The Conversation and The Message

There’s a fair amount of buzz surrounding David Armano’s piece for BusinessWeek, “It’s the Conversation Economy, Stupid” (Link). I believe a fair amount of the buzz is coming from BW’s hypemeister, Bruce Nussbaum (it’s good to be MSM). Not that Armano’s piece is bad. In my opinion, however, it misses what I believe to be a larger truth. A truth that even Nussbaum probably has trouble acknowledging; as I believe is evidenced by how he deals with the “conversation” on his pseudo-blog.

Reading Armano’s words (and especially the headline), I can’t help but puzzle over how it is that, as he suggests, the business community is so clueless about what’s going on in the world. Thinking about it, one wonders if perhaps… just perhaps… the business world already knows about these things. Give them a little credit for turning on the news and hearing about MySpace; for hearing about the legal battles surrounding YouTube and understanding what it is and the impact it has on Big Media (after all, even little old ladies know what YouTube is). Give them credit for knowing about Facebook and IM and photo-sharing sites like Flickr. My non-techie, social worker sister uses some of those and she’s not especially connected.

Why should we assume that BusinessWeek’s audience is clueless about what’s happening around them; that they need a designer to tell them “It’s the conversation economy, stupid”? Maybe they’re not ignorant at all.

Has it occurred to Armano and Nussbaum, that the business world just doesn’t want a conversation?

I’ve worked with senior business people who have openly expressed their less-than-charitable opinions of those who buy their products. These people climb the corporate ladder expecting – demanding – to find a golden parachute and a corporate jet waiting for them at the top… before they’re 40. They’re people who manage labor by entering numbers on a spread sheet… and then hopping into their new Beemer to stop by the country club for coctails.

Why would these kinds of people rush into conversation with those they consider beneath them? They’ll ignore co-workers in their own organization, so is it a stretch to believe they’ll ignore the hoi polloi? Not to me.

Armano may be talking about Conversation, but I think the bigger take away is the Message. Not the contrived one, but the one that comes in on other channels. Subliminal stuff. Because in the end Business can converse with the People all it wants, but if the Message – the unspoken Message – is insincere and condescending, they’d have done better to have kept their mouths shut. I have a feeling some in the business world realize this.

{By the way, I forgot to mention something that struck me while reading Nussbaum’s comments (Link) regarding Armano’s piece. This is the line that caught my attention:

Personally, I don’t think we need a special code of civility online–we just need to follow society’s general code of civility. Alas many people don’t (especially when they are posting autonomously).

The definition of autonomous is: “undertaken or carried on without outside control“. Funny that Nussbaum laments the lack of control… because control is the very issue in play, isn’t it?

Who defines “civility”? The country club crowd? or the hoi polloi?

I wonder. Did Nussbaum slip? was that supposed to be “anonymously”? Food for conversation.}

4 thoughts on “The Conversation and The Message

  1. Good thoughts, I can understand how the article could come across as pointing out that the business world is clueless, but that’s not the case. The headline is meant to play off Carville’s famous line as an attempt to capture attention.

    Once I had that attention, I focused my message around the fact that many brands are stumbling in the space because the people making crtical decisions are often the same ones who DO NOT PARTICIPATE. You have a blog. You’ve invested time and effort in this space and understand how it works. Can you say the same thing about your peers?

    To your point about the quality and sincerity of messages: I once went to a conference where a senior executive was dismissing the power of Tivo saying that the quality of 30 second spots could actually change people’s behavior. Translation: if Ads were good enough, people would watch them.

    This was three years ago. I wonder what he thinks no. Plus, throw in the fact that most messaging is just bad. And also insincere.

    I understand being skeptical. When certain words get used like “conversation”—our first reaction is to roll our eyes. But who’s really doing this well?

    I singled out Dell, because I’ve seen a major investment in this area. They are trying and learning and not giving up. I’d say that’s a good start.

    I’ve learned a tremendous amount through blogging. It’s changed how I think. I think the businesses and brands that venture into these spaces and learn and don’t give up—will also be transformed. That’s my theory anyway. I could be wrong.

  2. I’m aware that you’re playing on an old campaign slogan. But along with the attention, you’ve also captured the implications. Carville’s phrase carried more meaning than just those words. Recall the campaign trail scene of the senior Bush pretending to be a “regular guy” while shopping. He didn’t perceive the economy the way average people do, and neither do most company senior executives. And pretense can backfire.

    You said it: they want “people talking about their brands”. That doesn’t mean they want to actually engage them in that discussion. Among other things, these people (through the companies with which they’re associated) aren’t likely to be interested in conceding control; real or perceived. And a lack of sincerity on their part would probably just filter through, so they’re arguably better off keeping their mouths shut {or repeating the stale old “bad” messages that people mostly just ignore}.

    I think we’re verging on painting the “non-conversationalists” with too broad a brush by suggesting they’re “stupid”, as in unaware of the Conversation. Some are plenty smart. Smart enough to not remind most of us just how wide the gap is between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” by engaging us in conversations that have little intent beyond selling us something.

  3. Interesting discussion. I did not really get into the David’s article cos it hurt my head as it introduces nothing realy new here, and Bruce’s discussion seem to me went totally off point.

    It think personally my feeling here is companies here are having problems understanding the new media and communities. They are trying to wrap their business around these “conversations” when in reality these “conversations” are a means to an end.

    The long tail, crowdsourcing, blogging, myspace, are just paths, or tactical aspects of a business. At the end of the day its the product (tangiable and intangiable) that is vital to the sucesses of the company.

  4. when in reality these “conversations” are a means to an end.

    And that’s where I’m willing to give many in the business world some credit. I think many of them already realize that

    a) they don’t have much in common with the “average Joe” consumer – which is really what using a version of that quote for a headline is about imo; disconnection from the mainstream.

    b) if they engage in a “conversation” that will by its nature be insincere because of this disconnect, they’re better off not talking at all. (Note: just on television it’s mentioned that the average CEO – in U.S., I assume – makes 36o x’s the wage of the average worker).

    In the end, for those in business who don’t give a damn about the people who buy their stuff (and there are plenty), letting good product do the talking is a viable solution.

    So if they can just provide a means for endusers to have their own conversations and provide competitive products in the market, they arguably may not need to change their behavior and actually engage consumers at all.

    I’m not saying I think it’s a great approach that will succeed in the long term, just an approach I’d expect from some smart but also arrogant and privileged people.

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