Conversations, Your #1 Branding and Marketing Tool

community conversation

In the world of innovation, I occupy that weird age space (or maybe it's a mental mindset-space) where I'm too old to be an actual nose-pierced, tattooed, spiky-haired innovator but young enough that every forward-thinking best practice I present is at first still considered insane.

So it is with trepidation that I re-emphasize to you the importance of that '90s classic, The Cluetrain Manifesto, a treatise that has now found its time. Either you'll tell me that this stuff is old news, or you'll say it's as nutty as it ever was.

Either way.

Do you remember Cluetrain? Are you so obsessed with it that you remember where you were sitting and what you were doing when you first came across it? I am, and I do.

It was approximately 2001. I was sitting at my desk in Georgetown, Washington DC. Looking out at the cobblestoned street. Then back to surfing, surfing, surfing the Internet always looking for that brand new brand idea.

Somehow I ran across this amazing text, and - just like when I read Tom Peters' "The Brand Called You" in Fast Company - I knew that I was looking at an instant classic. One that would change the way we saw the world forever.

The text opened:

"A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter - and getting smarter faster than most companies.  These markets are conversations....Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked."

Wow. Wow. Wow. I could feel the electric pulse of that book running through my veins like a double espresso. This was the real deal.

The book first came out in 1999. It wasn't the right time yet, although the idea was on target. People did not have social media, not really - it was still mostly about word of mouth. But in the decade since past a heck of a lot of has changed.

I go by my own life - fast forward quickly, in blips, to 2012. I remember...
  • Going from using the card catalogue to Google to do a search. 
  • The first time I set up a website and did it in reverse type thinking that yellow type on a black background actually looked good. Till someone in India emailed to correct me.  
  • Setting up Yahoo! Groups to help think-tank advisory board members around the world communicate. 
  • Having my email spoofed by hackers who apparently had lots of fun pretending to represent the Institute for Brand Leadership.
  • Trying to do a five-star rating system for internal newsletter articles and succeeding with the programming, but having the concept of feedback shot down in horror.
  • Setting up my very first personal blog in 2007...and getting lots of positive feedback but definitely a few insults along the way. That stung!
  • Learning what a Tweet was a short time later.
  • Getting on LinkedIn for the first time, but not really knowing how to use it.
  • Starting to participate in the government-employee conversation on GovLoop in 2009.
  • Resisting Facebook on and off until I finally hopped on and have stayed there.
  • Trying Google+ and deciding "no dice."
  • Gradually becoming more comfortable having my online activity shared, from Huffington Post comments to music on Spotify and more.
I look back on my personal journey and realize that the story is not one of technology, but one of me gradually becoming more and more immersed in conversation. Conversation that leads me to buy things, to talk about things I buy. Conversation, and self-revelation through blogging that leads me to be more extroverted in real life and more comfortable in social settings. 

While I realize that I'm the type of person who tends to try things before other people - not the earliest adopter but maybe the one right after that, who will buy a tool after it's been tested and the kinks worked out in beta - it seems that the next generation has shot way ahead of me very fast. They don't even use email anymore. It's all about instant messaging, texting, and every single moment of their lives is on Facebook.

Not only that, but it's considered uncool for kids to spend one waking minute of their lives outside a gaggle of friends anymore. Life is lived pretty much in groups. And in those groups people inhabit a running loop of conversations.

Always word-of-mouth was a powerful tool to create customers (marketing) and enhance the value of the products you already had (branding). What's happening now is that you have to learn better the art of conversation. While all the other tools of getting the word out still matter, the one that really counts is knowing who to talk to, how to start a conversation with them, how to get them to talk about your product with others, and how to manage the conversations about your product and its competitors that are already taking place.

On that note, here's one conversation I would like to start about an idea that is important to me: getting food to hungry people all across this country. I see that Starbucks has baskets for collecting foods, and that occasionally the grocery store does too. How do we make it a social norm to drop off the food you aren't using before you buy new food for the week ahead? If you have any ideas, please share them. (Hopefully this "ideavirus," as Seth Godin termed it, will spread!)

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


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