The End Of Conversation

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Can we move beyond the notion of brands engaging consumers in a conversation?

I had the pleasure of presenting at a Google event in Chicago the other day. The audience was – mostly – business to business. They have a deep interest in digital marketing and social media but grapple with the idea of a conversation with consumers. I don’t blame them. I don’t see many people having any sort of conversation with a brand (and there isn’t much conversation happening about a brand). Shocked to hear someone like me say this? Don’t be.

Social media is not a conversation.

I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again… What makes something (anything) "social" is a brand’s ability to make their marketing materials (and this includes their content) as shareable and as findable as possible. When a brand makes their content as shareable and as findable as possible, people will latch on to it and share it. If brands are doing something especially interesting, consumers may have some level of engagement with it (comment on it, write a blog post about it, etc…). Engagement is not a conversation. It’s not an ongoing dialogue that happens back and forth.

Brands fail at conversations.

Don’t believe me? Write a blog post about your favorite brand and let me know a couple of things:

  1. Did the brand even come by and acknowledge it?
  2. Did the brand engage in the comment section?
  3. Did you respond to the brand’s comment and did they come back to continue the engagement?
  4. Did other readers of your blog jump into the comments and did the brand respond to them as well?
  5. Did the brand come back at a future point because of how great the conversation was?

So, how do you really think brands do in a conversation? So, how do you really think consumers want to connect with brands?

Access, response and care is not a conversation. It’s an engagement. It’s a connection. There’s rarely any back and forth that resembles anything that looks like a conversation (and when there is back and forth, it’s usually a customer service issue… and if that issue flares up, brands are trained to take that consumer offline to figure it all out). The Cluetrain Manifesto brought the term, "markets are conversations" to life. They’re correct. People within marketplaces have all types of lively conversations. Can brands take part in them? They can, but we have to dig down deep and ask ourselves why and will anyone really care? If you can answer that, you now have to ask these questions: what will make consumers care about a conversation with our brand, and are we truly committed to being in a conversation (whenever and wherever they happen)?

What a brand wants.

A brand wants one thing: to sell more stuff to more people. Yes, they want happy and satisfied customers. Yes, they don’t like too many hassles and issues. Yes, they’re looking for cheaper and faster ways to help them achieve their one goal: to sell more stuff to more people. When people hear this, they cringe. They cringe as if there is something inherently wrong (or evil) with this. As is it’s sales above all else (morals and goodwill included). That part is not accurate. Most brands just simply want more people to know that they exist, so those people will buy from them.

Some brands don’t need conversation.

When we talk about the end of advertising, I simply want to sigh. I used to believe that social media could make advertising more appealing. That social media is an amazing opportunity for brands to use marketing in a less intrusive way. I’ve grown to realize that could be the case some of the time, but not all of the time. I’ve grown to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game, either. For years, I’ve tempered this kind of thinking by letting brands that know that it’s "with" not "instead of." Just lately, I’m falling back in love with the simplicity of advertising: a quick message and nudge to let you know that something exists. No need to friend, like, +1 or have a conversation.

The end of conversation.

It’s on us. It’s on us to let the deodorant, paper towel, diaper, chewing gum, frying pan, nacho chips and other brands know that people – honestly – don’t want a conversation about their products (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Now, if the brand is interested in using social media to nudge, inform and share, then by all means, go for it. Just understand the landscape and define realistic opportunities, goals and outcomes. There is vast majority of brands that will not benefit one way or another from a true conversation. Instead, the focus should be on making the advertising as shareable and as a findable as possible with the ultimate goal of selling more stuff to more people.

That’s where you will find social media ROI. That’s where you will always find ROI.  


  1. Hey Mitch,
    Some interesting thoughts and I agree with most of them. I have actually had a conversation with a brand (WestJet) because of a blog I wrote about them. While they didn’t engage in the comment section, they did engage in a conversation on Twitter.
    One thing that strikes me about this is in the crisis moments. The more conversations brands have with their consumers it has potential to help them in those crisis moments. Why? Because they have built brand equity with those folks who will help them in the face of crisis because they have had such a great experience with them. It’s a preventative measure more so, that would aid if and when a crisis were to hit.
    Just my initial thoughts…

  2. I like how you turned conventional wisdom about social media on its head: “social media is not a conversation”. I also agree with you that at heart brands want to “sell more stuff to more people”. But the successful ones as Guy Kawasaki notes know that they need to be driven by a vision that is much larger. He cites Steve Jobs asking the question at the beginning of his career that drove his vision of product experience: “how do we enrich lives?” Guy’s blog post is here:
    Like the person that tries so hard to be cool and inevitably fails because of lack of authenticity, the brand that loses the obsession with solving the problem of the consumer and focusing on consumer experience will lose sales.

  3. Sadly the notion of conversation with regards to SM has not happened. For a conversation to occur you need two interested parties and well most marketing folks are not that interesting. SM today looks like AOL did in the 90s. So before you trash the word conversation, lets just call a spade, a spade and tell it like it is. It is Marketing. Lets just drop the social part.

  4. I am so happy to read this post and I sincerely hope a lot of Brands stop by here and read your post!
    Then hopefully they will see that by choosing not to converse they will take a step back.
    Being social is not only about sharing content – That´s pure PR.
    Real Social behaviour involves interaction.
    The beauty of the era we are part of now open´s up and gives us brand new opportunities both as consumers and creatures.
    All theese new oppertunerties makes the whole world democratic in a whole new sence and a lot of problems, misunderstandings, statements and good vibes are now possible through an open dialogue.
    If Brands have not made a seriously desision weather or not to be part of the new era there will be problems.
    And if they choose to be more than just a “dead” product they should definitely take their own choice seriously and act on the response they get in a respectful way.
    People nowadays really want to know the truth behind the Brands they support, and if the Brands don´t have any personality they will loose credibility.
    Anyway that´s my point of view – Be social interact, be real stand up for your values, move forward keep on learning and never ever ever be afraid to make mistakes they can be fixed ;))

  5. Your summary line “Instead, the focus should be on making the advertising as shareable and as a findable as possible with the ultimate goal of selling more stuff to more people.” pretty much says it all. In some cases social media relationships and conversations may be part of that “findable and shareable” solution, but it’s not the only solution and maybe not even the best…

  6. Hi Mitch,
    I really enjoyed this post. For the majority of businesses, the goal is sales, not conversations. If conversations lead to sales, then they’re good to have; otherwise, they’re overrated. I’m also on board with advertising not being dead. There was a post I read along these lines recently, and I responded that advertising is not nor will be dead. It’s been around for quite a while for a reason. Yes, it’s possible to do marketing now that’s integrating with social media, but pure advertising to create awareness is still on of the easiest, if not the easiest, way to get the word out about products and services. This won’t change for along time. Yes, some businesses can generate traffic and interest for cost effectively through things like content marketing, but not enough people of the talent, skills, or time for such an approach. Since that’s the case, I agree that advertising to create awareness will be live and well for a long time.
    Thanks for the great read.

  7. Hi Mitch,
    Good to see someone like you pointing to some basic facts.
    As often with all things social though, devil’s in the details. I’d say three things:
    First, brands never have conversations, people do.
    Second, Brand is not the only client facing structure, there are other like customers care, R&D, …
    Third, there are few corporations, and especially in the BtoC space, that have really made the managerial changes that would be necessary for their employées to engage in meaningful and valuable conversations. But that change is coming, and conversations might just take off
    In the end, I agrée with you that, for most of my interactions with brands, I just need very good service. But, in some cases, if the field of the Brand is important to me, the Brand would probably learn something by engaging in a conversation with me. as othe client facing departments learn filtering, curation and the art of conversation, I wonder whether brands might just have to adapt.

  8. Excellent piece. The sad thing is so many small businesses are being sold on social media marketing and they’re wasting their money and time getting Facebook likes.

  9. Hi Mitch,
    Did you happen to see the Ad Age article on 9/18 regarding personal brands? It was a fantastic article by Corey Mull, and unfortunately only the abstract is available online now, but he pointed out, whilst arguing against the fallacy of the “personal brand” concept, that most people who like a company page on Facebook have already bought from that company and already like them. People don’t spend time on Facebook or on Twitter (unless they’re crazy marketers like us) saying, “Gosh, I wonder what brands I could engage with today.” It simply does not cross peoples’ minds.
    What I’m worried about though is that there seems to be another end of the spectrum growing in the world of social media, small though that world may be. It seems like people are saying, “Yeah, so, people don’t want to talk about products, and therefore anything remotely transactional in the online world is bad.” That’s simply crazy talk. If you’re using social media to market your product or service but you NEVER mention that product or service, you’re not going to do too well. Brands need to learn how to use spaces like the Twitter bio to say, “Here’s who I am” so that any conversation they have is in the context of their overall reason for being online.
    Much like the argument that pits “traditional” media versus social media, it seems like people feel they need to create a this OR that dichotomy – you can use social media to market something OR you can converse. Factually, you can and should do both.
    And that’s all I have to say about that 🙂

  10. Mitch,
    Thank you for writing this. I am a firm believer the person consuming a company’s marketing material must see a return on their time. Be it information, a laugh, or something they can share to their freinds/colleagues that makes them look good. The more time involved in consuming the material, the higher the required return.
    Social engagement takes a lot of time so materials shared in the aboveway need to be really valuable. Such items are expensive to produce and the engagement is around the lovingly produced content, not the brand.
    Thanks again, and keep up the great work.

  11. A social media marketing strategy should always focus around great content. There is little left to say other than I agree. I think a lot of businesses get duped into the whole number of likes or followers thing by poor quality agencies using spam software and buying likes. Sad by true.

  12. A belated response to an interesting post.
    It is tempting to agree that social is primarily about developing and sharing content, at least from a marketing point of view.
    Yet some of the best applications of social media are in product development and customer service, areas where conversation rather than content tends to drive action.
    Social is also playing an increasingly important role in crisis communications both as a preventive measure as mentioned above and when responding to a crisis, when organisations need to respond factually, authoritatively and ideally individually to online questions and commentary.

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