How to Start a Conversation

Think Geek "Send Us Your Action Shots" LogoThere are many great how-to posts out there for marketers trying to figure out what steps to take in order to engage their customers using social media, and we’ll probably add one of our own at some point. A couple of good ones we’ve seen include Jason Baer’s The 7 Must-Haves In Your Social Media Strategy, or Tony Uphoff’s Social Media Gets Down to Business.

In addition to figuring out the what and the how of social media, companies need to wrestle with some deep cultural shifts in the rules of engagement.  One is to shift the focus from “messaging” your customers to listening to your customer as the first step in engaging in a conversation.

I first started to seriously think about this after I interviewed Michael Pranikoff, the Director of Emerging Media for PR Newswire, for the Edge, a newsletter that Modern Media writes for United Business Media.  In the interview, Michael gave examples of how companies are learning to listen to what customers are saying on Twitter feeds and answer sites such as LinkedIn, and then engage appropriately to respond or amplify a conversation.

Here’s the point:  you no longer control the message.  Your customers all have cameras, blogs and networks of friends.  They will say what they think, post reviews and make recommendations.  And if what they are saying is different from what your ad campaign says, who will their friends believe?

In a world where social networks have more influence than the messaging that you create, here are some steps that the connected marketer is taking to move beyond one-way messaging to harness the network effect of engaging customers in conversations with and about your brand:

1. Invest in Active Listening: First, listen to what customers are saying about you.  How do you do this?  Take a small portion of your traditional research budget, and hire an intern or dedicate some staffers to spending time on social networks, listening to what they’re saying about your brand and products.  Post your commercials on YouTube, and then read the comments.  Monitor twitter feeds and blog posts.  You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll soon find ways to engage in those conversations. Let your customers know that you hear them–their concerns, their questions, their enthusiasm–and then find ways to get them the answers, solve their problems or amplify the positive energy.

2. Help Your Customers Talk About You: Once you’re good at listening, you can encourage your customers to do some of the talking for you.  Make it easy for them to tag, bookmark and share content that you create.  Give them ways in which they can help you create more content.  If you sell to consumers, nurture the fans, and then put some of the photos or videos they send in on your web site. If you sell to business users, create a peer advisory board and connect them with each other on Ning, or find some other way to make your customers feel they have a seat at the table.

Some Examples:  Get Famous with ThinkGeek’s Action Shots, the Obama-Biden Transition Team‘s “Seat at the Table” page.

3. Cover the Basics:  Are you making it really easy for customers to talk to you?  How hard is it to find a phone number, email address or even a message board on your site?  In the rush to create the next award-winning user generated content campaign, don’t overlook the basics.  As customers feel more and more empowered to create and share their own content, they will expect you to give them a voice on your site.  The potential damage you can do to your brand by not having great customer service or an easy-to-find help desk or place to leave comments increases every month.

Example: Nesquik’s Shake It Contest on YouTube

4. Give up Control, but Share More:  In a social media-powered environment, you won’t be able to control your message.  But you can encourage conversations by sharing more content, and making sure that it’s in a format that customers can share with others.  Most importantly, you need to learn to be incredibly open.  As with the recent Pepsi Suicide ad campaign, the bloggers and tweeters will out you, so you might as well be the one to share bad news first, take responsibility and make sure you’re keeping everyone informed about the situation.  Marketers are learning to share more of their strategy earlier in the process to give customers a chance to buy in.

Example:  Google’s App Engine Product Roadmap page

5. It’s Not a Message, It’s a Conversation Starter: Instead of creating a traditional messaging document, can you give your brand or product a series of talking points that it can use to engage potential customers in a conversation?  If your brand went to a cocktail party, how would it strike up a conversation?  What would it talk about with at a night out with friends?  Start a conversation with your customers, and maybe they’ll tell their friends.

Screen shot of Playtex Laugh, Play, Share web site

Examples:  Toyota’s Open Road Blog, Playtex Laugh, Play, Share pages (definitely made just for sharing with other girls)

Let us know who you think is doing a good job of moving from messaging to listening and starting a conversation!