Is the “Age of Conversation” Coming of Age?

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It’s a bit like that ‘fool me once…’ adage: When the second observation showed up this week, I started wondering if this is a trend. Then I realized it’s inevitable.

There are few people left (at least among those with internet access) that would dispute that, in the past decade or so, technology has changed the way we interact with and relate to each other. Whether you call this the ‘Age of Conversation’ or refer more generally to the social media/social networking trends, it’s been clear for some time that the skills of technology have been applied to the art of human relationships, and how those relationships manifest has changed.

Another point that few would argue is that the social media/social networking phenomenon has changed the way corporate – actually, all – marketers see the world and related to and communicate with their target audiences. Even the simple use of the phrase ‘communicate with’ in the previous sentence is symptomatic of the change – 15 years ago I would have said ‘communicate to.’

I found it interesting when two unrelated experiences began to triangulate (yes, I’ll still need a third to fully triangulate – care to offer one in the comments?) on these ideas.

  1. Over an otherwise social dinner, a friend who is a successful CMO told me he’s thinking of leaving his position to start an agency. When I pressed him for the reason he wanted to do this after many years working in corporate organizations, he said ‘Marketers have forgotten how to market.’ He explained (and I mostly agree) that most marketers have become so caught up in the social media trend and have focused on a long list of not-well-developed-conventional-wisdom approached and tactics, that some of the fundamentals – like knowing how to segment a market, understand basic customer needs, and focusing on messages (read: content) that is of critical interest to your customers and prospects – have been lost in the shuffle, or worse, forgotten.
  2. I watched a Tom Peters video that talked about the importance of being able to write well and coherently (you can judge for yourself if I’ve mastered that skill). Yes, the very same Tom Peters who is always ranting about big strategic ideas and the importance of challenging the status quo, is now talking about a very basic skill in which most of us became at least moderately proficient in high school. His explanation for this is that in the age of quick e-mails, facebook statuses (statii?) and Twitter, where writing is reduced to the fewest characters possible and sentence structure gives way to compact meaning, being able to communicate well and coherently is still a highly valued skill. In fact, good communication – including written – skills are critical for business success (his new book, in fact, focuses on the importance of the so-called ‘little things’). I would add that for marketers, being able to express yourself well rather than briefly (in most cases), makes it more likely that your audience will understand your message.

A return to fundamentals is the core idea that ties these two observations together. Good marketing is, well, good marketing, no matter the tools, channels, media or relationships. The core elements of understanding how to relate to your audience and how to get a message across in a way that is compelling and results in action (presumably buying, but not always), along with the rest of the basic marketing tenets, are still the things we must do right every day to make sure that, whether in old or new or social media, we can be effective communicators. The same is true of the basic skill of written communications (admit it, you love reading blogs – obvious, because you’re reading this – but you know that so many are poorly written, and sometimes hard to decipher).

I would never make the argument that the so-called ‘revolution’ in the nature of the relationships among people and between companies and their audiences is coming to an end. In fact, I’d argue that it’s only just begun (but I won’t argue that right now – maybe later). Relationships must and will change, and they will change dramatically.

We are no longer at the point where we are experimenting with what the new tools can do. We have reached the point where we’ve played with the new tools and now we have to go start finding out not only what they can do, but where they are useful and how to make them a part of our own lives, our own professions and our own relationship. Then we have to use them to redefine and rebuild those lives, professions and relationships in ways we may not fully understand.

As we do, we should not forget that we still have lives, professions and relationships, and the need to do the simple things right – to live lives, to practice professions and to relate to others – and to do them well has not changed, and I don’t think it ever will.

Add your story about how you see good fundamentals returning to blend with a radically changed world in the comments


Stop Circling the Wagons

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This past week I had the privilege of attending The Economist’s 2009 Marketing Forum. As you might expect, the topics this year were focused on managing through challenging economic times, how to prepare for what we all hope will be better times in the near future and how we might know when better times are coming.

The audience was smaller than in past years, which was not at all surprising, but still represented the marketing leadership of a diverse set of companies and organizations – enough so that it was not hard to see how different sectors and industries are faring, and how the thinking differs – or doesn’t – across these businesses. (you can read more on the twitter stream, some commentary on it from day one and day two and read another perspective on the conference)

I heard discussion of the expected topics, such as measurement, marketing mix and spending and investment allocation, plus branding, promotion, channels and the long list of things marketers think about. But after a day and one-half listening to and talking with this group of marketing leaders, there were two things that were notably missing.

I’m pretty sure that if you’re bothering to read this, you don’t need to be convinced that an economic downturn, regardless of how severe or prolonged, is the time when it is imperative that great companies (read: the ones that want to survive) innovate – not just creating a few new, related products, but re-think the way they relate to their customers and the rest of their market, they way they develop and roll-out product (I am intentionally avoiding the word “launch” here) and how they manage the marketing investment for their companies.

I won’t suggest that there were no interesting ideas offered. There were a few. But out of 12 panels and presentations, not one was focused on innovation in marketing or how companies can create the kind of significant differentiation that will allow them to succeed in bad times and dominate when the market turns up again.

I would hate to suggest that, among this group, not one person was thinking about how to do this for their company (or clients for the branding firms in attendance), but there was little to no talk of this, either on stage or in the hallway between sessions. The thing that struck me also, is how much of the conversation still assumes that marketers own and define their brand themselves (hint: your market owns your brand) and how much the style of thinking is still command-and-control-driven in most marketing organizations.

So what was missing? Let me start with these perspectives:

  • The CMO as the portfolio manager of a range of marketing investments (some of this was hinted at by Ward Hanson of SIEPR)
  • The CMO as the steward (not controller, or owner) of the brand in the minds of the members of the market
  • The CMO as the facilitator of the conversation around the company and the brand
  • The CMO as the steward of the relationship with the market(s)
  • The CMO as the driver of a sustainable business model (no, I don’t mean green products)

This is the opportunity that faces us in this challenging market. William Pearce of Del Monte Foods suggested that one of the key responsibilities of the CMO is to be the “driver of growth” – and with that comes the challenge of how to put your company in position to lead the market (and gain market share) in challenging times and to accelerate out of this downturn, leave your competition in the dust and become dominant in your market.

Your market is thinking differently about its relationship with you – and your competitors. Are you willing to do what it takes to enter into a new relationship, start to think differently about how your company operates and markets, and become the organization that everyone else wishes they were?

I hope so – and I’d like to hear how you are getting started.


Just Ask

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At this morning’s Social Media Breakfast (great discussion with Anneke Seley, author of Sales 2.0 on using social media in sales), I was talking with Sue of KITList and Clare about how to improve the conversation and engagement of the thousands and thousands of KITList members. The three of us wrestled with updating the blog, creating an e-mail discussion list, maybe a social media service presence (Facebook, Twitter?), but we weren’t really sure what would engage the large and very diverse group that is the KITList membership. Then came the “a-ha” moment:

Clare said “Why don’t you ask your members?”

Which is, of course, applying the basic social media principle to figuring out social media.

Marketers are always working hard to understand customers, prospects and future prospects better. We think we’re pretty good at asking people in our market what they think, want and need. We also think we’re pretty good at translating often disparate answers into a coherent theme that then, we hope, guides our strategy.

Where this morning’s conversation started was in the “market research” mode of asking a few people. Sue asked me and Clare, and told us she had asked a few others, but still had no good answers. So a few hours later, she wrote a blog post (and sent an e-mail) to the members and asked everyone.

A few hours later, I saw the news that Facebook, after the recent debacle, has now decided that changes to their terms of service will be open to discussion by all members and subject to vote of the membership (Can’t you hear the lawyers cringing?). A social media icon now adopts real social media practices in a way that much of the technology industry is proverbially famous for not doing for so many years. This means no more misunderstandings (we hope) and terms of service that the community of Facebook members actually wants to abide by (I’ll refrain from a rant on the use of self-interest as a motivator being better than the threat of lawsuit). Facebook is actually asking everyone, and the result is almost certain to be a service that’s more appealing to its members.

Not everyone will answer. But I can’t think of a better example of how to learn what your whole market thinks, and not just the select few you’ve chosen for research. This is not quite crowdsourcing, but it’s close, and it uses some of the same ideas about collecting opinions from many, many individuals.

So when you want to know what your customers, prospects and market really want and need (and I hope you always want to know), do you let a select few speak for everyone? or do you really ask – everyone?


Happy 4th of July!

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I know I’ve been a bit behind in posting recently, but I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone here in the U.S. (and any Americans abroad who might find their way here) a Happy 4th!

And lest we be reminded of this one too many times (and I hope I’m not sounding jingoistic here), it was 231 years ago that a small group of very smart people had a very different and disruptive idea. They gathered a community around them and created something never seen before – a democratic (system of government, not party) nation.

For much of what we call the “western” world, this is now commonplace. But it’s always possible, for better or worse, that somewhere in the world disruptive political change might be happening again today (it’s happened a few times since 1776).

But I’ll offer my admiration to those who dared to think differently and stake their lives on it (among them one of my most admired people). And I’ll remember that the ability and imperative to create change never ends, and applies to all of our institutions and every part of our lives.


Adoption Happens

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In his blog last week, Gartner analyst Jeffrey Mann responds to Cisco’s Parvesh Sethi touting the capabilities of Cisco’s IP phones:

I’ve seen quite a few IP phones on people’s desks, and I’m sure that some people are doing innovative things with them. However, I usually see them being used as, well, phones. The phones may have an IP address and lots of great possibilities, but I have yet to encounter anyone who uses even 20% of those possibilities. Most people just pick them up to dial, much as they have been doing for decades.

Am I missing something? I respect Mr. Mann greatly, but I think there’s a point missing from this argument.

Whenever a new – and disruptive – technology arrives, even when it’s widely deployed and the benefits are obvious, the adoption of the most advanced features takes some time (remember your technology adoption life cycle?).

I don’t mean to be cynical here, but let’s face it: If I had an IP phone on my desk, I’d use it to make calls (sorry, I’m with Steve Jobs on this one: the killer app for (cell) phones is still making calls). Given my penchant for playing with tech toys, I’d probably play with all of the advanced features, too. And I’d learn which ones are actually useful for me (not necessarily the same ones for everyone, either). But I’m an “early adopter” and not everyone is – in fact, very few people are.

But the fact that the technology is there, and it’s being marketed and made available means that – if it’s useful – it will eventually be used.

Bringing a disruptive technology to market happens in stages. In order for a majority of customers to understand the technology, it has to fit into the context of something they do today. It can be better and different, but in this case, a phone is still a phone and makes calls and does some other cools stuff.

The important lessons for disruptive marketers: Only when it’s accepted that the disruptive technology can fit into common activities does it get the chance to realize its disruptive potential and begin to change those activities, or obviate them and create new ones.


A Very Very Long Run

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Disruptive Marketing is not just about creating disruption and displacing established market participants. It’s also about how established participants respond to and ultimately capitalize on (and sometimes eliminate) disruptive threats.

This story from Business Week is the story of just such a company. It started with

The world’s oldest continuously operating family business ended its impressive run last year

1,428 years. That’s a very very long time to be in business. In the technology industry where I live, many businesses are lucky to be around for more than five years.

Ultimately, according to this article, the business wasn’t displaced or made irrelevant (through a market disruption), but faded away in a series of mis-directed financial decisions.

But what struck me as interesting was the way that this company made decisions over its incredible millenium-and-a-half run. They refused to comply with established protocols and societal norms. They focused (until near the end) relentlessly on doing the one thing they knew better than anyone else, and they found ways that worked for them to overcome change on a scope that most businesses can barely conceive.

The result was a business that sustained financial, economic, political and military storms of nearly every conceivable variety. It is what they chose to do differently – making business and management decisions that defied the norms – that kept them stable over a very very long run.

It also points out that sometimes the best way to capitalize on disruption is not to respond at all – just let it wash over you and keep going.

One of the most common debates I see in businesses today is about the meaning of, and response to, competitors (and others) actions. There tends to be a common pattern to these discussions: panic, some analysis, then an increasing sense of urgency to act.

I can’t say what the decisions of Kongo Gumi’s management were a millenium ago, but from the history it seems to me that there must have been lots of decisions not to act in these situation.

An idea that might help many companies today is to include in the set of possible decisions “do nothing differently” and rely on the plans in place to succeed. Then play out that scenario next to ones that include the panic-driven actions. I have seen this work effectively far more often than you might expect.

My question is: Do you have the courage to trust your direction and not respond with panic?


Are you listening?

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I don’t like Don Imus. Never have. And while this post has nothing what-so-ever to do with Don Imus, his horribly offensive comments and subsequent firing got me thinking…

Change from the insideHave you ever had someone in your organization unexpectedly try to tell you that there’s a completely unanticipated and dire threat to your business? What did you say? Did you investigate? Or did you ask them to investigate? Or did you assume that it was the warning of a less experienced (and therefore less knowledgable) wolf-crier? (with the corrolary assumption that you’ve already planned for any relevant threats)

I’ve been in that position several times – both as the deliverer and the recipient. I’ve ignored serious threats (I don’t anymore) and I’ve even been fired for raising the topic repeatedly when I thought the situation was dire. You’ve probably guessed that since I’m writing about it, I was right. And I learned that it was surprisingly unsatisfying to watch from outside as the business dissolved.

It’s been my experience that nearly every day someone in your business is raising a red flag. Sometimes, it’s just an opinion. Sometimes a well-founded belief that doesn’t apply – or even better has already been anticipated (and, I hope, planned for). But sometimes, more often – no, far more often – than we’re willing to admit, the wolf-crier has actually seen something coming that poses a real threat to your business.

When these alarms come from unexpected sources, the first thought should be: “this could be disruptive.” But usually the first thought is more like ”          .”

Warnings of truly disruptive threats – like the threats themselves – often come from the most unexpected places. If you don’t listen – and pay attention! – you risk ignoring a disruptive threat. Maybe it’s nothing.

But are you willing to bet your business?