In 2000 the Cluetrain Manifesto announced that "Markets wish to talk to companies". This turned out to be a prophetic statement. Back then they already declared that markets consisted of conversations between people. They want (and can) communicate their opinions to companies. Companies that dispose of the talent to engage in a conversation with their consumers will become this century's successful marketers.
Many companies are currently struggling with the practical elaboration of this concept: how can we engage in a conversation with our consumers? Knowing which words are used by consumers to describe your market is a crucial factor. Addressing the consumer in a natural way is vital, since the consumer should under no circumstances have the impression to be talking to a large company. The consumer wants to feel like he / she is talking to a normal person, a good listener who provides specific answers, someone who asks questions and who really wishes to understand the consumer. The language used in these conversations can by no means be compared with the current communication types within a company. Advertisers are trained to write lyric texts for websites, brochures and press releases. Their language sounds official and distant. This should be avoided in a conversation with the consumer.
A conversation with a consumer should respect eight principles:
When a consumer engages in a conversation with you, you should focus on what that person has to say. A consumer can address you via different channels, such as e-mail, face-to-face, via a community... Whichever the channel a consumer chooses, when he / she decides to contact you this implies that it is important to him / her. Therefore the first thing to do is to genuinely listen, even if you get negative comments only.
2. Ask questions
In order to really understand the consumer, questions need to be asked. You may feel like counter-attacking straight away and overpowering the consumer with strong arguments, but this would only lead to the consumer getting frustrated, since the problem would not be solved. If you ask questions, the consumer will get the impression you are genuinely interested. Furthermore it will help you to understand the arguments. In each conversation with a consumer you should make sure to ask at least 5 additional open questions, such as 'What exactly do you mean by that?', 'Could you give an example?', 'How do you picture your idea exactly?'.
3. Adopt a receptive attitude
A consumer may communicate a good idea, but you immediately spot the practical difficulties for implementation. Chances are that you only half-listened to the explanation because of your experience. However a lot of opportunities come from ideas generated by the market. Be receptive to consumers' ideas.
4. Be honest
In most conversations where things went wrong between a brand and a consumer, this is the result of dishonesty on the part of the advertiser. Consumers have a knack for discovering lies told by brands, so be honest. If there is a problem with one of your products, make sure to communicate it to your consumers as quickly and as clearly as possible.
5. Be personal
Having a conversation with a consumer is something that cannot be outsourced to an advertising agency. Consumers want to talk to someone who is part of the brand, not hired by the brand. Speak in your own name as person X working for brand Y. Do not speak for brand Y, since this gives an impersonal impression.
A good conversation often leads to action. Ensure the consumers that their input will be used. Show them what the input resulted in. Make sure you implement x ideas per year that were communicated to you by consumers.
7. Thank you!
When consumers promote your brand, do not hesitate to say 'thank you' once in a while. Consumers love being acknowledged as an ambassador for their favourite brand. In other words: do not only make time for negative consumers, but collaborate with the positive ones as well.
Adopt a positive attitude at all times. Don't ever become defensive. A few weeks ago Nestlé had a disastrous conversation on their Facebook fan page, demonstrating exactly what negativism can do to one's reputation. When people talk about you (positively or negatively) this usually implies a certain level of connection with your brand. Handle it in a positive way and the dialogue will flourish.
We use these eight criteria instinctively in a good conversation with friends or colleagues. Participating in a conversation with consumers is best done the way one would talk to friends. That's what the consumer expects. It reinforces the consumer-brand relationship. These criteria are neither new nor unique, but when applied to marketing they are really innovating. Building brands together is one of the Conversation Manager's goals, and it can only be achieved by engaging in conversations with consumers.
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