it as they would a full commercial. They had
distinctive looking computers in the background (again, product
placement); You see a character running with a iPod makes you
think....

This is what will need to be done comming up with all of us
skipping the adds between the parts of the show to replace the
commercials.
Posted by Travis Ernst (170 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Amen! [AKA I love Ad-Blocking Software]
I must have missed their "conversation". God I love my ad-blocking software =).

Great article.
Posted by jimmymist (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who invited you?
Would you invite a used-car salesman over for dinner so he could have more time to lean on you? Me neither.

Steve G.
Posted by aureolin (52 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I Get It
I think by "conversation", they perhaps mean things like seeding trials (particularly with the 10% of a particular marketing segment which is known to drive the buying behavior of the other 90%), customer feedback, etc.

I don't think they're attempting to "insinuate themselves into the social media craze", I do belive most advertisers would rather view it as a new and emerging platform to be able to deliver highly targeted and relevant messages, while increasing brand awareness, as well as customer relationships and product/service quality. It's why Google has become a multi-billion dollar company penny-by-penny, highly targeted and relevant ads.

Social networking is a medium which they perhaps prefer because of the fact that only 14% of people believe what they see, read, or hear in advertisements, while 90% believe endorsements from their friends and acquaintances, so in this sense brands are indeed conversations, and although it may be true that consumers don't want to initiate a conversation or relationship with every brand they buy, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, after all that's what you do everyday when you write these articles. So it's great that you "don't mind hearing about those discounts" but they'll have more of an impact coming from someone you know and respect.

You point out the infamous Chevy Tahoe debacle but there are numerous case studies in which advertising experiments in social networking have been extremely succesfull.

Competition is intense, margins are thin, so to imply that advertisers are not using this powerful new medium to elicit customer opinions as to how to enhance an offering or to increase brand awareness and competitiveness is simply nonsensical.
Posted by TheRCG (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Conversational marketing is about brand authenticity
Elinor,

Conversational marketing is a much a recognition by brands that consumers can't be gamed as it is a recognition that brand authenticity requires the consumer to be part of the brand creation process.

For some brands, that means providing a sandbox for fanatical users to tout their "relationship" with a great product or great company.

For others, it is all about providing more detailed information and how tos pertaining to the product being spotlighted, thereby elevating the consumers' experience with the product.

In other cases, it is giving the consumer a paint brush to paint a picture that is synchronous with the messaging goals of a campaign.

Finally, for others it is the recognition that there is a real community that uses these products and providing of forum for them to engage and connect.

Is this selling? Sort of. Is it piggybacking off of proven trends? Sure. Is it fail safe and cynically controllable? Of course not. Plenty of spectacular failures, as is the case with any evolving medium.

Does that make it valueless or a zero-sum activity? I don't think so. Granted, I am biased since my company works with brands and agencies to launch these campaigns.

Good post, just the same. :-)

Mark Sigal
vSocial - Say it with Video!
Blog: www.thenetworkgarden.com
Posted by hypermark (43 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Listening, sales conversations are
Great piece, Elinor. The real point of all this "talk" about conversations is three-fold. Marketers need to shut up and listen more to customers. (Conversations are at least 60% listening)Sales reps --the front line marketers for B2B and professional services firms -- need to have something interesting to talk about with customers -- more advice and insights of value to customers vs. spewing product features and capabilities and trite marketing messages. And we all need to talk like humans vs.in corporate speak.

Conversations are NOT about putting new lipstick on the advertising pig.

Lois Kelly
Posted by Foghound (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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