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OPEN for Discussion: Can Off-Topic Conversations Help Your Brand?

Curious about how off-topic conversations can build your brand, rather than break it down? Here's how to dive in without fear.
Columnist, American Express OPEN
June 19, 2015

You’re striving to be a leader in your field. An authority. You crave for your brand to be the go-to for must-have information. The mere thought of going off-topic scares you.

What will your audience think? More importantly, will they think less of you?

To discuss the topic of off-topic brand conversations, OPEN Forum reached out to Ian Altman, author and business growth consultant at Grow My Revenue; and Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder and CMO of IdealSpot, to explore the intricacies of off-topic conversations and their place in a smart brand’s marketing strategy.

What myths would you personally like to dispel about brands that go off-topic?

Bryan Eisenberg: So many experts will tell you that you have to stick to your business theme and that going off-topic will turn off your customers. These so-called best practices hold brands back from experimenting, being human and connecting with their community. It doesn't matter if you're part of the Fortune 500 or a HVAC company in Smallville, USA. There are always opportunities to go off-topic and reap benefits to your brand.

Ian Altman: "Don't go beyond what you sell." Actually, the more you help your audience without selling, the better. Instead of thinking about what you can share that helps you, consider what you can share that might help your audience. For example, if you sell fine men's clothing, your audience would find an article about getting a great shine on your shoes valuable—even if you don't sell shoes or shoe polish.

How can going off-topic help a brand connect on a deeper level with its audience?

Eisenberg: People buy from humans. Find every way to connect with them. They buy from people they like and trust. The big opportunity for brands to go off-topic is when you are in a business category that your potential customers find unfamiliar. My current startup uses big data to help retailers from mom and pops to large franchises find their ideal physical business location, but most of our smaller customers are not even aware that the service we offer is available. If we can help them understand what we offer by using off-topic content, that’s our job.

Altman: If you know your audience well, then you can build a community around your brand by being off-topic. Realize that off-topic is a relative term. Let's say you sell high-end windows for homes. Your target audience would be affluent homeowners, or high-end builders. You could share stories about luxury products that might appear off-topic but would resonate with your audience. They'd see you as "someone like them."

What questions should a brand ask before posting or sharing off-topic content?

Eisenberg: How is what you’re sharing relevant to customer personas, and are those audiences going to find the content valuable? Will the content help your customers in some way, or are you using this opportunity to just sell them with this off-topic content?

Altman: Before posting off-topic content, be sure to ask two things. First, are you exploiting an unfortunate event? If you wonder if it is an appropriate topic, then it's probably not. Secondly, why would your audience care or value what you are sharing by offering up this off-topic content? If you can't answer the first two with confidence, then pass.

How would you advise brands to deal with negative comments about their decision to go off-topic on occasion?

Eisenberg: Today's strongest brands tend to stand for things that matter to their customers. Too many brands decide to always play it safe, and then they don't ever move anyone emotionally. Remember, you're not a $100 bill. Not everyone is going to like you. If they care enough to comment, even negatively, it's because you've touched them emotionally. Negative comments handled properly are a great opportunity to connect.

Altman: If you stick to adding value to your audience, then follow Jay Baer's advice and "hug your haters." Assume that those with negative comments are hopefully looking out for the community, too. You can't make everyone happy. So, if someone makes a respectful comment, then you can answer accordingly. Ignore the rants.

How often is too often to go off-topic for a brand?

Eisenberg: I never like to set rules as to what is too often. For some brands, it makes sense to be off-topic as part of their brand; for others, they can only pull it off infrequently. Just don't make that decision based on the short-term results of a one-off campaign. Brands are about relationships, and relationships develop over time.

Altman: It depends how you define off-topic. If you focus on adding value to your audience and answer the questions above, then go off-topic whenever it adds value to your community. Conversely, if your off-topic comments are ever self-promoting, then one is too many.

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Photo: iStock
Columnist, American Express OPEN