Why Some Don’t Need to Join the Conversation

I find the colloquialism “You must join the conversation” a tired phrase legacy of 2006. It’s overused, oversold, thrown around and just not accurate.

Many of the blogging authors are my friends, or I even work with them, so before I offend anyone, let me first preface with some context. When I think of online conversations, I think of real world ones, where people are engaging in dialog to and fro. For example: Typing conversations in messages forums, on twitter, on plurk, writing a blog post, leaving comments on blogs, or even friendfeed.

Before we get too wrapped up in “joining the conversation” it’s important to first note that not everyone is creating content and leaving comments. In fact, we’ve published public data to prove this. See this profile tool, select a demographic and pay attention to the conversational behaviors we identify as creators (creating blogs, upload video or images), and critics. (rate and rank content or leave comments). Learn more about the different behaviors by reading this 8 slide presentation.

To prove my point, let’s start with data: In most markets, (even youth) there are no bars that span 100% for creators. In fact, 18-24 year olds in United States only are creators 39% of the time. 45-54 year olds in UK only create online content a paltry 6%, although they are critics 11% of the time.

So what does this tell us? Not everyone is part of the online dialog exchange. Not everyone will ever be part of the online conversation.

On the flip side, I can influence my marketplace by not being part of the conversation. How? I can vote for content on Digg, tag content on Delicious, share feeds from Google reader, all of which flows into my Friendfeed where there are almost 2000 influencers reading. For my marketplace of web strategists and interactive marketers, that wouldn’t be the best use of my time, I can get more mileage by being a creator. The point is, I’ve the luxury of making that decision based upon my understanding of my community.

Now this is not a suggestion that brands shouldn’t do anything, but in fact, they should first look at the social behaviors of their marketplace, and then choose the right activities to engage in. It’s important to note that “Joining the conversation” is but one way to engage.

Therefore, we should first take into account that people use the web in many different ways (some are non-conversational) and before we anoint our entire communication strategy to be purely conversational, let’s first do some self –and community — analysis. As sometimes, the greatest behavior in a community isn’t conversations, it’s ratings, rankings, gestures, link sharing, profile creation, connecting, or just reading.

  • Hi Jeremiah.
    Completely agree. Participation is just a click away!
    But I also think its worth noting the distinction between two types of things that get labelled ‘communities’:
    UGC-powered broadcast models (such as youtube, where 1% are creating and 99% are consuming) and Total Communities (where to take part you have to create part – secondlife, twitter, facebook etc)
    In the latter I’d suggest its more critical than the other to take part in the conversation.

  • Hi Jeremiah – great post, have literally just written something along the same lines about the over quoted 90-9-1 rule and whether it still applies. http://is.gd/Q5b

  • Let’s take this a step further – companies CAN’T join a conversation – only people can. Unless you decide to have your mascot come to life.

  • You know it’s tech talk when something can be labeled passe by being called “2006”! I agree with David in that some communities it’s vital to “create” in the conversation to truly be a part. People on twitter who don’t engage and share and respond don’t have large communities (with the exception of the “greats”) and just having a page on facebook or LinkedIn doesn’t really constitute being a part of the community. However, you’re completely right when it comes to blogs – commenting isn’t necessarily king. Sharing can be extremely powerful.

    Thanks for the thoughts on this!

  • Thank you, Pete. People aren’t so interested in the opinion or comment from a company anymore. People want to engage people in conversation or, to Jeremiah’s point, other passive communication channels.

  • Some really good points. Just because the web is read/write doesn’t mean everyone will/should do both. You are right, the conversational aspect of social media is just one method, and the company/organization needs to decide whether or not that method is the best way to reach their goals.

  • Hi Jeremiah, Excellent points.I wonder whether you/Forrester have any research on the effectiveness of site or page survey elements. You know, those site surveys that ask you to rate your experience or the “Rate/Comment on this page” elements? These are trench-level things for many of my clients whose own customers may not engage frequently on FF, twt, FB, even Digg. Are these survey items effective? Would love your perspective.

  • Great post Jeremiah! It’s good to step back from what we are immersed in and realize that this is not the way many/most people are using the Internet.
    A company’s communications strategy should reflect that fact. But, and this has been said before, ALL companies need to LISTEN to customers, critics, employees and whoever else is in any way involved with their services/products.
    That’s really a vital part of a communications strategy that was never available before so the opportunity should not be ignored.

  • Excellent points, and ones we have to consider when developing communities. I’ve encountered some who seem to quest this Holy Grail of a self sustaining community where we build something so wonderful, so inspiring, that everyone across the globe will come to us and discuss freely amongst themselves at great and profound length.

    Not going to happen, but doesn’t mean we still can’t have a healthy, valuable community where good conversations happen.

  • The takeaway here is to examine each platform and piece of advice to see how it fits into your online strategy. Of course, that means you must first have an online strategy, including a vision and specific goals. If more people approached social media with a plan, they’d answer a lot of their own questions, including “is (fill in the blank) a waste of time?”

  • Glad you put this out there, Jeremiah. I certainly don’t feel the need to engage every piece of content I come across, nor would it be possible to. The key, I think, is just to have the option to comment, share, etc. available on everything, even if folks don’t always use those tools. That’s really empowering the consumer.

  • Good reminder Jeremiah. ‘Join the conversation’ is certainly the latest rage and even though we see more people at companies stepping up to the plate to do so, that represents just a fraction of what social media is really all about.

  • Not all communication has to be original content.

    Tagging, voting, sharing and pulling it all into your friendfeed for toehrs to see is in itself a form of communication. You’re telling others what you like, think, feel, support.

    You did not write it, but what you did with it tells a story. Is that not being a part of the conversation?

  • Jeremiah,

    I respectfully disagree.

    You are correct in your assertion that not everyone in a brand’s target audience is a content creator. Only 39% of 18-24 year olds in the United States are content creators, but who does the other 61% listen to?

    Conversations aren’t just about back-and-forth dialogue when they take place online. There is also a ripple effect. The people using the web in a non-conversational way are still recipients of the content created by the small minority of influencers. That is, after all, what makes them influencers.

    More people read Digg than contribute to it, just as more people read the Huffington Post than write for it. Being part of the conversation with the influencers is how you reach the passive consumers of content.

    Not everyone needs to join the conversation, true – but only if you have nothing to say! If there is a trend towards more conversation across the board, a market that is trailing the trend is the perfect place to “start” the conversation.

    Being a part of the conversation and influencing the marketplace in non-conversational ways are not mutually exclusive. For instance, you should vote on Digg on top of your other efforts.

    Then again, I would suggest that feeding your activities into Friendfeed is conversational activity, and the reason you have 2000 subscribers is because of your long-term and consistent contribution to the conversation.

    Of course, you are warning against shifting an entire communication strategy to the conversation, and here you are clearly right. But I don’t agree with the skeptical view of the conversation’s impact as an additional strategy for every brand.

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  • Christopher Coulter

    It;s mostly a passive medium, research, informational seeking, news reading/gathering, shopping. People don’t have the time, nor see such as a valuable investment. Focusing all efforts on the “community” or the “conversation” and you will miss a majority of the audience, the best ways to reach the passive audience, is to have tons of knowledge base-like white-paper content and tons of it, let the web be your support/advertising site of sorts, and it must be well organized, topical and indexed/searchable, as no one likes to wade through endless conversational forums to find something. Conversations can be valuable, or they can be YouTube-like pointless, on the whole, they usually aren’t much help, 20 million options on a yes or no answer. If companies just go “will it play in Peoria” and stop listening to all most of the Bay Area muddle everything will be fine.

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  • Seth Gray

    I totally agree. But what about joining the conversation in a more traditional sense, rather than just online, etc? Or the idea of “conversation” as a framework for strategy or tactics? If the trend of more informal-style communication continues its march to ubiquity, and if it makes sense for your market/brand/product, what about just changing the brand voice to be more conversational?

  • It’s worth noting that even if the majority of a brand’s target audience isn’t participating in one or more “online conversation” (however this is defined), they may well be influenced by it, in both subtle and obvious ways.

    Some examples:
    1. younger supporters of Obama influenced their parents and others who were not explicitly participating in online discussions;
    2. an online discussion about an adverse drug event can quickly get communicated offline (or into mainstream media); and
    3. a strong box office performance due to early online buzz will typically positively influence *total* film revenues

  • I certainly wouldn’t have entered the conversation, as far as blogging goes, if it weren’t for a couple interesting people dragging me into it. I do enjoy it more now than I did then, but am certainly doing it less.

    I do agree that just reading places you in the conversation, whether you contribute to it or not, just as listening to someone in a crowd of people places you in the conversation.

    There’s also no way to track how many conversations that happen offline, such as when you talk to your techie buddies, or political buddies, etc, because of blog posts such as this. Some people join it one way, etc, etc.

  • This absolutely reflects what I’ve been hearing. Companies definitely have pain points where they want to find out where attention is being spent and how. Spending their own attention “conversing” is not necessary the first priority. (Kudos, though, to them for recognizing that you need to know what’s going on and where before attempting to jump in and respond to it…)

    Part of what we’re always striving to remember, too, is that our social media circles are a microcosm. Not everyone is that engaged. Not everyone even knows half these tools exist. Which is why in the long run one of our main goals has to be seamlessness and utility to the mainstream user. Techies are only so big a group ultimately.

    Many thanks especially for that final paragraph — “ratings, rankings, gestures, link sharing, profile creation, connecting, or just reading”. Very cool to see such high profile validation of exactly what we’re working on providing. 🙂

  • “Join THE Conversation” – the most wrong part of this statement is and always has been the “the” – as through there’s one door for entry, one primary conversation. We’re all in the restaurant now for the most part and some talk, some listen, and some just read their book or watch the TV in the corner.

    Take music for example: we’ve fractured into dozens of self-sustaining niches that don’t have to interact. Often people will consider those who do not follow Pitchfork to be somehow out of touch– but if your favorite music is Bluegrass, why would you?

    The medium of the online landscape is no longer a special haven and the more people treat it as such risk being drowned in an increasingly small pool of exclusivity. I’ve noticed that many bloggers and Twitterers I used to think were somehow tech prophets start sounding more and more like Trekkies arguing over something in Klingon at a convention.

    Nicely made points and for the most part I agree.


  • ian

    I think you’re way, way oversimplifying ‘conversation’ in the context of online marketing.

    Of course, I’m biased.

    ‘Conversation’, to me, is any two-way interaction. When I originally started using the phrase in 2000 or so, I thought of using analytics to observe how folks interact with your site and adjusting accordingly.

    Since then, every two-bit blogger on the planet who needed a catchphrase added ‘conversation’ and called it a day.

    The internet is completely unique in that ANY interaction can be two-way, inasmuch as site owners can observe how folks respond to their message.

    THAT’s why it’s a conversation.

  • FaVRM

    Check out out summize for responses please.

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  • Tweeted this too
    @jowyang 2 us joining the conversation is “so 2006”-but most corps are just now figuring it out.We have to guide & not criticize………… @jowyang not criticize those just now getting it. if we talk over their heads, they will shut the door & then we are out of jobs-not cool.

  • Jen

    I’m not criticizing corporations that are using social media. Read the post carefully, it’s about using the right verb (like talking) for the right community.

    If you’re out of a job because a company is not using social media, that’s a very different blog post 😉

  • Andrew

    Let’s not forget that a lot of what motivates people to “join the conversation” in the first place is self-promotion. Each person who has commented thus far has included a link to their own website or posted links within their comments in the hopes drawing us away from here. How is “hey, I wrote about this on my own blog come check it out at…” joining the conversation? Imagine how this would come across in an actual face to face communication: “Hey Jeremiah I like what you said, but let me steal your audience for a second…”

  • Hilarious. Call it universal co-naturality or something, but I spent some of today writing a draft article “Joining in on the social media conversation”. And I hadn’t even made my daily visit here until just now… think I’m starting to get that PSS feed (psychic syndication).

    Anyway, good points as always. Worth some thought.

  • Bob Duffy

    I agree in part. I think you are mixing the value of social media as a medium vs the value as a tool. As a medium you have it right, only a small percentage even among active groups participate in the conversation. Also the largest beneft of the conversation is to those who are consuming it compared to those participating.

    Where I differ is with marketers who are trying to adopt social media practices. I don’t believe an organization voting Diggs or rating content is a effective brand strategy. I believe you should participate and be responsive to the conversation to truly embrace social media.

  • A cousin to this is the opinion. I’m finding I’m going back to more traditional media from time to time when I can’t handle the blog trend of having to put .02 in. Either report the news or write op-ed. Otherwise, I’ll just grab a paper.

    (And enough with the ‘Why X will Fail’ posts, heh)

    Great points all around.

  • It isn’t so much “participating” in the conversation as it is that companies should be LISTENING to them.

    I just got home from watching a consumer focus group. Think about the wealth of ideas we gain, as marketers, by just stopping to listen to what REAL PEOPLE are saying about our products and services. And we do this, by spending money to gather our “target audience” in a room with a mirrored window and video camera so that we can tune in to what our customers want from us. (very controlled, and NOT lifelike setting)

    Yet our customers, *very rapidly*, are having those same conversations in public forums where we can listen and learn. Missed opportunity if we don’t, IMHO.

  • Hi Jeremiah,

    A great post – I use a different turn of phrase. To get credibility you have to enable and host the conversation. So give users and consumers something valuable, without intruding on their space and engaging in the hard sell.

    You have to join the conversation? Most consumers don’t really want to ‘talk’ to a brand while on Facebook et al (they might though when giving product feedback).

    Sadly a lot of brands and agencies still plough ahead with widgetery regardless.

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  • Jeremiah, I disagree
    When it comes to marketers, most do need to join in the conversation – and quickly. Even if few people are creating written content, consumers are talking about companies, about brands, about how they feel about those brands. They are influencing peers and friends in forums, via video, on blogs, on social sites and more. Marketers need to be listening and participating with two-way conversation. A focus group is not a conversation. it’s a controlled situation whereby controlled questions are asked and predictable answers are received in response. I think Social Media has presented great opportunities for Marketers to listen to what their consumers (and protential consumers) are saying about them and to them.

    Users are ignoring the corporate speak and the PR, as well as the advertising and if companies don’t join in and play, relying on the strength of their brand etc, they may find themselves becoming irrelevant.

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