Exploding the “It’s all about the conversation” social media myth

One of the most pervasive mantras of the social media hype circus is that it’s “all about the conversation” with your customers.  But if you look at what’s really happening out there I think you can conclude this is a load of hooey.

To understand the shortcomings of “conversation” on the social web, let’s look at what happens in the old-school format of the focus group.  The focus group is one of the most popular qualitative methods for determining consumer wants and needs because it’s a relatively inexpensive and quick way to get feedback and ideas.  There are many formats, but generally you get a group of consumer volunteers together and, with the help of a skilled facilitator, conduct a “conversation” about the company, product, service, etc.

The biggest downfall of the focus group is that is nearly  impossible to get feedback that represents the true views of your target consumers. First, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in participating in these groups and second, the feedback tends to center around the most dominant members of the group. A real danger is that feedback of an entire group can be influenced by the forceful opinions of the brash few.

In most cases, the social web does not represent a true “conversation” with customers.  It is, at best, an un-moderated, non-representative focus group dominated by aggressive personalities likely to complain and force their view on others. Are you really having a “conversation” with your customers and prospects  if …

a) It’s only in English?

b) It’s only with people who have time to be active on the social web?

c) It’s with the minuscule percentage of people who are likely to engage on a subject?

d) It’s with people who may not even be the core users of your product?

e) It excludes people who are simply shy or quiet?

Experienced marketers can see this trap. We can also look at the wonderful opportunities of the social web and put them into proper context.  But I’m afraid the “social media conversation” is another over-hyped sound bite from the new age gurus eager to play on the fear of somehow being left out. If I hear “it’s all about the conversation” one more time I think I’ll lose my cookies.

Look, there are TREMENDOUS opportunities presented by the social web and there are lots of ways to have social conversations that are meaningful. The {grow} community on this blog is an example.  Tapping into real-time sentiment is another. Every marketer should be immersed in this channel to figure out what really makes sense for their company and brand. But don’t check your brain at the door because you’re afraid of being left out of this “conversation.”

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  • Hey Mark,

    I want to challenge you on this idea with: it depends how you use it.

    I’ve been working on this post/concept for about 6 months. Give it a test drive.

    How to Spark a Snowcrash, & What the Web Really Means

    (the comments section is also very powerful & packed with insights)



    – @venessamiemis

  • Jim LeBlanc

    A good reality check. The whole conversation thing is over-used. I do think there is validity to the concept in limited circumstances, and of course as you say, to listen in on the real-time web. Continue to enjoy your intelligent posts, Mark.

  • Mark

    @Venessa, That wasn’t a blog post. It was a PhD thesis! : )

    I don’t think your ideas are mutually exclusive of what i present here. As i said in this and other posts, I truly value the idea of community and so many wonderful connections through {grow}, including you!

    However I am warning here of grandiose expectations of customer “conversations” hustled by so many marketing pretenders. I try to ignore the crap but it’s hard because I care about my profession. : ) Thanks for sharing, Venessa!

    @Jim — Yes, there are many useful applications for conversation … like this one! I appreciate your contribution. Thank you.

  • Always there are pretenders ready with the hype. What percentage of meaningful exchanges on the thoroughfare’s (i.e. Twitter, FB, etc.) do you figure there would be if you could filter out the noise?

  • Mark

    @Gregory – Interesting question. Twitter is mostly people broadcasting. People really connecting to me? Less than 5%. Higher on Facebook and Linked In. And of course the blog is where the real fun happens! : )

  • so Mark, I hear it’s all about the conversation.. I have a bucket for those cookies ; ) good point on sentiment analysis and our friend Joseph would have much to say on the value of taking this metric into account

  • Great post Mark. Brings us some interesting thoughts about what the true goals of social media marketing are.

    I think, in many ways twitter provides an opportunity for businesses to connect with each other and hopefully foster a mutually beneficial ‘partnerships’ which increase the ‘buzz cloud’ both on and off line.

    Facebook seems to be a bit better aimed at target customers, and if used correctly can increase customer engagement and at the very least lets them ‘see’ you more often.

    A blog seems to be best to integrate all the other social media mediums, provide a landing point for the traffic they drum up and position the business as an expert in the field

    Regardless it is all about creating relationships and increase ‘brand’ development (if done correctly…which of course is the big IF in the equation)

  • Mark

    @Autom Yeah, Joseph would be all over this. Nice to have you check-in! Thanks!

    @Laura Agree — Thanks for taking the time to comment today.

  • How about if we say it’s not JUST about the conversation … but how you qualify it and what you do with it?

    What if we made sure that we facilitated conversations in other channels service, traditional surveys, in Real Life (gasp!)- and then compared the insights from all the conversations to get a bigger, more realistic picture?

    What if marketers figured out what they hoped to get out of social – besides conversation – BEFORE they jumped in with both feet and a disco ball?

    I know I’m being fresh. It’s Monday and I’m feeling a little spunky. 😉

  • Mark

    @ Jamie Love it. All relevant questions! Nothing better than a spunky Jamie Wallace.

  • Thanks for humoring me.

    Here’s to a great week!

  • Well, you know I’m in agreement with you, Mark. Conversation is certainly one element and may be the central method for many marketers–either actually conversing with customers or simply facilitating their conversations with each other. But it’s only one method. Different strokes for different businesses and different goal.

    Thanks for another great post! I really like the picture, too. Got my attention.

  • Jamie, you nailed something important here: don’t get wrapped up in just one area and think it’s game over. We *have* to continue facilitate conversation in multiple channels to make sure we’re getting an honest picture of our customers. Just relying on social media is the lazy path to marketing.

    Its the same way with focus groups. If you just get your information via this one methodology, your data is going to be skewed all to hell.

    More than any other time in the history of our (ig)noble profession, we have to think more deeply about how we’re going to get our audience information, whether it represents valid perspectives by our customer base, and then what we’re going to do with it.

  • One key difference between a focus group and social media: the dialogue is exposed for the world to see, and not hidden in a findings report. Even if the social conversation is not representative of the whole, everybody sees it. This may explain why the social web gets the lion’s share of attention.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @neicole– note to self: Neicole likes explosions.

    @Chris You put this so much better than I did. Where were you when I needed you? : )

    @Lou — I absolutely love this point. I definitely need you guys to proof my posts! Super ideas presented here!

  • Pingback: Storytelling Social Media Marketing PR Technology & Business Curated Stories Mar. 22, 2010()

  • @Chris Bailey – Variety isn’t just the spice of life it’s the credibility factor when it comes to market research.
    Love your quip about our (ig)noble profession … that’d make a great blog name!

  • @Jamie: Love your thought on variety as the spice of life. I shake my head when I see smart folks only employing one methodology and thinking they’re finished. Nope…keep going. And thanks for the comment on “marketing as (ig)noble profession.” Just like in sales, there are many excellent practitioners and then there are a few true hacks who you just want to strangle for their abuse of our craft.

    @Mark: I’m always around for you, mate 🙂 There’s just something about your thinking that brings out the best in mine. And cheers for the Comment of the Week honor!

  • @Chris Bailey – Glad I’m not the only one who has occasional urges to strangle. 😉

  • Oh, this is so cool. I get to comment with a Blog/comment I made to another Blog … I mean it isn’t be-spoke, but think of the bandwidth I am saving! Earth Day Mose they call me!

    At the bottom is my thinking on this.

    Anyway – I wish to point out an old chestnut. In business … we hear people say someone we work with just doesn’t get it! Well, they don’t get it cause they don’t know what the ‘it’ is. (Get it?)

    We are talking about conversations here. Cool. Sadly the Cluetrain introduced that idea (I wish they hadn’t) and A/ most folks have not read the Cluetrain. B/ those that have don’t get it and C/ If they did get it it is way too difficult to implement, to define and try not sound like a whacko (Like I do). Folks have no Clue what a conversation is. That is the ‘it’ they do not get!

    We do not HAVE conversations. We do not START conversations. We are the conversations.

    (It is a metaphor in the book not a sound bite! – How is that for a McLuhanism? – Hey, I used to hang out with him! I am allowed! LOL)

    Anyway – companies can no more control a conversation, than I can initiate one with them. We are talking dialogue here. We are not familiar with each other! (Unless we are, but even then it isn’t a conversation – email fer example is not a communications device – it is a confirmation device) A dialogue is two streams … not necessarily converged.

    Definition of conversation …

    1.familiar talk; verbal exchange of ideas, opinions, etc.
    (archaic definition says social intercourse BTW)

    Please understand that the Net (there is no thing called Social Media who the hell thought that up? FOX?) and anything that works over the Net is about you at one end and me at the other. That is all it is. Sadly there is nothing really sexy about that. So we invent crap. And in the process we do as we have always done since 1992 we take known offline modalities that we understand (virtual malls, magazines, advertising, direct mail, Tv etc etc ) and shovel them online. Mike Strangelove’s wonderful term Shovelware.

    Here is a post, as a result of a post that I believe fits here …


    da Cluetrain Guy from Canada


  • Sorry … not being a hog here. mea culpa.

    This is an example why there is no conversations.


  • Hi Mark,

    Interesting stuff. Social web? Is it just another way of saying funnel?

    Check out Lyndon Antcliff’s take on things – much along your I’d say –


    All good stuff


  • Mark

    @Cluetrain Guy from Canada “Social Pleading” … I like that. And that “popular’ website is over the top!!

    @Martin — Yes, at the end of the day it is about money. Like everything else. Thanks for the contribution!

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