Everyone is conversation manager

It should be said beforehand that this is not an article; it is an invitation to conversation. You know how this works: if you start replying below, then we have already started the discussion. Or you can always reach me through Facebook or LinkedIn.

The story goes like this: I’ve been a conversation manager since mid-2010 and I would like to explain how this came to be. I can already hear you thinking out loud “that’s just another made-up communication job title, since everyone is conversation manager”. That is correct, and it connects precisely with my argument: everyone is a conversation manager, if we believe that we do have a voice as citizens and consumers, we talk back to both governments and brands, thanks to the rise of social media that has lifted the Right to Speak to an online, higher level.

More than management: conversation coming from mission

Having a journalistic background, I have worked in the last fourteen years as business journalist, magazine creator, copywriter, cross-media chief editor and project editor. That is one of the reasons why I feel like home among both the digital and the (old) analog world. I equally appreciate them both and experience has taught me that they can reinforce each other effectively and concretely, if good cross-media efforts are made.

Then last year I made myself acquainted with the new hot trend called conversation management, which I personally think surpasses both analogue and digital. Forget mass-communication campaigns and strategies, just start the conversation with individuals and communities. Social media has made a world stream out of the usual village stream; everybody is connected to everybody, people search and connect with one another depending on their personal interests, passions and ambitions.

In the same way, social media makes it possible for people to mobilize, to become motivated and engages around the virtual village stream. From the Red Cross to Lady Gaga, they have all successfully found their way into the social media landscape. Social media is a communication accelerator, it reinforces the perception and image of brands and organizations. A smearing Twitter campaign may be created in one morning; a brand could be crushed on YouTube in only one afternoon. However, you cannot win over entire groups of people in the blink of an eye. Make the connection between old and new media and direct the switch towards social media. If you’ve got that figured out, you are in a win-win situation.

Hans Hoeken, professor of persuasive communication at the Radboud University states with good reason: “Stories awaken people’s empathy. They are emotion-engines. Our instinct lies on the basic drive to read every e-mail, sms, Facebook message or Tweet. Our brains are traditionally trained to respond to these new events.” Add to that the fact that the consumer is a network animal, a social animal, and there you have it: the reason why conversation management is on the rise. In essence it is about communication between people and businesses and how to optimize it. For example, by word-of-mouth marketing as a tool to use with social media. It is then important to monitor the conversation and do something about it: what conversations take place online about your brand or organization? What conversations do you want to start and on what platforms?

Bottom-up versus Top-down

Steven van Belleghem, who works at the Ghent Insites Consulting, wrote a book about the conversation manager. In fact, he nailed the term in 2009, while sharing his insights on paper. The result was that in 2010 “De Conversation Manager” became a best-seller in Benelux. Van belleghem has secured a high spot. According to him, there is a revolution underway, where the key term is (obviously) “conversation”. Consumers or clients influence each other’s decisions through an increasing multitude of channels. Therefore, organizations need to seriously focus on the integration of word-of-mouth in communication. Mass-media gets plenty of competition from social media which makes one-on-one conversations possible.

Facilitating an online conversation platform for London's running fanatics

During the Gulf ecological crisis, BP received on a daily basis over ten thousand emails, tweets and telephone calls from people worldwide who offered to help. There were eleven hundred ships made available for help, also from the competition. But nothing was done with all these available offers to help. BP chose to continue sending out their communication in a centralized manner. Even more, they drifted towards a directive sort of behavior, during which they even started to manipulate photos. This defensive attitude made it look as if BP was assuming the blame for the disaster, when in fact it was an industry problem: all other oil companies in the Gulf were working under the same conditions and with the same risks. Hundreds of oil rigs continued to operate during the crisis. If BP would have addressed all the concerned citizens and embraced them as allies, if they had mobilized their collective efforts and regarded this as a shared problem, then BP could have been lifted to the level of “Beyond Petroleum” within the blink of an eye.

Lately in the area of conversation management I have been often hearing more and more talk about conversational marketing: make conversation with your target group and stimulate conversation about the things you want discussed (also called electronic word-of-mouth). According to Forrester, the communication agency of the future is also a connected agency. Instead of just sending messages out to the world, agencies should try to bring consumers together in communities (built on shared interests, not brand-driven) and facilitate interaction between them. In my daily work I have noticed that some more progressive clients also believe in this approach. The agency of the future is part of the community and it supports brands in creating and maintaining relationships with consumers. It delivers well-targeted messages and a network where marketeers can get new insights. And since the future that concerns us is here and now, we have already started. This refers to more than managing, it concerns boosting and contextualizing the conversation. Therefore we see social media as a strategic tool to share corporate policies with others,  in a non-corporate tone of voice and manner. The trick is to adapt to the community and to bring added value, based on relevant, shared themes. In that respect, 2011 will be the year when social media will shake off its hype status. Tweeting to the tweeters is on a dyeing course: nobody listens anymore. Many of our clients come to understand that social media can have a sustainable impact when it is used with a program. And before you know it, you are getting busy with the next practice.  

Content follows context – this is how you boost conversation

  1. Concerning consumers: switch from messages to connections based on relevant, shared themes
  2. Concerning media: switch from push to pull interactions based on relevant, shared themes
  3. Concerning operations: switch from campaigns to conversations based on relevant, shared themes

Social media roadmap

  1. Look around you: What is being done through social media and what are the trends? Are there projects or plans in the pipeline? What has been achieved? Which target groups have been approached, activated and connected? Which platforms are you talked about in the blogosphere? At the end of this first (research-like) step the current situation should be revealed and listening can start.
  2.  Listen: search the identified platforms for what is being discussed and use monitoring tools to view reactions on these platforms. Learn from this monitoring and extend it until all relevant platforms are being “listened” to, and there is a well-formed idea about what is going on online. At this stage you can make a report about your online reputation at any time, with details about what the main discussion issues are. You have placed your finger in the online pulse.
  3. Connect: Connect your organization where opportunities arise and where it is socially appealing. You do that by following platforms, subscribing to them, building a profile, participating in groups and starting new groups.
  4. Join the conversation: Be active in social media and take the conversation to the relevant platforms. Speak for your organization and make sure that the ambassadors in your organization also engage in the right frameworks and respect the social media guidelines. Now you are actively participating in the conversation, while keeping a watchful eye on the online pulse (see no. 2). Therefore you should be able to see how the reputation improves or declines as a direct result of your participation and learn from it.
  5. Make friends: if your active presence is good and delivers positive effects you can start making friends. Start your own groups, provide for a good connection with people in your audience, from customers to stakeholders. The conversation with these groups should not only be carried online but also in real life (IRL) where conversation can be strengthened by direct communication. Therefore you are not only active in the dialogue with people, but also in connecting: conversation as a tool for community management.
  6. Make appointments: In the end, agreements can be made. This is the “action” in the call-to-action. You can focus on converting the online (knowledge of) reputation into desired concrete results. Social media can now be used for the organization’s own purposes.
To find out more about Everyone is conversation manager, please contact us directly 

Martijn Arts

Managing director, Total Active Media
T +31 20 750 94 25