Dear Robert
Scarlet Guy, my 7 year old, recently did a school project where she had to research a notable Canadian. Being a rabid book-lover, she chose Robert Munsch, the author of many of her favourite stories. She found Munsch’s website and eagerly composed a little message telling him about her project. Within a day, she received an email response. From Robert Munsch (or at least a reasonable facsimile). The joy was palpable.
Earlier this year, she read several Judy Blume books and went to Blume’s site, eager to share her enjoyment. Same thing. Within a day or 2, Judy Blume herself, the GREAT Judy Blume, sent her a personal response thanking her for her comments.
And her tweets to former Toronto Mayor David Miller? He responded almost instantly, although her suggestion of a dedicated Dog’s Day in Toronto might not make the agenda of any council meetings.

Scarlet will never forget these meaningful digital encounters.

I think it’s fair to say that the personal effort made by these “brands” have consolidated Scarlet as a loyal fan and customer. Another thing has happened – she now has no doubt that if she reaches out, she will be heard and responded to.

I’ve waited weeks for a response from certain service providers. I’ve joined so called “communities”, and never heard from the moderator or any representative of the company. I have seen a lot of “join our community” calls to action, which only result in frequent spammy marketing emails. Community can be defined in a lot of ways, but the prospect of joining one is not made enticing with junk mail. My faith, one could say, is shaky.

Companies like Starbucks, Dell, Scholastic, Zappos, and FlipVideo differentiate themselves by being present in the communities they foster. They build trust. They breed loyalty. And they do it out in the open.
Many companies make excuses like “nobody has time for that”, or “we can’t have these conversations in public”, or “our audience isn’t online.” Closing the door on providing service out in the open looks like you have something to hide. Showing that you’re responsive, and that you understand that social networks and the online medium are important to customers is a win-win. And yes, someone needs to manage it. Someone who is an effective communicator and cares about customer service. And someone who enjoys being online and interacting in the digital space. I bet there’s someone who’d relish the opportunity. Can you find them and empower them?
In our web development practice, we regularly consult forums and discussion boards. Response and sharing is de riguer. It’s a very give and give back community, and we have formed amazing relationships through this network of shared contribution. The thing is, these faithful responders aren’t company reps. They’re human beings with a belief in the sharing economy. They likely rate highly on any social technographics measurement. They provide an excellent example of how relationships with brands could be, if brands weren’t so concerned with building the numbers of their email list.
I invite you to conduct your own research. Fill in a contact form with a positive comment and see what happens. Search for your chosen service provider on Facebook. Send them a tweet. Is anybody out there?

My Tuesday morning round-up of the best of my Tweetdeck turned up a real gem – a revised Ladder of Engagement and subsequent post from the good folks at Forrester (and authors of the seminal lime green tome Groundswell).

Bernoff, Li and company first introduced the concept of a ladder in 2006 to illustrate the emerging “science” of social technographics. Social technographics work much like traditional demographics – it’s about attempting to create profiles of people’s online interactions and assign “rungs” to levels of behaviour, or levels of interaction. Social Technographics can be used to generate insights, to test technologies, and to measure interactions. The 2006 version of the Ladder of Engagement included the following categories, or levels of online participation (from top to bottom):

  • Creators – content generators who maintain a website, write a blog, create videos, podcast etc.
  • Critics – participate in rating/reviewing products, contribute to forums, comment on blogs, wikis etc
  • Collectors – use RSS to “collect” content, bookmark and tag content (like photos), use aggregators such as Google Reader, Netvibes or StumbleUpon (among a zillion others)
  • Joiners – register for social networking sites
  • Spectators – read, watch, and listen but don’t contribute much to the conversation (although they are present)
  • Inactives – none of the above

The ladder is an useful image, since people climb up and down the rungs depending on their motivation to interact, their comfort level with new technologies, and most importantly, their level of engagement. They also shift as our world gets a little more digital, and more brands hop on the social media bandwagon.

Today’s revised ladder includes an important new rung, or category of online participation. The Conversationalist lands just under the Creators, and according to Forrester Research, accounts for 33% of online behaviour. Over half of these are Chatty Cathy’s rather than Chatty Chads, and over two-thirds are over 30. The Conversationalist actively participates in social networking, and updates his or her status at least weekly. Conversationalists are the real users of Facebook (and the reason, we can assume, behind many of the interface changes since its’ launch), and those who Tweet. It’s content, but it isn’t quite Creator content. Although I do have a few Facebook friends whose droll and witty status updates should really be published in a coffee table book of snark.

I started to think about what engages the conversationalist. Why do these prolific status-ticians (made that one up) take the time to use their chosen social platforms? Why do they retweet, but not take the next step into the creator behaviours mentioned above? What does the emergence of the conversationalist mean for brands? The Facebook update, no matter how well thought out, isn’t the same as a meaningful exchange between between a company or organization and its’ customers or clients. On Facebook, the conversations happen between people who have, in whatever level of reality, a human connection. And it’s so easy to take it further, to like or comment on someone else’s life. Tweeters tweet to their followers because someone out there is listening, and someone might respond, or connect based on shared interests. We were all pretty pleased to see Jeff Bridges win a Golden Globe. We were pretty disgusted with our Prime Minister’s recent display of arrogance.

But I digress (see how easy that was?)…..

The intrinsic need to connect paired with an intuitive, “safe”, and personal platform for doing so means that conversationalists can converse without the marketing noize of the internetz. “I ignore the ads, I only read the status updates.”

What’s a wallflower brand to do? Here are some questions to ask:

  • Does your brand successfully replicate the human connection that conversationalists seek? Are there humans at your brand? Or Muppets, at least?
  • What steps can you take to create relationships so that conversationalists draw value from your interactions?
  • Are you listening, but not conversing? (see figure 1)

I’m really hoping for feedback on this one. And now, I’m off to scroll through Facebook to see if anyone has anything droll and witty to say.


The full report is ready for download. So are other local government action resources.