The internet is a conversation
We've seen the biggest upheaval in organisational communication in the past 20 years since the dawn of civilisation itself. It isn’t going as well as it could for most organisations. If you're one of the 3.2 billion people, or thereabouts, with a connection to the internet you can create content and connect with anyone else that's part of this beautiful network.
It's wonderfully democratic. Organisations have access to exactly the same media and networks to build relationships as you and me.
But it's not going as well as it might. Here's the issue. Most organisations communicate in a way that would be more appropriate for a Roman Emperor almost 2000 years ago than the modern internet.
It remains top down command and control. Information trickles down an organisation and is broadcast via increasing numbers of branded owned and shared channels.
This was a theme I explored in a talk at Thinking Digital in Manchester yesterday.
You can build gorgeous websites and apps. You can publish gorgeous branded content via Instagram and Facebook. But if your product or service doesn't mean my expectation and you don't give me the opportunity to have a proper conversation with you I'm going to use those channels to call you out.
We shouldn't be surprised. The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted exactly what would happen. In 1999 it foretold that markets are conversations and that the internet is the world's biggest conversation. Cluetrain is a book to return to time and time again.
Organisations often aren’t very good at conversation because they want to talk about themselves all the time.
Instead of listening like a good friend they shout about their latest products or services. Industrialised marketing techniques have been retrofitted on the internet. It’s a poor basis for a conversation and it plainly doesn’t work.
Awkward conversations - When the publishers of Fifty Shades of Grey wanted to promote a new edition of the book it hosted a Twitter chat with author E L James. Inevitably people wanted to know the inspiration for some of the scenes in the book. The people of the internet answer back and tell you what you think.
Integration - Organisations that manage their social media channels in isolation from the rest of the organisation are frequently called out. A supermarket signing off on Twitter feed with a colloquial hitting the hay on the day horse meat was discovered in its burgers was plainly daft.
Authenticity - Like needy friends, organisations want to be part of our conversations on the internet. They create content around every key date on the calendar: Halloween is the latest but then there’s sporting events and even weekends. The error is a lack of authenticity. It’s needs to be relevant to the organisations and you and me.
Relevance - Listening and adding an interesting comment makes for good conversations. It’s what we do with friends and colleagues every day. Organisations can do this very effectively as well. But they can all screw it up if when try and be part of conversations they shouldn’t like the pizza chain that suggested that the Duchess of Cambridge’s new baby be called Pizza.
Spam – Media such as LinkedIn Pulse, Medium and Wordpress provides the means for us to share written content with our network. It has democratised the ability to share thoughts and ideas. It’s a powerful medium but has the potential to be spammy if abused for marketing or though leadership. There isn’t an event or news story happens without a Buzzfeed style article about the implications for a market or sector. Content must be authentic.
Automation - Technology is useful to make sense of data and create content for the internet. But you can’t and shouldn’t ever automate a conversation. Joan Rivers fans were confused when a post appeared on her Instagram and Facebook page celebrating the launch of a new iPhone shortly after her death.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow provided a framework for conversation in the 1940s when he defined the hierarchy of human need. If organisations want to engage with people on the internet they need to start listening and anchor their purpose and conversation in stuff people care about. Head towards the top of Maslow’s pyramid.
Reaching for a higher purpose and being useful
There are plenty of organisations that have recognised the opportunity that the internet provides for meaningful conversation. They are using it to build relationships and reputation.
The New York Times recently called out Amazon’s performance management regime. Employees responded saying the reports were exaggerated and that it's simply good business practice. Amazon’s free delivery, Kindle books and video on demand services are excellent. Likewise its customer service on Twitter.
Lego has a very clear purpose to help children think creatively. The brand is a fantastic experience online and off. It's created fantastic communities for designers to problem solve and share models. Lego Ideas is a place where people propose new sets and the community votes them up and down.
Patagonia uses the internet to communicate transparently. It’s almost a management tool that shows the efforts the organisation is making towards sustainability in everything from data to encouraging second hand sales. Its purpose is rooted in helping people explore the natural environment.
The internet is a conversation with 2.6 billion people taking part. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing. They’ll be close to five billion by the end of decade. We all have a role in communicating on behalf of organisations. Dare to reach for a higher purpose, be useful and communicate in a human way.
The internet is a conversation.