Let’s Talk About: The Conversation Economy

When words speak louder than actions, the human voice becomes the marketing message.

“Just got done biking 2 miles, first time EVER!” - “Feeling ADHD, dont want to be here, and none of my friends are online. Bastards. ;)” - “Uncontrollably thinking to myself: Where the players play….”

Are single-sentence “tweets” the new narratives of our lives? Can one “change the world with 140 characters”? Is Twitter the reality TV of the Internet? Will “crowd-mobbing” (Bruce Nussbaum) become the ugly collateral of crowd-sourcing?

Gene Hackman in The Conversation

Something is happening in the blogosphere. “The truly important events are not the trends. They are changes in the trends,” wrote Peter Drucker. So it is with blogging: Micro-blogging is all the talk now and certainly a new twist in the rise of social media. Services such as Tumblr, Moodgeist, Jaiku, Mozes, Kyte, and Radar offer a new mode of communication – it is ad-hoc, uber-instant, and caters to constantly shrinking attention spans. And then, of course, there is Twitter, that big, greedy conversation machine that absorbs and spits out “quotidian thoughts and activities,” aggregating them to a public timeline. “You are basically writing on a wall and if someone chooses to read it, they can do,” the Financial Times quotes Twitter-founder Jack Dorsey. The vision of a map of world chatter – now a reality via the mash-up Twittervision – is not new, but its momentum is stunning. Twitter claims more than 100,000 members, and Hitwise, the web research firm, says visits to twitter.com in March were up 500 percent on January. Even John Edwards is a Twitterholic. And so is a (fake) Bill Clinton.

Welcome to the conversation age! It’s not the first one ever – remember the “age of conversation” a few centuries ago? Also, as Julie Fleischer points out, advertising started as a conversation: “In the early 1920’s, manufacturers created characters to humanize their brands. Betty Crocker was a fictionalization, invented so that women could relate to and interact with the brand. Her radio show was the highest rated in the land. Betty spoke to consumers and they spoke to her. They asked questions, she answered them. Together, these threads invented the brand.”

This conversation age is different. It is the first one that is being commercialized, enabled, and propelled by Web 2.0 technologies. Gavin Heaton, who is currently working on an open-source e-book about the so-called “conversation age,” writes: “Technology in the guise of social media is giving rise to not virtual connections, but real conversation.” This kind of conversation, according to the definition of Lois Kelly, the author of “Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word of Mouth Marketing”, is characterized by the following qualities: It is person to person and uses common language instead of corporate lingo. Both sides talk, and what one says is dependent upon what the other has just said. Both parties are engaged in joint problem solving; neither is trying to win or prevail. Conversation is designed to allow people with different views to learn from one another.

Granted, conversations’ value for marketers was discovered a while ago: the Cluetrain Manifesto pioneered the notion of brands as conversations long before the triumphant rise of the blogosphere. The idea of the “Architecture of Participation” has been known for a while, too. But now, the conversation economy seems to have reached enough critical mass to become a new business paradigm. Nick Rice writes: “Customers have always talked about brands, products and services. Today, through web technology, they can influence 100X the number of people with very little time and effort.” As traditional media are losing their power, micro-messages fragment public opinion into the opinion of various dispersed mini-publics. Smart mobs have replaced mass audiences. Advertisers, used to setting the tone, are now held accountable by consumers who use social media platforms and sampling tools to raise their voice. In the words of Chris Anderson: “the ants have megaphones.”