The different scales and values of talk

The different scales (and values) of talk

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“Everybody’s talking at me. I don’t hear a word they’re saying,” observed Harry Nilsson in 1969. 45 years on, it seems a lot of people are still not listening – but brands should be. New findings from Gallup suggest marketers may be pinning the wrong hopes on social media.

Whilst brand owners and managers continue to view Facebook and Twitter as opportunities to increase visibility and interaction, consumers are much less swayed. In fact, “Social media are not the powerful and persuasive marketing force many companies hoped they would be,” concludes the report, with just 5% of consumers surveyed saying that social media exerts a great deal of influence on them, and a clear majority (62%) saying it has no influence on how or what they buy at all.

Just 5% of consumers say social media exerts a great deal of influence on them

Even allowing for the fact that some consumers may refuse to acknowledge, or to realise, that they are ‘swayed’ by media, there’s a clear message here that brands and consumers are operating at cross purposes. Whilst Gallup finds that more than 90% of consumers are connected to a social media channel to connect with family and friends, that connection does not extend to companies and/or their products. And while companies may view social channels as large fishing grounds within which to hook new customers, consumers are neither motivated to switch or to recommend a new brand on the basis of social media presence alone.

The real digital ROI is return on inclusion

I was intrigued by this observation. “Social media entail just a fragment of a consumer’s experience with a company. Customers are much more likely to be active listeners and participants in a brand’s social media community when they have already made an emotional connection with that brand through other experiences.” That finding flies in the face of much of what we hear so often – that social media attracts and draws people into the sales funnel. This suggests that social media functions much more as a channel for those who are already converted, often by interactions elsewhere. It would seem we need to be thinking about a much more nuanced approach to social media where, perhaps, brands take up conversations socially that consumers have already begun amongst themselves offline.

I’ve argued for some time that brands have been looking for the wrong sort of proof in the social media space because they have sought evidence they are comfortable with rather than the reassurances that consumers are looking for. So whilst companies want their ROI to be return on investment, consumers are looking for return on inclusion – what they get back for including these brands in their world.

Content per se is not inclusion. Nor are tweets, promotions, coupons or videos. Nor are they “conversations”. Too much of the time they’re actually more noise. Yet a bit like CSR, organisations have sold themselves a meaning for what they’re doing that is at odds with what the world wants them to do.

Do social media numbers mean anything?

The problem as I see it is that brands have confused the context. Just because they are in the same space as consumers and even in the same environment as those interactions does not mean for one moment that they enjoy the same level of familiarity. Most social media advertising activity is still interruption-based, no matter how politely it’s dressed up to try and look like something else. It’s an old model. And an old model, even when it takes place on a modern channel, is still an old model.

While some will no doubt argue about aspects of the report’s findings, Gallup’s conclusion is sobering: “The potential of social media is still being debated … there is potential in social media that is not directly related to sales revenue”. Social media is perhaps more intangible in its effect than how it has been promoted. The numbers may be trackable and accountable, but the numbers may not actually mean anything in terms of subsequent consumer behaviours.

Talking past each other

Consumers and brands have been talking past each other socially and I suspect that’s because brands have sought to categorise all discussion and interaction as talk whereas this study seems to affirm my own view that talk operates at different scales and that people react, and interact, with those different scales of talk in different ways and value them quite differently.

I’ve identified three levels (and values) of talk:

  • Smalltalk – the background chatter that takes place around us all day, in our working lives, in our social lives and of course online makes up the bulk of the social media volume according to the report. Increasingly, this traffic is just part of the noise of living so while it’s huge in terms of volume it’s irrelevant in terms of context if you’re a buyer. To a marketer the numbers make this level of talk look very attractive. But the scale is in direct contrast to the propensity for engagement.
  • Rich talk – the valuable and valued conversations that take place between interested parties. There are far fewer of these interactions but they are a positive and conducive atmosphere for brands to liaise with buyers. As the Gallup report suggests though, marketers have a lot more work to do to cement how online and offline channels work together to make this level of talk occur successfully. Critical to success are motivated advocates who promote the brand to people who trust them and encouraging people who love the brand to talk amongst themselves. Ritz-Carlton’s decision to downsize its Facebook community to encourage richer discussion rather than greater reach is an example of this approach in action.
  • Big talk – the “huge” topics of interest that trend across social media globally take in everything from the latest scandal to celebrities to sporting events. Once again, these activities attract huge audiences – even if their attention time varies greatly. There are powerful opportunities for brands in these contexts but they are very different from the rich talk environments above. The opportunities revolve around association and the credibility, particularly for scaled brands, in being seen on a global stage. Disney and the NBA also use the large-scale social media communities that form around their activities to inform their businesses, but in very different ways. Disney tracks likeability. The NBA pushes people towards watching the games and also to check inclination. Importantly, both approaches are checking trends and interest rather than looking to convert.There are also significant traps in seeking to be part of this level of talk. The key trap is one of ego – to believe, once again, that because your brand is present in this context, it is automatically part of, and benefitting from, the surrounding talk. Not so. At worst brands in this context subsidise the real action through their marketing.

8 things to talk about

The temptation is still to believe that presence is participation, and that a presence is better than no presence. I argue that a presence may actually be diluting where a brand should be present and therefore can be counter-productive. Here’s my checklist for deciding whether to talk or walk in situations. Interestingly it applies to a full range of activities – from advertising in social platforms to choosing your sponsorships.

1. Whose talking – and what are they talking about?
2. What level of talk are they engaged in? Is there a place for you here?
3. If you have a place here, how do you add to the conversation?
4. What viewpoint do you bring to the environment that interests the consumer?
5. How are you engaged? Are you talking with, talking to, or talking at?
6. How does what you’re saying add to the overall discussion?
7. How does what you’re saying extend what they’ve already heard about you?
8. What do you want them to do next – and why would they?

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