Stop the Insanity! Don’t Call It “Conversational Marketing”

My thinking here is very clear – despite a lot of people whom I respect using the phrase “Conversational Marketing” to describe the new way companies are relating to customers, it devalues the underlying shift which is, in Doc Searl’s words, of “greater significance”. While the word marketing is intended to get the attention of those corporate folks who are somewhat attached to their titles and have budget, the language devalues the importance and ends up missing the point.

In the world I inhabit, Marketing has become a four letter word. It has come to mean interruption, manipulation and pushing messages into people’s heads. As David Weinberger says, “somewhere along the way, markets, what we do together, became marketing, what we do to other people.” It seems to me that Conversational Marketing is in danger of ending up becoming something that traditional marketing people use to do TO other people rather than understanding it is something that we do WITH other people.

This was one of the chief concerns that Stowe Boyd rightly brought up in our little ‘kerfuffle’ earlier this year about the Social Media Press Release. That marketers would use the tools without understanding the underlying shift in strategy, intention, process and purpose that is at the heart of human to human communications (H2H) that is the hallmark of our new world.

As an abstract management term, it is seemingly technically accurate, but the spirit is missing from the language. In this case, I think it is the spirit behind the ‘meme’ that makes it powerful and will accelerate the greater transformation it represents. Of course, as someone who has been active in defending the often debated phrase of “social media”, I am a bit sensitive to the challenge we face in the conversation about this new business practice. In fact, I have been reluctant to bring this issue up – especially with the upcoming Conversational Marketing Summit being put on by the folks at Federated Media, who I respect very much. (especially after some of great conversations I had with Chas back in June)

Everyone I know who cares about this emerging practice has clearly been influenced by the Cluetrain, so I don’t know why we would want to move away from their description and intention. For me, it is not Conversational Marketing, it is Market Conversations. I realize I am splitting hairs here somewhat, and that no one can really win a semantic argument such as this, but I think that the intention we bring to this new era is evidenced strongly in our language. For me, conversational marketing makes it seem like more of the same old same old, rather than a real transformation in the very nature of how businesses operate. Our intention should be reflected in our language.

More broadly, I think what is happening is really about Market Engagement – how companies interact with the market’s they serve – how companies relate to the people within those markets through product experience, conversations and media. This can simply be thought of as first person, second person and third person. A conversation is not an advertisement, not an email newsletter, not a podcast, not a press release, not a ‘contrived’ focus group where management watches real people from behind the glass – these are all pieces of communication. A conversation is a human interaction between two or more people, which involves listening, speaking and responding.

So on Sunday, here at Gnomedex’s Unconfernce, UnGnomeCamp, I will be leading a session to delve into this topic more fully. I hope you can join us and let me know what you think. Am I hitting the nail on the head here or am I out of touch?