conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Dialogue Marketing’ Category

Must Your Story Always Be About You?

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Content today: Your story in context.

“Here’s where we show we care about what they care about,” I said. “For sure you get to tell your story. But 75-90% of the time your eye is on what your audience cares about. With social media we take off the loud salesman jacket and relax in an easy chair, ready to talk.”

For years I’ve talked with clients about teeing up conversations rather than selling copy. It’s a matter of committing to topics and copy that meets an audience need, day after day. Only my most forward-thinking clients listened without a glaze covering their eyes.

That’s changing.

One reason is organization-specific content has become a more easily-definable task. Buying content is becoming a bit more like buying advertising—though with a few key differences. You bought advertising with parameters and metrics in place: Buy your media and Bam! Targeted eyeballs and open pocketbooks follow.

At least that’s how we told the old advertising story.

Now we see that advertising model was all about interrupting, catching attention with brand hyperbole and hypnotizing dumb viewers to buy. And pronto.

Which hasn’t really worked for years.

What my clients now see is they can stay in touch with old and new and potential customers by telling what they know in a whimsical way. Not browbeating, but inviting them to think together about a shared interest. Staying in touch means many touch points along the marketing funnel, none of which are a salesman’s pointed jab. This means knowing what customers care about, what their problems are, and naming potential solutions to those problems.Marketing funnel-20160808

Creating content will seem circuitous to the hard-boiled marketing manager in her late 50s. And it is. But it isn’t. Creating content shows leadership and care as it sweeps up the concerns of our target audience and addresses them one by one, parsing out that copy over time so that we seem like we care.

And here’s the crazy thing—by creating content, we find ourselves actually caring.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Should a Doctor Blog?

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Only if they want to grow their practice. Or connect with other physicians. Or with patients. Or provide thought-leadership.

Greg Matthews, author of Missing the Forest for the Trees, has been studying the online presence of physicians for years. He’s found that the credibility of their position and the connections within that position can translate to large and devoted followings today.

But all that was counter-intuitive in 2007.

Back when Mr. Matthews was formulating his questions about physicians online.


Back then he was sure—we all were sure—that talking about health information online would never fly. It’s just too personal. What kind of nut would diagnose and prescribe in public/online?

Plus, well, HIPAA.

But some physicians found a way to talk with regular folks (that is, us non-experts who live on the web) about pressing topics. Diagnosis and prescribing on the web was a non-starter, but presenting topics in a way that made sense to regular people did happen. And as we all took to the web to sort our maladies, these authoritative, personal voices became trusted sources of information.

According to Mr. Matthews, today 61% of physicians access social media weekly, 5000 physicians post daily to blogs and Twitter, and 50 physicians are followed each by more than 500 other physicians.  Some physicians even feel “ethically obligated” to share on the web.GregMatthewsReport-10222014 Download Mr. Matthews PDF for more stats.

In this blog (conversation is an engine) we talk about conversation. We’ve noted how conversation is a two-way street: not just in words exchanged, but actually causing conversation partners to go and do different stuff. We leave our best conversations changed and with new resolve for the most important things facing us. It’s a sort of speech-act theory for anyone willing to take a dumb-sketch approach to life.

And even physicians and even patients can gain from this. And what they both gain is far more than mere information.

It makes me wonder what paths might open for collaborative conversations in lots of different work settings.


If a Customer Shouts in the Forest and No Customer Service Rep is Around to Hear it…

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Should she post a comment on Yelp?

Nancy Beiersdorf of Medtronic’s e-Commerce and global strategy hinted (in this SAP talk) at the medical device company’s evolution from a product company to a solutions and service company. One important ingredient in this new recipe will be hearing from the people with problems (people in need of a solution) and helping them solve those problems (that is, service).

But hearing from customers is not easy—even for other customers.

If you’ve ever used Yelp to locate a restaurant while traveling through a new city, you know to toss 30-50% of the comments as someone having (a) evil intent or (b) a bad day. Even our favorite national parks suffer from poor Yelp reviews:


Sorting fact from fiction has been a traditional problem with hearing from the customer. Customer service must wade through long, rabbit-trail narratives to finally get to the actionable item. That is the way of human conversation—sometimes it takes a while to get to the point. All this unquantifiable blather plays havoc with our quality systems. Surely customer service will soon chart a metric like “Time to actionable issue” and pay employees accordingly.

Hearing from customers is an inherently messy business. Especially for Medtronic: where reps once talked only with cardiologists and electrophysiologists now there will be all sorts of real people on the phone (or more likely, placing orders and comments on a web site).

All this conversation cannot help but change things upstream and downstream. In particular I expect at least two results:

  1. Increasing masses of consumer-to-company interactions will train consumers over time to use certain words and press certain buttons to get what they want. Much in the same way we are conditioned by repetition to bypass our bank’s introductions to get to a real human.
  2. Corporations may grow more sensitivity toward customer voices–the very thing Ms. Beiersdorf  advocates. By that I mean conversations have a way of working backward into the machine-gears of a corporation. As solutions and service show up more clearly on the P&L sheets, people will start to pay more attention to human interaction.

At least that is what I hope.

Let there be more advocates for the customer voice.


Image credit via Adfreak

Why Medical Device Twitter Feeds are Boring

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It’s because monologue can be enforced. Dialogue cannot.

Twitter is all about the quick, personality-laden human voice. Twitter carries truncated thoughts by design—more like a human talk—one thought at a time.

Official medical device Twitter feeds are boring because the communicators behind those feeds are trussed and bound by legal and regulatory protocols. The feeds are boring because competing lawyers have police scanner-like attention for claims that fall outside of the FDA-vetted matrix. And those feeds are also boring because many of us are not in chronic pain, or worried about going through airport security with a defibrillator or insulin pump or mechanical heart valve. If we were, we might get those medical device tweets instantly on our smartphones and find them very interesting indeed.

I’m glad those tweets are boring. I hope they continue to bore many of us because we don’t need the product.

How could medical device tweets be more interesting? Clearly the human voice must be involved. When Omar Ishrak tweets (@MedtronicCEO), the tweets are at times more personal, like when his daughter runs a marathon:


But generally medical device tweets lack the sound of the human voice. They tend to sound like monologue-rich press releases:


Some companies don’t even try:



Ok: SJM does tweet over here:

Granted, medical device firms will never sass it up like DiGiorno pizza


But surely as we move forward into deepening inter-connections between professionals and regular humans, every company must find a way to sound human or risk not being heard.

Maybe that means special release from the legal/regulatory straightjackets for certain chatty employee/storytellers. Let them tell their stories in ways that are unique to them while continually repeating “My Opinion Only.” Can medical device firms institute official unofficial-storytellers? People who claim nothing but that they work at the place and this is what they see?

That might result in fun tweets that gather an audience and endear a company to a larger public.

The era of siloed communication is fading quickly in the rear-view mirror.


Neville Brody: Making Space on a Page to Think

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In the advertising business, it’s not in the interest of advertisers for people to think about what they’re presented with. It’s in the interest of advertisers that people choose to think in the way the advertisers intend them to. It’s a formulaic thing, where there’s only one possible outcome in advertising. That creates a space where the “right to thought” is taken away from people.

I’ve always tried to approach my work as being open-ended and with a degree of abstraction or ambiguity. This prevents it from being a monologue, because it is a dialogue. The work is only completed when a viewer has looked at it and made his or her own decision as to the full meaning of the piece.

Neville Brody


From Debbie Millman’s, How To Think like a Great Graphic Designer (NY: Allworth Press, 2007) 72-3

Written by kirkistan

June 20, 2014 at 5:00 am

Please Read Dave Eggers: The Circle

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In a world where everyone sees everything…

If you’ve ever wondered where complete transparency might lead—as I have—consider reading Dave Eggers’ excellent novel The Circle.

Don't worry--no one's watching.

Don’t worry–no one’s watching.

Mr. Eggers has created a very comfortable world (for some) of deep collaboration, where everything is provided to those lucky enough to work for the Circle. The Circle, the corporation at the center of the story, looks more than a bit like our most celebrated high-tech companies brimming with smarts, cash and outsized ambition. Think Google or Apple or what Microsoft once was—and then add in a cast of characters each with an overweening and boundary-less high EQ—and you’ve got a world that is totally supportive—as long as you move in the same direction. The novel traces the story of Mae Holland as she “zings” (tweets) and “smiles” (likes) her way from outsider to the inner circle.05212014-TheCircle-9780345807298_p0_v2_s260x420

The story gets uncomfortable at times, especially when it shows the intent behind the use of social media and the social pressures applied. Especially when you start to recognize product placement on a very, very personal level.

Mr. Eggers has me rethinking my eagerness for employees up and down the corporate ladder to use their outside voice. I’ve been advocating, among my clients and when teaching Social Media Marketing, that helping employees reveal their work to interested outsiders is a move toward a new kind of marketing that looks less like selling and more like a conversation among interested parties. I still think that is a good move, but Mr. Eggers has explored the boundaries of that notion, and it is a bit, well, totalitarian.

I will consider using The Circle as a supplemental text for my next class on Social Media marketing. Well-written and consistently engaging, Mr. Eggers’ book is well worth your time.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston, just before a recitation of photography rules within a non-public spaceWatching-3-05212014

Brands: Still (Always?) Incidental to Life

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Bit of truth from Martin Weigel, Wieden+Kennedy, Amsterdam

We all know this, of course.


Via the Sell! Sell! Blog

Written by kirkistan

May 6, 2014 at 7:56 am

Collaborate is the New Black

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Listening looks good on you

Work often looks like a flavor-of-the-month shop. Depending on which consultants get the ear of those with a budget for adjusting corporate culture, we could be talking about mindfulness, or total quality commitment or getting the right people on the bus—there is no end to the analogies and training seminars and tightly-packed sessions to buy.

Always these programs promise change. Sometimes they deliver.

Here's why you should care.

Here’s why you should care.

But the constant impetus behind these attempts is employee engagement. The days of just showing up to stand on an assembly line or sit in a cubicle are long gone. Putting in hours is not enough—was it ever enough?

Engagement is tricky, of course. Employees work with BS filters set on high, which is why suggestion boxes rarely worked. Everyone knew putting a well-reasoned argument on a slip of paper and dropping it in a box went exactly nowhere.

No—the will to listen, which is near the heart of collaboration—must come from within rather than without. There must be a kernel of mission that speaks to listening to the good people you’ve brought in. The trick is to find that kernel. Engaged employees have done that work, usually on their own time.

I’m excited about a particular client of mine with a compelling, collaborative mission. They’ve invested millions in a particular process that is doing something brand new in the world. My client is lining up eager collaborators from industry and from academia. They are just now setting up systems to deepen their collaboration with researchers across the globe.

But how far are they willing to go with collaboration?

Working and learning together is the stated center of their mission—and this organization lives it out in countless ways. But are they willing to make messages that reach out and pull people in—even with ongoing research? Are they willing to set themselves apart as leaders willing to share knowledge in endlessly accessible research bites that are media and social media ready? After all, my client is partnering with an industry known for its secrecy, so what will collaboration and the inevitable transparency look like with these steely customers?

All that remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain: the will and gifts and curiosity of engaged, collaborative partners and employees is the only thing that will help this move forward.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

April 7, 2014 at 9:37 am

Dialogue 2.0: Can a Marketer Game a Conversation?

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Yes. But maybe no?

Lots of us try to figure how to turn a conversation to our advantage.

Marketers increasingly slip us information just when we want it, like Google giving directions to the donut place on the way to my next meeting.

Bad Google.

Carefully observe, one must.

Carefully observe, one must.

Carl Griffith, writing over at ClickZ, wants marketing websites to recognize and reengage with returning customers via their behind the scenes content management system. He wants websites to engage in dialogue like people do: no need for reintroductions. We know you—you know us—where did we leave off last time? Cookies help this happen, of course. Amazon is an example of picking up where you left off and adding suggestions for more purchasing joy. That is likely where all web properties are headed.

Mr. Griffith goes further: what if we programmed into our content management systems a way to pick up on non-verbals? He means those signals that pass between animate conversation partners (I wrote human first and then remembered how much non-verbal information dogs pick up): the open or closed hands, the orientation of shoulders or head toward or away from the speaker, the eye contact (or lack thereof)—all these bring depth and context to our conversations. That depth and context adds to the words exchanged or belies the words exchanged. Listen to Mr. Griffith:

You will be familiar with the throw-away lines in everyday conversations around the importance of non-verbal communication and what we have now in the world of digital are ways of understanding the more silent and less obvious conversations and dialogue we now have with our consumers driven by context and the insights we should derive from the sum of interaction and engagement.

As a consumer—or for anyone increasingly wary of how our own national security apparatus listens in at will—it’s easy to read sinister overtones into these marketing improvements. Marketers will want to be wary of any resemblance to the NSA, although all the players are starting to look like classmates from the same surveillance school.

But in a human conversation, we start to get the sense of when our partner is yanking our chain—or outright manipulating facts and/or lying. And we back away. Quickly. Perhaps the computer programs that touch our web conversations will go the way of 30 second TV spots—a chance for us to cognitively check-out because we know we’re being sold something.

Mr. Griffith’ vision of dialogue 2.0 is starting to sound like a return to monologue, only in shorter bits and micro-fitted and shoehorned into seemingly ordinary conversations.

Caveat emptor.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston (Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life)

Written by kirkistan

April 3, 2014 at 9:32 am

What is Your Purpose with Your People?

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Can You Articulate Your “Why?” and “What for?”03042014-URBimp2

I’ve been gushing over Improv Wisdom lately, this 2005 book by Patricia Ryan Madson. I’m thinking of buying a number of copies to give away and wondering how I can incorporate it as a supplemental text in my next classes. The book is easy to read, memorable and full of actionable wisdom all directed at staying in the moment and building something with others. Ms. Madson—a drama professor at Stanford, improv maniac, eager collaborator and kind-hearted encourager—brings a lot of life to how we can work with others. Now I find myself ordering the primary source texts cited by Ms. Madson.

Ms. Madson has been kind enough to respond to my tweeted epiphanies when reading her book. I am impressed by the longevity and timeliness of certain ideas. Ms. Madson’s 2005 book will likely be relevant for a long, long time.

As I finish with my Social Media Marketing class, I’m reading reflections from the students. One near universal regret was not having a clearer sense of their purposes for the communities they were trying to create. We spent focused time on this early on in the class, but forming a crystal clear picture of what we want to accomplish with others is neither easily understood nor often practiced. I know this from the number of companies I’ve been in that operated every day without a clear sense of what they were trying to do with their audiences.

Students resist the tightly-formed purpose and the close definition of their audience because it feels so restrictive. It just feels easier to write anything for everyone. At least that’s how the class always starts. But at the end of the class, there are multiple confessions about how the tight purpose and close definition actually freed them to say much, much more to their target audience. This experience fits with a bit of improv wisdom Ms. Madson offered:02262014-Cover-burgundy

Rather than asking “What do I feel like doing?” when a free moment arises, instead ask “What is my purpose?

I love this question for my class and I love this question personally. The question presupposes I have a purpose and assumes I know that purpose. The question assumes I am conversant with my purpose and assumes I am in the habit of articulating it to myself and others.

All these presuppositions and assumptions are worth pursuing. Going back to our purpose again and again sounds like bearing fruit over a lifetime.

And this: Patricia Ryan Madson should write more books.


Image credit: imgur

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