The New Conversationalists

by Britton Manasco | May 21, 2007 | B2B Marketing

What do you want to talk about? That's the question we all should want to have answered because, as they say, "markets are conversations." So if you want to get attention and drive growth, you better be an exceptional conversationalist.

Just ask Lois Kelly. In her exceptional new book Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word of Mouth Marketing, she offers a compelling perspective on the state of marketing. It's not merely about the tactics -- blogs, podcasts, webcasts, videocasts, search engines. Rather, it's about the discussions we are having  and the stories we are sharing with each other.

As she puts it: "The big idea is simply that marketing is about having conversations and engaging with people in interesting discussions, through new and traditional channels. Technology may be becoming the heart of marketing and communications, but conversations are the soul."

If you want your company to stand out in today's blizzard of noise, you must provoke conversations about issues that are relevant -- and interesting -- to your customer. That's how you build trust -- and draw people in. Be an insightful guide -- a luminary in the darkness. Or be a provocateur -- someone who happily eviscerates the conventional wisdom.

"Some of the most effective conversation starters are points of view based on beliefs, contrarian views, or unusual advice," says Kelly. "A good point of view gently (or not so gently) smacks people in the face and gets the response, 'That's interesting. Tell me more.'"

She tells the story of how one IBM corporate strategist seemed to be putting people to sleep with his dull, jargon-laden discussion of how companies can become more innovative. No story, just a lot of  corporate-speak about "value chains"  and "ecosystems" and  "unbundling" and "disaggregating."

By contrast, Stuart Moore, the cofounder of Sapient, had a more interesting take. When he was asked the same question, he said, "There's no mystery to innovation. You just have to look through a new lens to see the possibilities. In many ways innovation is free."

You can imagine one guy boring you to death with PowerPoint slides, while the other guy inspires you to buy the next round, lean in and listen intently. But that's just it. Provocative, compelling conversations are the new marketing.

So what should we talk about?

Kelly offers nine key themes that promise to launch compelling conversations. These are the kinds of things that people love to talk about. Among them:

  • Aspirations and Beliefs: These are big ideas that reflect our deepest yearnings and strongest passions. They enable people to "engage with a company on more of an emotional level."
  • David vs. Goliath: Everyone loves the story of an underdog. Microsoft vs. IBM. Southwest vs. the big  carriers.  The Red Sox vs. the Yankees.
  • Avalanche about to Roll: People draw close when someone speaks of a big impending event or trend. We want to be party to that secret knowledge -- among the first to know it or capitalize on it. "Big, emerging trends that could damage a business or industry practice wake people up and fuel discussions about what's coming and what it means," writes Kelly.
  • Anxieties: People are most interested in the things that concern them the most. You want their attention? Speak to their fears, uncertainties and doubts.  IBM once was quite effective at selling a story of FUD because "no one ever got fired for buying IBM."
  • Challenging Assumptions: Yet another conversational winner is the counterintuitive viewpoint. People love to hear holes poked in the conventional wisdom. "The boldness of contrarian views grabs attention; the more original and less arrogant they are, the more useful they will be in provoking meaningful conversations," she writes.

Needless to say, Kelly engages in some contrarian thinking of her own. She implores us to rethink how we pursue marketing. To do so, we must invest in insight and develop a truly compelling point of view. To be great conversationalists, we need interesting  perspectives, sound bites, questions, stories and metaphors that  will grab imaginations and deepen relationships. Conversations, as she puts it, have become the core of the marketer's new work.