Conversation Is the New Advertising

The past century brought massive standardization, efficiency and bureaucracy to business and the business of advertising. Huzzah! These are not necessarily bad things. If you’ve ever worked inside a giant ad machine creating traditional campaigns, you can appreciate the power of bulk, the lure of mass. It’s a beautiful antiquity.

There will, of course, continue to be times and places where iconic, one-way messaging make sense — like bringing out the fine china for a special meal. But these instances (e.g., the Super Bowl), are increasingly rare and increasingly expensive. The real challenge facing one-way, brand-centric, non-conversational advertising is its focus on making the perfect presentation. The perfection model benefitted from very limited media outlets. Advertisers essentially spent money to guarantee craft, which theoretically helped a message stand out amidst the clutter. That formula had limits. Until now, marketing tools have existed in just two dimensions — words and images — sometimes in motion, sometimes with audio, always focused in a singular direction at the consumer.

Then someone invented the Internet. And Search. Quite suddenly, brands were no longer solely in power. The audience is in control. Media fragments. Most important, words and images are joined by a third dimension — technology — and now the marketplace flows in two directions instead of one.

Conversation Is Born

Conversation doesn’t try so damn hard. This approach doesn’t require an obsessive need for expensive, time-consuming perfection that drowns out the voices of enthusiasm. Craft still matters very much. But we need a different craft-of being genuinely interested in the other side of the conversation and of being continually relevant to each conversation.

The first rule is mutual respect. Recognize the audience has a valid point of view-listen to it, maybe even spend money to promote what they have to say. Granted, the audience might not always have something to say, or be able to say it well. That’s why you still have an agency, which ought to be prompted to listen as well, and help figure out ways of keeping the conversation interesting and useful until the other party speaks up again. Conversation reveals respect. It acknowledges the responsibility and power of the other party.

Howard Gossage, legendary San Francisco ad man, promoted as much in the 1960s for brands like Eagle Shirts, Fina Gas and the Irish Whiskey Distillers Association. His print ads frequently included coupons usually designed to solicit opinion more than brute response. An ad for the Rover Motor Co. asks, “How Do You Feel About Billboards?” The coupon offers three choices:  1) I’d just as soon you didn’t advertise on billboards, 2) I have no feeling one way or the other or 3) I’d like to see you advertise on billboards. Today, Best Buy’s CMO Barry Judge is following suit by soliciting feedback through his blog on rough cuts of his brand’s national TV commercials.

If you follow the conversational approach, you honestly want to know. You actively seek feedback, and alter your work according to that response. You demonstrate you’re actually listening. And then the audience demonstrates their appreciation.

The second rule of conversation has to do with frequency. If your brand is listening, you ought to have a much better sense of your customers, especially with regards to how they’re living their lives in the digital space. So you should be able to converse with greater relevance and less repetition. After all, who likes a blabbermouth hogging the exchange?

The conversational approach to marketing should cost less money, especially in media. (Note, it should still cost money. I didn’t say “free.”) Gossage put it this way, “If [a client] presents fresh ideas that will involve his audience … he won’t have to spend so much money. This for the simple reason that he won’t have to repeat the ad any more than a newspaper has to repeat its front page [the] next day.”  How often do you need to be told something interesting?

The third rule of conversation is speed. In the previous economy, fewer media channels and focus on obsessive craft permitted slower response, slower creation. Once technology enabled our audience, the pace quickened. We can’t afford months of production to say what must be said. Conversational advertising insists on nimble, empowered teams — talented craftspeople, to be sure (especially in the soft skills of understanding context). They just need to be faster on the draw.

Focusing on conversation is, in many respects, like bringing a new practice to a foreign land. It’s not for the squeamish. Or for those who believe throwing more money towards media will solve all their problems. It’s not simple, either. Conversation exists across a broader spectrum than mere advertising. Every aspect of a corporation communicates now — from billing to human resources, shipping to governance — and the world is talking about it all. The question isn’t if, but when, your brand will join in.

Tim Brunelle is CEO of Hello Viking. He can be reached at