Customers Don’t Want Ads, They Want a Conversation…Just Not the Conversations You Want to Have

Fast Company just published another article discussing how customers are no longer satisfied just with good products and services or low prices – they want collaboration and conversation from brands. In another Fast Company article from January, they state that “brands, marketers believe, ought to start acting less like things and more like people, and they should engage traditional humans, their consumers, in dialogue.” IBM’s Global CEO Study found that 88% of CEOs said “getting closer to customers” was the top priority for their business over the next five years. Amazon has 200 books in their “social media for business” category all using the same cliches – have two-way conversations, engage with your customers, be more human, etc.

Finally! Social media is going to change the way business works. Brands will come down from their ivory towers and customers will have actual input into the products and services they purchase. Brands win! Customers win! Social media saves the day! Unfortunately, the “conversations” most brands are trying to have with their customers aren’t exactly the ones so often described in these books, presentations, studies, and blog posts. Rather than co-collaborating on new products, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of current ones, sharing new ideas, and having conversations about corporate issues, brands are asking begging and groveling for likes, shares, and comments. Brands have become that annoying insecure friend who always tries just a little too hard and is constantly looking for affirmation from those around them.

  • “I texted you 8 times last night but you never texted me back? Are we still friends?
  • “Pleeeeease come over and hang out tonight…please??”
  • “I was just calling to see if you got my email asking if you wanted to go out tonight. If you come out, I’ll buy the drinks. You in?”

Ummmm…sure – just don’t forget you offered to buy. Unfortunately, this is the relationship most brands have with their customers in social media – “please please please like me!! If you do, I’ll give you some free stuff.” They beg you to like, comment, and share pictures of cats, ask questions like “what’s your favorite number?“ and jump on the bandwagon of whatever trend they can find (side note: the Condescending Corporate Brand Facebook page is one of my new guilty pleasures).

Somehow, I don’t think these are the types of conversations that Fact Company, Harvard Business Review, and IBM had in mind. For most customers, liking a brand in social media isn’t about engagement or conversations. It’s about transactions. If you give me something (coupons, discounts), I’ll put up with your annoying habits (spamming my social media feeds). Instead of using social media to rethink the typical business-to-consumer relationship, they’ve just moved their same old business practices and metrics to a new medium. Instead of actually building mutually beneficial relationships with you know, actual people, marketers have reduced social media to a series of algorithms, likes, and clicks. Harvard Business Review conducted a study last year that should be required reading for every brand marketer and social media guru. In it, they debunked three common social media marketing best practices –

  1. Most consumers want to have relationships with your brand (no, they don’t)
  2. Interactions build relationships (not these interactions)
  3. The more interactions, the better (please, make them stop)

You should go read the whole post, but if you don’t, at least heed this piece of advice when managing your brand’s social media efforts –

“Instead of relentlessly demanding more consumer attention, treat the attention you do win as precious. Then ask yourself a simple question of any new marketing efforts: is this campaign/email/microsite/print ad/etc. going to reduce the cognitive overload consumers feel as they shop my category? If the answer is “no” or “not sure,” go back to the drawing board. When it comes to interacting with your customers, more isn’t better.”

What kinds of conversations is your brand having with its customers? Are you bastardizing social media by begging for likes and shares instead of deriving some value from them? Brands have all these tools at their disposal to tap into the hearts and minds of their most important stakeholders – their customers – and yet most let that power waste away with pictures of cats and Call Me Maybe videos. Be the better brand. Instead of asking for a like, be the brand people actually like.

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Chris Poirier

I have lost count how many times I have had this EXACT conversation with people about the use of “social media.” Many are still stuck on number of followers, likes, etc and degrade into “cute” tactics to gain more of the aforementioned Klout score loving garbage instead of actual engagement. Quality of engagement = quality customers/followers/etc. The better that engagement/relationship, the better the return. (..and yes..that DOES require actual WORK..)

Dannielle Blumenthal

Important post to read and share. Seems so obvious but people do get infatuated with the kind of meaningless metrics Chris is talking about.

Joe Flood

Big organizations trying to create conversations always come across clumsy. These efforts come across as inauthentic and, besides, they’re not what your customers want to talk about.

Case in point – when I worked at AARP, we created message boards for members to talk about Social Security, Medicare and other important things that the organization wanted discussed. But AARP members didn’t visit, instead flocking to the Relationships board to make new friends. It became the most popular board on the site. People didn’t want to talk about saving Social Security, like we wanted them to. Instead, they wanted to connect with others.

Another example – say GovLoop had been created by the GSA. It was the Official Government Online Community, requiring authentication and conversation permitted only select topics, tightly policed by lawyers. Would it ever have worked?

You can’t create community. You can provide the tools but successful online communities happen from the ground up. I wish more brands would understand that. Trust customers and give them the tools to form their own communities around your brand.