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The Art of Conversation – It’s About Listening Not Marketing

Discussions and debates on the viability, necessity, and effectiveness of conversational aka social media marketing continue to roar across the Social Web.

There are three sides to this equation:

– New media pioneers and practitioners who defend and evangelize the art of conversations because they’re investing in people and their feedback and have the experience to showcase value and ROI.

– Social Media marketers who embrace social tools and promote their use in corporate/brand marketing and Public Relations, learning in the process and building relationships along the way. They may or may not be tying these initiatives to business metrics.

– Some experienced business and marketing professionals who view conversations as potential distractions that are immeasurable, expensive, not scalable, and ineffective in purporting corporate messages to their “target audiences.” To them, Conversational Marketing and Social Media are buzz words without substance or statistics to support their reason for being.

As Social Media continues to impact everything from journalism and communications to customer service and the foundation for Website design and network dynamics, it’s also inspiring a new army of purported and legitimate “experts” who are offering assistance to those companies seeking to understand and engage in online conversations.

Social Media Marketing combines, in a perfect world, the most effective attributes of PR, Web Marketing, Customer Service, and a working knowledge and genuine enthusiasm of the social networks and tools to listen to, spark, and engage in relevant discussions – not all but, those with influence. Marketers in the social realm will also embrace social sciences to observe and understand the online cultures and social dynamics where they ultimately wish to participate, while also maintaining a working knowledge of their company’s business model and markets..

Social Media experts must have the ability to determine which networks are relevant to the businesses that they represent, why they need to pay attention, how to listen, and how and when to engage. Most importantly, they must connect participation to brand resonance, customer loyalty and also the ever prominent “bottom line.”

Without a deep understanding of customers, markets, online communities, and the dynamics of their company’s business model, Social Media Marketers will succumb to the brilliance of shiny new social objects and remain hypnotized by their allure and promise – missing the true opportunities of engagement in favor of popular social tools.

Let me tell you where I stand…

Conversational Marketing and Social Media Marketing, to me, aren’t truly rooted in marketing at all, nor should they be. This is about learning from listening first, and engagement afterward.

It’s not a miracle cure for years of one-sided, top-down push marketing.

Assuming that we can change the greater public perception one conversation at a time isn’t realistic and it isn’t scalable in the short term, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value by investing in the future, now.

If a conversation takes place online and you’re not there to hear or see it, did it actually happen?

Influential conversations are taking place with or without you. If you’re not part of the conversation, then you’re leaving it to others, and possibly competitors, to answer questions and provide information, whether it’s accurate or incorrect.

The ability to listen to public impressions, questions, and discussions that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or unanswered tell us everything. And, the exercise of genuinely engaging and helping forms valuable relationships and inspires brand enthusiasts in the process. These conversations are an opportunity to change perception through dialog, but more importantly, by feeding the information learned in the field back into a company can improve product development, enhance service, and educate executives through real world feedback.

But words aren’t a means to an end. Everything starts with listening and observation and as always, actions speak louder than words.

It’s not the act of conversations that immediately provide value to an organization, it’s the listening, observing and ability to then learn from the inspired engagement.

Are the results of conversations trackable?


Is activity measurable?


Are relationships scalable and able to demonstrate a return on investment?

That’s the million dollar question.

How do you measure the value of online relationships right now? It can’t simply be tied to sales when referrals, word of mouth, brand awareness, and evangelism are priceless and mostly immeasurable. And, there’s no price too great for paying attention.

I wrote about the concept of Conversational Marketing vs. Market Conversations almost a year ago. I believe it still holds true today…

If it’s one thing that we can learn about Social media is that people and the markets they represent have rallied against marketing and slick marketers and have demanded personalization, transparency, and sincerity.

They don’t want to be told what to buy, what to think, or have their views and opinions disregarded simply because they are not classically trained in the art of service, design or marketing.

Brands have become democratized. Audiences have evolved into factions of people linked together by common interests and populate and define communities throughout the static and social web. In some cases, there are thousands of conversations taking place across multiple networks.

Is it possible or even warranted to have a Community Manager track and respond to everything?

No way!

The chances of a company releasing a perfect product and having the public embrace and accurately share its benefits, applications, and value proposition through their peer networks is implausible. It’s called the grapevine and the story will lose precision and factuality in the process of storytelling. And since we live in the real world, not every product or service is perfect, therefore they require listening and discussions to improve them over time.

Perception management is the process of reaching out to these communities and quite honestly, it’s nothing new. The social tools available today only provide an easier solution for li
and reaching people. It’s still designed to create champions and enthusiasts who can help you tell your story within peer networks, accurately and passionately.

Not only can we learn from these real time focus groups, we’re also guided towards the development of more informed and poignant outreach moving forward.

As Sean Maloney of Intel says, “It’s not what you say about you, it’s what they say about you.”

Talk is indeed cheap and a complete waste of time if conversational marketing is used to spin products or services into something they’re not.

However, if your company, and a completely renewed and redesigned infrastructure, is ready to change based on those conversations to improve product/service design and quality, as well as becoming a proactive resource to their communities, then talk begets action, and action is toll for change.

But participation for the sake of participating or engaging in online conversations must be more substantive than hosting one-off conversations in order to truly impact communities and have positive influence on the economics of business.

Richard Binhammer, a primary community leader at Dell, recently commented, “My actions on behalf of Dell are not mere talk and conversation. Everyday we follow up on the online listening and the learnings we get from customers, fixing issues and bringing customers’ perspectives inside Dell — real time, real views and real customer experiences. We believe that is improving our response times, contributing to better products and services and making us a better company, that is directly connecting with customers who care enough about us to talk about us on the web every day.”

As I’ve said before, it’s so much more than the ability to guide companies on how to create fan pages on Facebook, islands on SecondLife, accounts on Twitter, Pownce or (insert microblog of the month here), and profiles on YouTube and Myspace.

Businesses who socialize their marketing because Social Media is the New Black, are in for a rude awakening. Those who realize that conversations are taking place with or without them, invest in the process of listening to reveal public perception and identify the networks where meaningful conversations take place, engage with those seeking a response, and analyze the feedback to improve processes as well as future products, are investing in a brighter, more profitable future.

Insight can not fall upon deaf ears. And, silence is never golden.

It’s the listening, analytics, charting social maps, drafting strategies for meaningful engagement, understanding our relevance in the short and long tail, and the definition of metrics and ROI that count for everything to businesses and respective decision makers these days.

– Traffic
– Links
– Trackbacks
– Comments
– Threads
– Registrations
– Referrals
– Sales
– Loyalty

Functional, real world, and measurable attributes can be tied to any community-focused program today. But, we need to start first start backwards and work our way forward in order to determine and track ROI.

Remember, it’s what you say about you, what they hear, how they share that story, and how you weave that insight into future conversations that underscore meaningful community-driven efforts. And, everything starts with listening and observing in order to maintain relevance to the very communities we wish to reach, learn from, and inspire.

Other relevant voices on the subject for a balanced perspective:

Chris Heuer, “It’s About Conversation, Not Marketing”
e-consultancy, “The Problem with Conversational Marketing” – the comments are important
The Drama 2.0 Show, “Note to Tide: Detergent is Detergent”
Kathy Sierra, Be Brave or Go Home

Related articles on PR 2.0:

Free ebook: The Essential Guide to Social Media
Free ebook: Customer Service, The Art of Listening and Engagement Through Social Media
The Art of Conversation – Thoughts and Observations
The Social Media Manifesto
Cultural Voyeurism and Social Media
Intel Insiders to Advise Intel on Social Media Strategies

UPDATE: Tamar Weinberg includes my definition in her post, “What Traits Define a Social Media Marketer.” It also includes quotes from Chris Brogan, Valeria Maltoni, Jason Falls, Geoff Livingston, MG Siegler, Allen ref=””>Stern, Laura Fitton, Darren Rowse, Muhammad Saleem, Chris McGill, Adam Metz, Louis Gray, Jane Quigley, and other incredible voices.

Connect with me on Twitter, Jaiku, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pownce, Plaxo, FriendFeed, or Facebook.

17 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Art of Conversation – It’s About Listening Not Marketing”

  1. shannonpaul says:

    In the three groups you identified across the Social Web, I like to think that I’m a bit of a blend between the first two.

    Since I work in PR, I am constantly trying to learn and incorporate social tools into the practice with the team of people that I work with, but I like to think that I am also personally participating and investing in people and their feedback. Although, since I’m still quite new to both, I have an extremely difficult time thinking of myself as a pioneer.

    The one question you posed touched a nerve for me, not only professionally, but as an individual.

    You asked, “Are relationships scalable and able to demonstrate a return on investment? That’s the million dollar question.”

    Since any number of activities that I engage in throughout the day that consist of posting to my blog, or Twitter, or leaving comments on other peoples’ blogs isn’t exactly billable, I need to believe that there is some kind of positive ROI out there for me, too, not just for the businesses that I suggest engage in social media.

    I need to believe that none of this is time wasted.

    Thanks for your insight and food for thought!

  2. Augie Ray says:

    Very interesting article. I wrote on the same subject but from a slightly different perspective on my blog.

    I couldn’t agree more that Social Media is not (only) about marketing!

  3. Ryan Moede says:

    Great post, Brian. I think Richard Binhammer’s quote captures the value of social media perfectly.

  4. David Alston says:

    Hey there Brian,

    Yet another classic Solis post packed with wholesome goodness for any PR or marketing person trying to understand what social media is really all about.

    btw, I love your take on the tree falls in the forest quote.

    The Titanic of traditional one way marketing bombardment unfortunately has a lot of steam behind it. Customer relationships, based on listening and individualized engagement, are expected by customers today (not customers of some future date as some would think). Sadly, the iceberg of consumer revolt lurks in the foggy darkness ahead for those who will choose to ignore this. (please, don’t cue the Celine Dion track 🙂

    Great post Brian, as always.


  5. Simon Small says:

    The benefits of Digital Marketing/PR or whatever, are that the results are very easily and quickly ‘trackable’…

    The only problem is that what the internet calls trackable is different to what ‘traditional’ marketing calls trackable.

    Digital/online advertising/PR provides reach and frequency instantly, but the ‘non-trackable’ benefits include branding, awareness and perception changes, just like all normal media. However, because online can’t track these outcomes it often sells itself short.

    If you really want to know the benefits of any ad/pr campaign you should conduct consumer research to monitor the actual results… or monitor sales activity…

    In my min, social media can be seen as PR management, research, branding, SEO or brand perception/changing…

  6. Sweeney 3.0 says:


    Listen and engage.

    How do you define marketing? Once upon a time, hunters and gatherers grunted and traded goods without the use of Twitter. They were friends and family and neighbors and strangers. In time they learned to talk and conversation was born. In recent times, technology both aided and hindered that conversation. The world keeps growing while getting smaller, and technology keeps evolving to help us get back to where we started. But how is it going? Ask yourself, the next time you are on an elevator (standing elbow to elbow with your fellow man) and one person is plugged into an iPod and another is talking on his Bluetooth and a third is Twittering her followers, just how engaged are we in the conversations?

    I am not making any judgments, just wondering out loud. If the current art of conversation (social media-style) is not marketing, then what is it?

  7. Tom O'Brien says:


    AMEN. It isn’t about widgets or viral marketing. Listen first. Learn what people care about, do the obvious.

    No matter what you do in web 2.0 – you better listen first.


  8. Jason Preston says:

    I just read a post by Sean O’Driscoll today that talks about this tangentially – he was ruminating on what the heck his “job” really is (as in, he doesn’t consider himself a “Social Media Strategist”).

    Both you and he have hit on the one key component though – it’s really not about message, spin, or cool, but about connectivity, conversations, and measurement.

    Sean would prefer to put the word customer in his title. Customer experience is the game. And it’s customer conversation, too.

  9. Sweeney 3.0 says:

    Jason: It is absolutely about connectivity and conversation, but I think you have your “m” words mixed up. How can you be involved in social media and not be concerned about “message”? What we talk about with customers and prospects is critical. Random conversations are fine, but there is always a message.

    At the same time, how exactly do you plan to “measure”? Social media is just one piece of a very big and complex marketing/communications puzzle. Consider P&G, who is at the leading edge of social media – listening to its publics and talking with them and responding to their needs. They also invest heavily in advertising and direct mail and publicity and every other form of marketing. It is all integrated and it all works together. And by the way, what is it that you are measuring? Traffic? Conversion? Sales? Loyalty? At the end of the day, isn’t it all about Customer Conversion and Containment (sales and repeat sales)? If not, then what?

  10. Brian Solis says:

    Paul, none of that time is wasted at all. It’s an investment in the demonstration of your expertise, value, which ultimately contributes to your overall social capital…

    Augie Ray, Thanks. Will take a look!

    Thanks Ryan, Richard is a very smart guy.

    David, thanks, I really appreciate that feedback. Also, thanks for the Celine Dion reference, it’s now stuck in my head! 😉

    Simon, you’re exactly right with the various definitions of trackable. The results of participation can be traced to sales, service, threads and action.

    Sweeney 3.0, I hear what you’re saying – they’re very valid points. I think what’s evolving is how we define conversations, not marketing. As you point out, conversations are migrating towards micro-engagement and therefore the tools to communicate with each other are becoming easier to use, more pervasive, and also promote brevity.

    The art of conversation and the act of listening is akin to sociologists who observe cultures before trying to immerse themselves. The approach, results and definition is different based on who we’re trying to reach…demographics & psychographics.

  11. brian muys says:

    Very insightful perspective on the growing, and essential, business value of “social media marketing.” It’s clear that, with few exceptions, the days of passive monitoring of the blogosphere are over.

    In short, it’s no longer enough to merely be aware of what industry peers, competitors or other stakeholders are saying or thinking. It’s a business imperative to anticipate, if not drive, the direction of this dialogue on key market trends so as to truly underscore one’s individual and, by extension, organizational thought leadership.

    Our firm is currently working with the heads of both the corporate social responsibility and security practices of BT Americas to do just that, tapping a diverse range of media beyond traditional blogging, ie. twitter, YouTube, etc. In each case, we have already documented initial ROI in the form of increased mindshare, and anticipate doing that one better as we elevate our programs to be more customer- and prospect-facing in support of BT’s core business goals.

  12. Jay - Work At Home Blog says:

    I listen most of the time before anything. Sometimes a product is mentioned in the conversation, but you still decide if you want to buy. Like they say a good conversation can go a long way.

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