smarter conversations: “how do i want to change the way i talk to people?”

[The “Life Is Too Short” print…]

I first started playing with the idea of “Smarter-Conversations” way back in 2004, the same year gapingvoid really started getting traction in the blogopsphere.

Though not something I talk about day-in-day-out, it’s always been there somewhere in the background, informing everything I work on. Here are some notes:

1. In the seminal book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, the great Doc Searls famously declared, “Markets are conversations”. If you buy that premise (and I do, wholeheartedly), then quod erat demonstratum, if you want your marketing to be smarter (i.e. more effective), you need to be having a “Smarter Conversation”.

2. “Conversation” is a metaphor. Making your product sleek, elegant and graceful while all your other competitors make their product look cheap, plastic and clunky is a smarter conversation. Not all conversations need words.

3. It’s not just what you say, its how you say it. Calling it the “iPod” is a smarter conversation than say, the “MZT-2300-B Electronic Portable MP3 Digital Audio Device”.

4. Smarter Conversations scale. That’s what I really like about it. Anyone can have a smarter conversation- from a mom n’ pop pizza joint to a Fortune 500 company. It can happen in a Superbowl ad or printed on the back of a paper napkin. You can start one on a blog today, for free. Or on Twitter or Facebook. The tools don’t necessarily have to change, the way you talk to people has to change.

5. Deciding to have a smarter conversation isn’t a business decision, it’s a moral decision. Like I said in the last point, the barriers to entry are zero. While your competition treats their customers like idiots, you treat your customers like intelligent human beings. You don’t do that because your accountant told you to, you do that because that’s who you are.

6. The Smarter Conversation’s value comes from, I believe, not by yet more increased business efficiencies, but by its humanity. For example, take two well-known airlines. They both perform a useful service. They both deliver value. They both cost about the same to fly to New York or Hong Kong. Both have nice Boeings and Airbuses. Both serve peanuts and drinks. Both serve “airline food”. Both use the same airports. But one airline has friendly people working for them, the other airline has surly people working for them. One airline has a sense of fun and adventure about it, one has a tired, jaded business-commuter vibe about it. Guess which one takes the human dimension of their business more seriously than the other? Guess which one still will be around in twenty years? Guess which one will lose billions of dollars worth of shareholder value over the next twenty years? What parallels do you see in your own industry? In your own company?

7. If Smarter Conversations work, it’s because they help humanize the company. I wrote about this years ago in an article I called “The Porous Membrane”. To paraphrase: Ideally, you want the conversation between customers [the external market] to be as identical as the conversation between yourselves [the internal market]. The things that your customer is passionate about, you should also be passionate about. This we call “alignment”. A good example would be Apple. The people at Apple think the iPod is cool, and so do their customers. They are aligned. When you are no longer aligned with your customers is when the company starts getting into trouble. When you start saying your gizmo is great and your customers are telling everybody it sucks, then you have serious misalignment. So how do you keep misalignment from happening? The answer lies the cultural membrane that separates you from them. The more porous the membrane, the easier it is for conversations between you and them, the internal and external, to happen. The easier for the conversations on both sides to adjust to the other, to become like the other. And nothing pokes holes in the membrane better than blogging.

8. Social Media is not about reaching a mass audience. Social Media is not about creating yet another sales channel. Social Media is about allowing the Smarter Conversation to happen. That’s all. Why do some companies lose, while other companies win? Because the latter has a smarter “conversation” with its customers. Zappos had a smarter conversation about the power of customer service and the power of company culture. Peet’s Coffee came along 20 years ago and began a smarter conversation about coffee with millions of people within a very short space of time. Target’s recent massive success started from a smarter conversation about good design. Savile Row tailor, Thomas Mahon came along and, with his blog, had a smarter conversation about $4000 English bespoke suits. Lucky’s Juice Joint had a smarter conversation about fresh-squeezed. Big companies, medium companies and tiny companies, whatever- it was never about size, it was never about the choice of media (social or otherwise), it was all about language.

9. Social Media allows you to cheaply and quickly begin a smarter conversation. And once you get it going, that conversation starts bleeding out into all other areas of your business- including advertising, PR and corporate communications.

10. Ask not what tools you want to use, ask how you want to change how you talk to people. All evolutions in marketing are evolutions in language. Those who can raise the level of conversation in any market, win.

11. Start today. It’s never too late to begin a Smarter Conversation. Like I said, money or time is not the issue. Making the decision is the issue, and only you can do that.

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Hugh MacLeod is a genius.  Genius.

Seth Godin
Best Selling Author

His work acknowledges the absurdity of workaday life, while also encouraging employees to respond with passion, creativity, and non-conformity...   MacLeod’s work is undeniably an improvement over the office schlock of yore. At its best, it’s more honest, and more cognizant of the entrepreneurial psyche, while still retaining some idealism.

The New Republic
Lydia Depillis

Last year my State of the College address was 76 slides loaded with data. This year it was 14 cartoons that were substantially more memorable.

Len Schlesinger
Former President, Babson College

"There are only two daily newsletters that I look forward to opening and reading every time they show up to my inbox: Seth Godin's and gapingvoid."

Tony Hsieh
CEO, Zappos

In moments of indecision I glance at the wall [to Hugh's work] for guidance.

Brian Clark
  • Seth Godin
  • The New Republic
  • Len Schlesinger
  • Tony Hsieh
  • Brian Clark