Wednesday, January 14, 2004

TACTIC: The Power of Conversational Marketing

Conversational marketing is hot right now. Robert Scoble, in his blog The Scobleizer Weblog, even graciously referred to me as a practitioner of conversational marketing. Fair enough. I will admit to being a conversational marketer even if I am not completely sure of what it is. My friends Jim Melillo and Suzanne Sheppard, are probably also early practitioners. In the early 90’s they named their sales acumen company Executive Conversation. Their materials are based on conversational selling: having the right conversation with the right person.

Communication is foundational to marketing and relationships are the bedrock of sales. The concept does not seem all that new, but technologies like blogs, social networks, virtual trade shows, etc. are creating opportunities to use these concepts more broadly. Since I view “conversation” as interaction between people (versus companies) and “marketing” as message positioning (versus news), I see “conversational marketing” as personalized positioning.

I tend to agree with John Porcaro that business is personal: “When it all comes down to it, I'm not sure we can (or should even try to) disconnect the personal from the business. Brands are about reputation. Business is about trust and reciprocation. Contracts are covenants. Marketing is communication. Selling is a dialog. Business partnerships, even at a transactional level are about shared goals, common vision, commitment to each other."

Every time I go through customs, they ask if the trip is business or pleasure. I often do not know how to answer. I like the people I work with. In addition to work we eat at great restaurants, visit historic sites, and sit around in bars debating strategy till all hours of the night. Is that work or pleasure? Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer said “Work consists of what you are compelled to do and leisure consists of what you are not compelled to do.”

A potential client e-mailed me the other day about an engagement. Included in the e-mail were the scope, price and terms. I quickly e-mailed back that I would be glad to do it. Next we spent three or four weeks e-mailing each other and set up a phone call. Not until we had a chance to talk was I given the go ahead to do the work. Most of the call was personal. We had to get to know each other better before we could work together.

Look at the software battle between Microsoft and IBM for another current example of the use of conversational marketing.

IBM on Sunday bombarded the football games with its Linux ads, directly linking IBM to Linux. IBM is using traditional marketing to drive sales in a current technology with lots of momentum. And IBM will probably get a great return off its ads from businesses buying solutions. Additionally, ISVs and channel providers can partner with IBM and drive revenue today. Even without blogs, this can create profitable, loyal channel relationships.

Microsoft, on the other hand, needs to convince ISVs to port their economically viable Linux and Java solutions to .NET. Many of these ISVs are delaying because of the high investment needed to port and no urgent, compelling need to change. (See my Channel Zone Column next week for a more detailed discussion of .NET migration economics.) Additionally, without support from the developer community, .Net and Longhorn will not reach their potential.

Yet, instead of relying only on traditional media to get that commitment, they are opening Microsoft up to the developers. Microsoft is heavy into empowering its employees to establish connections with developers on a personal basis using blogs, e-mail, telephone and any other media. I recall a developer at a hardware client of mine a few years ago who excitedly told me about how he had spent the prior evening decoding and modifying the Linux drivers on his VCR. If developers get as hot on Microsoft as this kid was on Linux, it can easily overcome the short-term economic barriers such as capital allocation.

Just because conversational marketing is a soft approach does not preclude its strategic use and just because conversational marketing is used strategically does not have to reduce its authenticity or genuineness.

Scott Karren, The Channel Pro 

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