by Jon Wade
August 14th, 2012

A conversation necessarily involves two people. It’s pretty dull talking to yourself and looks a bit strange too. I still double take every time I see someone on a Bluetooth headset having an animated conversation with an invisible man.

Since the internet showed up and created the ability for consumers and brands to have dialogue, the ability for both parties to enter into a parley occurred.

Which shouldn’t be a stretch right? Brands have become quite used to talking about themselves, irrespective of whether anyone is listening. They’ve been telling us how awesome they are on TV, in the press and on the radio for quite some time. And in the most part consumers sat silent, absorbing (or not) the information that brands wished to disseminate. They would have liked to respond, but realistically, there really wasn’t any way for them to do so.

However, something weird happened once the internet and specifically, social media got in the mix. It seemed, to me at least, that the roles had suddenly reversed. Whilst consumers became much more vocal, a lot of brands decided, strangely, that they should become conversation hosts and that it was merely sufficient to create a place for consumers to have conversations between themselves, with the brand a passive rather than an active participant. Brands decided to start acting like a coffee shop proprietor or a bar manager (generally without the coffee or the beer). Suddenly the boorish brand that wouldn’t shut up became the shrinking violet in the corner, hopeful that people would come to them and have a conversation, and even more hopeful that the conversation would be about the brand. As a wise ex-boss once told me, “hope is not an effective strategy.”

I have lost count of the number of times organisations have asked if we can help them set up a Facebook page or a Weibo account (China’s response to Twitter) without really thinking about what they want to say once they have it. They are usually adamant that merely possessing the platform is the business objective in, and of, itself.

A Facebook wall or a Weibo account without any posts is a wall. There’s some metaphor about staring at a wall, related to boredom as I recall. And bored people tend to doodle, which is also not a great look for a Weibo feed. To avoid the blank wall, or the random mutterings of bored consumers, brands need to know what they want to say, how often and how they are planning on saying it so they can at least try to lead the conversation in one way or another.

Like a real-life conversation that involves speech, body language, drawing on the back of a napkin and all manner of other non-verbal communication, so it is with virtual conversations. Online speech is copy (or occasionally actual speech in the form of podcasts), body language takes the form of video content, and for drawings, read photos and infographics. Brands can’t expect all of this to be created for them by consumers unless of course they specialise in products for piano- playing cats or finger-biting babies. I was at a conference recently where I heard the concept of 1 – 9 – 90. That is, only 1% of consumers create content online, a further 9% actively distribute it and the other 90% sit back in and soak it all up. If you’ve got 10,000 followers, the likelihood is that only 100 of them are going to create any content. And what are the chances they are going to create it about your brand, rather than the dog their friend has just taught to bark in time to the latest Justin Bieber tune?

In the PR game, we’re all about creating advocacy and having a brand’s messages distributed through opinion leads and influencers. But online, advocacy is not created by platforms like RenRen, Facebook, Tudou, Daum or Mixi. It’s created by the real people on those platforms, and for a brand to interact with real people online they have to have conversations with them. This necessarily involves contributing something to start, maintain or shape the direction of those conversations. Yes, brands and consumers or influencers need a place to have those conversations, and the platforms mentioned are just a small proportion of the many and varied platforms available in Asia Pacific. But more importantly than where the conversation is going to happen is what the conversation is going to be about. Organisations need to move past establishing a presence online and get into the content creation business.

This content needs to be tailored to the conversation that is happening at the time. There are few scenarios more annoying than being in the middle of deep and meaningful conversation only to be interrupted by someone piping in with something completely irrelevant.

Posting your latest television commercial to your Facebook wall falls into the above category, by the way, unless your fans have a genuine interest in it. Which they probably don’t, because your fans already know you. That’s why they are your fans. So you’re not doing an awareness job, which is what most TV advertising is about.

I’ve heard at various times, analogies about brands acting like party planners in the social space, and I agree with this. But I would add that, in addition to planning the party, they also need to be the life and soul. Online influencers, like journalists, only have so much time and headspace. If you want them to promote your brand, then you have to give them the best possible reason to do so. Online, this means relevant, interesting, unique and engaging content. Content that inspires them to, at the very least, distribute your content to their audiences, but preferably content that inspires them to create new, even more engaging content, that further fuels the conversation and exponentially distributes your message.

Word-of-mouth only works when there is Word. Put content – and engaging content, not platforms – at the heart of your digital PR strategy, and you may just find you won’t be stuck in a corner, hoping for that conversation.

Jon Wade is head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

To receive our updates: