Lots of smart people have made compelling arguments recently for the shift from campaign to conversation thinking. We were particularly taken with this post  by Kenneth Weiss courtesy of Rick Liebling at Eyecube which clearly and neatly maps the differences between the two approaches and we very much enjoyed this RGA film talking about the importance of long term brand platforms.

Campaigns versus conversations Infographic by Kenneth J Weiss
Campaigns versus conversations Infographic by Kenneth J Weiss

We’re big fans of conversation thinking. The danger, however, is that we believe we can simply shine a spotlight on the conversation, abandon the campaign and leave consumers to it. It’s dangerous for a number of reasons:

  1. They may not be saying very much at all. Writing about launching “Brands in Public” Seth Godin observes “If your brand has any traction at all people are talking about you”. That’s partially true of course, but only partially. If you’re say a bread brand, a detergent brand or a toilet paper brand they may not be saying a lot.  As Oscar Wilde so memorably put it “The only thing worse than been talked about is not being talked about”. Or is it…
  2. In the absence of something positive to respond to, the conversation may be dominated by customer service issues or by mischief making. The Skittles experiment is a case in point where without a conversation starter from the brand the conversation is effectively high-jacked. Indeed many brand owners’ reaction to the Brands in Public initiative seems to indicate that simply letting the conversation run without interesting brand stimulus and curation is problematic for any number of brands.
  3. Our brands become the guy with no opinion-the one who responds to every question with “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Skittles' Twitter Homepage Experiment
Skittles' Twitter Homepage Experiment

It’s very easy to see the campaign as the poster child for everything that is wrong with communications today-monolithic, monomaniacal and myopic. But do any of us really want to talk to a brand with nothing to say for itself? The people I want to talk to are the ones who tell me interesting stories, make me laugh or show me something beautiful. The brands people participate with most are arguably the ones generating the most interesting material of their own. So perhaps we need to re-frame the way we think about campaigns, seeing them not as egomaniacal, one-way rants but as conversation starters and stimulators-the jokes, stories and provocations that start a conversation, keep it going, keep it interesting.

Benjamin Palmer of the Barbarian Group in an excellent-and provocative-post on the subject of brands and conversations emphasises this need to do something worth talking about:

“I can’t help but feel that while we’re in a phase where our industry is looking at social media as a new marketing platform, what we should be thinking is that it’s just the newest place our audience goes to to talk about us when we do something worth talking about”

Smart and nuanced stuff, though I’m not sure I agree 100%. There’s no question that the age of the monologue is over. The conversations between brands and their consumers happen in the open today and we either embrace that or lose all control of the dialogue. Likewise, as media platforms fragment we need to create our own platforms; brand destinations delivering ongoing utility and entertainment. As consumers become ever more empowered and expressive we will want to embrace that expressive-ness and co-create with them.

Clearly, any smart social media thinkers will find ways of managing and directing the conversation. They will understand the role of content in giving shape to conversations, they will know how to associate brands with the subjects consumers do want to talk about, they will build in simple and scaleable ways of joining a conversation. They will find ways of aggregating the conversation into something bigger and more beautiful than the sum of its parts.

But we believe campaigns also have a pivotal role to play if we want our brands to be involved in the right kinds of conversations:

  • Campaigns start conversations: Campaigns are the jokes, the chat-up lines, the anecdotes that get conversations started. Done right, they make our brands look interesting, sexy and funny-the kind of brand you want to talk back to. Campaigns bring people to platforms.
  • Campaigns refresh and expand conversations: So you’ve started a conversation. People are talking about the brand, passing around branded content, buzzing about the campaign. You’ve used that buzz to draw some people into a deeper conversation, perhaps engaging with a long-term brand platform or utility. Now you want 1. to give those people something new to talk about and 2. to draw more people into that deeper relationship.
  • Campaigns amplify conversations: You may have a hard core of loyal users who talk to you all the time. They’re fascinating individuals, they make excellent comments, they co-create some fantastic content with the brand. But they’re maybe 1% of your target audience. Campaigns can give these users and their content a much broader stage to play on.
The role of campaigns in conversation thinking
The role of campaigns in conversation thinking

Of course, to do all this we need to be designing the right kind of campaign. Campaigns that provoke, entertain and inspire, campaigns that invite participation, campaigns that are designed to move consumers from buzzing about brand content towards a richer, longer term dialogue. We need to design in social features from the outset and incentivise social spread. We need to make a Campaign’s ability to drive participation a key metric, to try more things more quickly and see what catches fire. Campaigns have long been designed to be talked about, it’s time to start designing them to be talked to.

If we think of conversations as the fire and campaigns as the fuel for those conversations, it’s pretty clear we need both. There’s no fire without a spark. There’s not much heat without fuel.