By Sonia Simone
The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman, who can always be counted on to spice things up, wrote a thought-provoking post for Copyblogger last week about the lack of real interactivity for the huge majority of Web users.
Bob has long held that the idealistic social media model of a rich, layered conversation replacing traditional advertising doesn't scale, and makes no sense for products like frozen chicken, floor wax, etc. Actually, I believe the expression "complete bullshit" may have come into play.
While I definitely fall into the category Bob calls "online zealot," I also think it makes sense to look at this stuff with your critical faculties fully engaged. One thing I've noticed is that the follow-up conversations I've seen talk about "social media marketing" or "conversation marketing" like it was one thing. In fact, there are a lot of different flavors.
There are three I find particularly interesting, so I thought I'd share those different models with you, along with my take on the pros and cons of each. To make them a little more memorable, each one is associated with one of the three bears. Yes, it's a dopey gimmick, but if I can use cute pictures of bears, you'd better believe I'll take advantage of it.
The customer conversation model
Customer conversation is what I think of as the "Mama Bear" model. It's all about love and connection–except when it's pissed off, at which point it becomes one of the scariest things you will ever encounter.
This is the classic Cluetrain Manifesto paradigm. Instead of mass advertising that gets broadcast to duped, mindless consumers, companies have complex conversations with their customers. Geoff Livingston expands this to say that there are no more audiences or consumers, only communities.
There are two common criticisms of this model. One is that it can't scale–not everyone who likes Budweiser can engage in a conversation with Budweiser.
The other, which I think is more pertinent, is that no one in his right mind wants to engage in a conversation with Budweiser.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the conversation model.
It's always a spectator sport
In any given online community, usually no more than 1% of users ever post anything to the conversation. In fact, that number can be far, far lower.
It's a common mistake to assume that the only people influenced by the conversation are the ones who actively add to it. But customers can and will watch how you conduct yourself in a conversation of this kind and make decisions about how trustworthy you are.
Hoffman's certainly right that those lurkers are not really "interacting" with the conversation, they're consuming it. But the interactive model informs their buying decisions all the same.
For bloggers, this means that your commenters may very well not be your customers–but they're providing the entertainment for your customers, and making you look good in front of them. This is not to be sneezed at.
Does that mean it's "not really social media," or that the customer conversation is just a really complicated ad? You can decide for yourself if it's "real social media" or not, and if that question is even important to you.
It works for some organizations and not for others
Southwest Air gets an insane amount of goodwill from its blog "Nuts About Southwest."
At least from my casual observation, the scandal over Southwest's safety rules hasn't cost them their community, although it must have dented it. People feel less LUV when it looks like you're willing to roll the dice with their lives. In fact, when you've convinced them to trust and care about you, it makes the betrayal hurt more. But fresh-faced Southwest employees continue to make heartfelt posts, and those posts receive comments from at least some customers who are still drinking the Kool-Aid.
Scandal or no, Nuts About Southwest works for a couple of reasons. First, Southwest has a folksy, little-guy corporate culture. Most of their employees seem not to hate their jobs, which is actually pretty damned astonishing. Southwest's warm, friendly workforce effortlessly (it seems) give a human face to their blog, and so to their company.
A United or a Delta are never going to be able to successfully reproduce that model. Neither their employees nor their management are wired for it.
Probably more important, there are people out there who actually want to have a conversation with scrappy, personable little Southwest. No sane customer wants to have a conversation with any of the giant airlines, unless it includes a lot of inventive profanity.
It ain't the only way
The customer conversation model has a lot going for it if you have the right kind of organization.
Namely, you need enough articulate, dedicated employees who can keep the conversation going. Even harder (and more important), management needs a heroic level of trust to allow those folks to be honest, even to the point of allowing them to knock the company every once in awhile.
But there are a couple of other models I find extremely interesting–what I call the lurker/spy model (Papa Bear) and the friendly authority content model (Baby Bear). I'll unpack both of those for you in the next few posts.
If you want to learn more about the model I personally find to be juuuussst right, subscribe to the blog feed to make sure you get the rest of the conversation! Catch you in a day or two . . .