People like talking to other people and sometimes their talks also involve brands. However, people don’t talk about brands in a too-good-to-be-missed-life-changing advertising style, but in an open and honest way.

It is critical to understand that talking is natural human behaviour and not something triggered by modern technologies. Technologies are only making sharing, visibility and generation of human conversations more convenient and accessible. Today, what is troubling the marketing world is a tiny element of human conversations, which have been in existence long before digital technologies arose.  A recent report from Google confirms that there are 3.3 billion mentions of brands in a day of which only 5% or 0.16 billion are online.

One of the reasons that marketing and advertising is in such a state of confusion is because it’s looking at an uncontrollable world, through the lens of command and authority. (Seriously, how effectively can brand owners really control, influence or manage 3+ billion brand mentions in a day?) One way or another, we want to insert our style of Brand Talk into the lives of people to make them talk about our brand. We want people to advertise our products and services and praise our brands all the time. We only want to hear what pleases us and increases our rate of sale, brand value or market share.

I believe entering the Conversable World with a Tell & Sell mind-set is not helping brands or people. People tend to be more honest than brands and when it comes to conversations, they don’t advertise. Let’s consider the recent example of McDonald’s. McDonald’s wanted people to advertise on behalf of its brand with the launch of Twitter campaign promoting #McDstories. The idea was to make people share their stories associated with McDonald’s, which they did, but not in the way McDonald’s wanted. Instead of sharing all the magnificent memories associated with McDonald’s, people started to communicate their own past problems with the burger chain. Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s had to close the campaign within hours of its launch.

With examples such as the above, some marketers have developed the opinion that the Conversable World is a no-go zone for brands, full of angry people who want to destroy every brand they come across, with no real value for brands.  This is certainly not the case. A study conducted by Google and KellerFay reveals that more than half of the consumers are highly likely to purchase an item based on user generated conversations. Brands like DELL, Old Spice and VW are already driving business effectiveness through utilising the power of user generated conversations

Unlike traditional marketing, where brands control communication; successful brands today understand that people own how a brand is communicated. The shift in the control of marketing power from brands to people, require brands to communicate on terms accepted by the residents of the talking world.

I believe that understanding how people communicate in their real lives could help us take much more informed decisions for driving brand value through conversations. Let’s start by understanding how conversations take place in the real world:

Conversations don’t happen on their own, they need a reason and starting point.
Conversations require an active exchange of dialogues to maintain engagement.
Most importantly conversations demand responses.

Let’s try to understand the implications for brands and marketing in the light of the above conversation cycle:

1. Do it for a reason:

People don’t talk without a reason. When we go to visit the GP the reason is our Health, when we are talking to customer service the reason is our past or future purchase, when we are talking to a builder the reason is home improvements or construction work, when we start talking to a stranger in a pub the reason is to socialise. No matter what the situation is people don’t start conversations without a reason. Following the same principles, brands need to understand the importance of creating reasons to be talked about; Is the brand offering something that people will find interesting or useful? Is it adding value to their real-life experience? Is it giving something they can’t get from anywhere else?

One could argue that brands have always communicated with people for a reason (good or bad), by telling them why they should use a particular product or service. However, in a people powered world, it’s not adequate enough for brands to say how good they are. Today, brands need to demonstrate reasons for entering the Conversable World and be honest about them. If the reason’s customer service, then they should not block negative user comments or reviews. If it’s entertainment, then there should be no corporate messages. If it’s about information, then it should be free from bias. No matter the reason, brands need to start conversations not for the sake of selling, but demonstrate how their products or services drive social development and improve people’s lives.

2. Maintain the engagement:

Conversation, as the word suggests, is a form of interactive communication between two or more individuals. When starting a conversation, brands need to think about enabling two-way engagement instead of one-way Tell & Sell stories. Engagement could take place in many different forms; it could be about viewing a piece of video until the end instead of just the first five seconds, sharing a picture, commenting on what a brand has said, co-creating products, responding directly to brands, or even asking brands to do something.

Without a doubt, it’s easier to get someone’s attention than to maintain it. To truly engage people, one has to regularly introduce useful discussions and interesting ideas to the conversation. Likewise, to maintain longer-term user engagements, brands need to keep refreshing their say with useful and interesting thoughts and ideas to keep conversation alive. This is not about creating new ideas all the time to start new conversations, but fuelling the conversations already initiated by a brand.

Thanks to the modern technologies, brands can maintain conversations in many different ways. For example, a conversation may start as a result of a TV ad and maintained through Blogs, Search, Social Networks, Micro Communities, Content Networks - all working around the same brand idea or the reason for starting the conversation.  Old Spice is one example of how a brand can keep users engaged by maintaining conversations following a unified brand spirit. Though ‘The Man your man could smell like”, “Old Spice Response”, “Fabio Vs. Mustafa’ and now the series of standalone videos have all been executed differently, but they all share a common reason – ‘to spark conversations to position Old Spice as a champion of ‘manly-scented’ shower products’. The case of Old Spice also proves that maintaining conversations can help drive real business value for brands and their owners. In the first three months following the campaign's launch, Old Spice captured 76% of online buzz, increasing sales by 125%.

3. React fast to drive value:

We don’t start conversations with a pre-prepared list of all the things we would ask or reply to during a conversation session. Nor is it likely that you’ll see a person saying ‘Morning’ to you one day and you’ll respond a week later. We know that effective conversations happen as a result of attentive listening and relevant, timely responding.

Equally, if brands want to drive successful conversations, they have to let go of corporate comms planning techniques and start adapting human communication skills. Today, it’s not about creating one big advertising idea, once a year, but generating lots of little ideas all the time. Smart brands are achieving this through actively listening to people and offering them relevant responses. If executed effectively, this technique of listening and creating tailored responses can be hugely successful for brands.  Consider the example of David Martin, who posted his sufferings after getting stuck on a Virgin Atlantic plane for four hours. Martin’s post got picked up by the marketing team, offering him a $100 voucher for the trouble, which he rejected. Instead of closing the conversation with him, Virgin Atlantic’s Chief Executive called him and, after a short negotiation, Martin secured a full refund and $100 in vouchers for all the passengers. On surface, this might look like an expensive deal, but David Cush, Virgin America CEO, realised the opportunity within. The story got picked up by passionate bloggers, Internet magazines and media outlets including The New York Post, The Early Show, Fox News Channel, CNN - all creating and enabling positive conversations for Virgin Atlantic in a way that money just can't buy.

So, to be successful in a world full of people talking about brands all the time, marketers and advertising professionals need to communicate with humans in a human way. Instead of pushing marketing messages out, brands need to do things that people want to talk about. Instead of looking at the conversable world with controlling and fearful eyes, brands need to open up to people and create value exchange that is meaningful, honest and adds real value to the lives of people.