Converseon’s Rob Key: “In a Social Media Powered World, ‘Brands’ Don’t Communicate, People Do”

By Matt Van Hoven 

Left to right: Rob Key, Stephanie Schwab, Paull Young and Constantin Basturea from Converseon.

“Communication is an ongoing, dynamic process between an infinite number of variables with no beginning, middle or end.” – Dr. Ken Ksobiech

Reread that quote. It’s written by Dr. Ken Ksobiech, a professor of mine from Marquette. Ksobiech used to make us read it over and over again; and it wasn’t until my third class with him (he used the quote in all of his courses) that it really began to sink in. Reread it, just one more time.

Grasping the fundamentals of that line is easier now, but translating it to the practice of communication is much more difficult. One agency that’s doing just that is the focus of today’s interview. We nabbed Rob Key, CEO and Founder of Converseon, via e-mail (thanks Paull) between speaking events (Key was at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose this week).

Click continued for the interview.

The paragraph below explains a bit about Converseon’s mantra on communication. It grasps the Ksobiech principle and takes it a stop further.

“The conversation is a rapid, ever-changing stream of blog entries, news stories, pictures, podcasts and video clips, loosely coupled through hyperlinks, and accessible on-the-spot through RSS syndication. It’s a world where everyone is a consumer and a publisher, where fact and fiction abounds and reputations are built and destroyed.”

Through Converseon, Key is working to break down the standard practices developed by advertising and PR agencies over the last century (well, that’s our take on their work anyway). With a more broadly defined, highly connected, diverse community (of people &#151 not consumers, just people), there’s a need for someone to bring them all together when they need something. Converseon gives its clients the power to connect in a meaningful way.

I asked Key questions about branding, customer service, proprietary technology, Mike Moran and more.

Matt: Converseon is taking PR/advertising to the next level, by essentially mining anything/everything that’s said about its client online and providing real-time response capabilities, right?

Key: In 2001 we started with a blank sheet of paper to design what we thought the new agency should look like, in the digital world, trying to differentiate between PR, word-of-mouth marketing, viral/advertising, and direct marketing would be (and is) a futile exercise. We knew that the new Agency of the Future would indeed be a mashup that brought together the best of those disciplines, skills and people.

Integral to what we built was a philosophical underpinning. In our view, in a social media powered world, “brands” don’t communicate; people do. People can’t strongly connect and feel kinship with a brand in the traditional sense; but they can connect with other people who make up and are behind the brand.

Matt: How does social networking effect the idea of customer service &#151 since consumers now have the capabilities to both positively and negatively impact brands on a massive scale?

Key: Online customer service is increasingly the front line for online marketing and reputation management. There needs to be a clear convergence between online marketing and customer service because, right now, for many there’s a chasm. You need to be actively listening to the online conversation for discussion about your brand, wherever it is happening, so that you can proactively and ethically engage to manage and resolve customer service issues before they take a life of their own.

This type of communications isn’t about how you talk about something but much more fundamental and important: it’s about the actual transformation of businesses themselves. The most successful organizations will be those that can harness the collective intellect and creativity of its employees, rapidly innovate by soliciting and nurturing great ideas from inside and outside the company, can quickly share information and collaborate across borders, boundaries and languages. This is the heart of social media. Social media isn’t just about communications &#151 it’s about the organization overall.

Matt: I think you just gave the definition of Google. From ClickZ &#151 “Mike Moran took up with Converseon as chief strategist. Moran is the author of ‘Do it Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules.’ He will oversee technology development and consult with clients.”

Converseon is changing the way companies interface with the consumers, and Moran is another indicator that the plan is working. How can traditional PR shops compete when you’re changing the game (by actually listening to what’s going on)? Can they hope to survive without addressing social media?

Key: One misconception that many traditional PR firms have is that digital/social media is just another channel. It’s not. It requires a pretty dramatic reorientation of thinking and approach that in many ways in diametrically opposed to more traditional “controlled” approaches. Social media is much more profound than that and real success requires being fully immersed in it because is breaks down traditional models.

With social media, we often say that some of the implementation can be relatively technically simple, but culturally quite difficult. PR firms &#151 and communications/marketing firms in general &#151 have also been hindered by their inability to truly impact organizational transformation. And for brands to be successful in social media, they do indeed need an inside-out transformation.

We also have two important dimensions that are absent at traditional agencies. First of all, we’re also a technology company and today technology is inextricably linked with communication. We can build and scale tools and technologies that companies need to harness the potential of social media. Secondly, Converseon’s Social Media Business Consulting practice uses a business consulting model to work deeply within our clients to help them transform into social media ready organizations. We utilize a seven-step process that includes governance, policy/legal issues, infrastructure, training and more. We believe that the combination of these dimensions positions us as a unique company within the social media space.

Matt: Explain CustomerResponder ™, your proprietary mining software. Namely, how it works along with your other technologies in one.

Key: CustomerResponder ™ is designed out of our Conversation Mining technology to enable customer service and reputation sensitive companies to actively listen to the ongoing conversations about their brands within the entire universe of blogs, social networks, newsgroups, microblogging platforms, etc. and proactively and ethically engage with them in a near-real time manner. The engagement platform is essentially a CRM tool for brands with effective workflow procedures, various permission levels, extensive background data on the engaged venue as well as any previous contacts and outcome, and more.

Matt: Does Converseon use its own products to manage its reputation in the blogosphere?

We do indeed. Sometimes the conversation about us is laudatory, confused, quizzical and sometimes just odd. But in all cases, it’s pretty interesting.

Check out Converseon’s Web site, here.