opinion

Commentary

Move Over, Content, It's All About Conversation Marketing Now

We’ve all been to parties where we’ve been stuck in a boring conversation with someone. You know the ones. The over-achiever who won’t stop talking about himself. The new mother whose baby is the only interesting topic in her world. The geek who goes into minute technical detail about Minecraft, alienating everyone else in the conversation. All oblivious to the fact that you’ve glazed over.

Many marketers do the same, talking at people about things they don’t care about: their business; their latest products and services (their “babies”); the overcomplicated details of their latest “solution.”

Content marketing was supposed to be the antidote, giving people interesting and useful information that they actually want. But while the intention is good, in reality much of the content out there is just as one-sided as traditional marketing. 

And it’s not working. According to research by the Content Marketing Institute, only 37% of B2C businesses and 38% of B2B businesses feel their content marketing is effective.

Enter “conversation marketing.”

I first came across the term in this LinkedIn post by Townsend Warlaw. “Now there’s something I can get behind,” I thought: the idea of starting a dialogue with customers instead of just churning out content. Because from conversations come relationships. And from relationships come loyalty. Simple, right?

Not exactly, as it turns out.

Hijacking the conversation

So what exactly is conversation marketing?It seems very much up for grabs at this stage. Warlaw sums it up simply by saying “…marketing organizations will need to invest in tools and technologies that enable them to have actual conversations with their prospects.”

Indeed, everyone else who’s talking about it seems to be jumping to the how and where of conversations. Already there’s talk of “conversation marketing tactics” and “conversation marketing strategies” and “help-based dialogue.” Ironically, all words that I can’t imagine anyone ever using in an actual conversation. 

And that’s why we should stop right there.

Before we turn conversations into another pseudo-science, we need to take a step back. Start with the basics. And the most basic element of any conversation?

The words.

Thinking in conversations

The most important thing a marketer can learn from conversations is tone. 

That’s exactly what I feel is lacking from content marketing. All the emphasis these days seems to be on what to say and where to say it. But what about how you say it? The personality of your words? The emotion?

That’s where I hope the shift to conversations will make a difference. Because when you think in conversations, you acknowledge that there’s another person involved. A person with a BS-ometer, a sense of humor, a boredom threshold. And you have to adapt your words to fit.

That’s something worth doing whatever you write, whether it’s to one person or a million.

Warren Buffet nailed it when he said this in his preface to Security and Exchange Commission, A Plain English Handbook:

“One unoriginal but useful tip: Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway's annual report, I pretend that I'm talking to my sisters… No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with ‘Dear Doris and Bertie.’”

Note that he doesn’t pretend that he’s writing to them. He pretends that he’s talking to them. Face to face. As if, at any point, they could interrupt to ask a question. 

When you treat every piece of writing as a conversation with Doris, Bertie or a dinner party guest of your choosing, you’ll find that your language instinctively becomes more natural. And when it does, the chances of your reader wanting to carry on the conversation will be so much higher.

Managing the conversation

Of course, it’s not just marketers having conversations with customers these days. Everyone is at it, often in real time, from tech support people instant messaging to interns on Twitter. And so I find it astonishing that writing is still such a neglected skill in business. 

Often it’s not even so much about learning new skills as it is about unlearning bad habits. 

I blame the ridiculous notion that you have to use “professional” language at work. If you ran over someone with your bike, would you say “We apologize for the inconvenience caused”? And yet, it’s somehow okay for businesses to speak to customers that way.

Thinking in conversations and making your language more natural is the first step. But then you need to make that language part of the very culture of your business. Only when it’s second nature will you be ready to have genuine conversations.

Opening up the conversation

“Conversation marketing” may well end up on just another headstone in the buzz-phrase graveyard. But I do hope that the idea of it survives. Because the need for more conversational language in all marketing and communications is simply too important to ignore. 

So let’s make this a conversation. What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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