Yesterday I stood in line behind an older woman at the post office who was clearly a regular customer. She would pick up some stamps, give the post office a check to convert to cash, and have a lovely little conversation with the clerk working the desk. It was friendly and slow—the sort of conversation you imagine happening at post offices for decades.
How many of those kinds of real conversations do you think happen with your business online?
Not many—and that's a good thing. There is a powerful human connection we can get from a moment like this, if we stop and enjoy it. That rarely translates the same way online. Yet despite this fact, social media gurus for years have been pushing conversation as the reason for using tools like Facebook or Twitter to promote business. Why not have an online conversation with your users? I'll tell you why:
Your customers don't want a conversation online.
At least, they don't want one with your brand. Instead they want to get things done. They want to learn something new. They want to be entertained. And sometimes they do want conversations ... but they want them with their own friends and family. People want to talk to other people, not companies.
So why are we still hearing all this talk of how conversations are changing business? Three reasons for this confusion stand out:
1. Conversation is confused with word of mouth. When marketers say "conversation," often what they really mean is word-of-mouth marketing, which essentially comes down to someone talking about and recommending your product or service to someone else. One drives sales and referrals, the other does not.
2. Brands are confused with friends. People don't make friends with brands; they make friends with other people. They may have an affinity for your brand, but it's important to uncover what that really means. Are they coming to your coffee shop because of their personal relationship with your morning barista, or because they love your coffee?
3. Requests for help are confused with requests for conversation. Perhaps the biggest mistake driving this misplaced faith in the power of conversations is the idea that when people are asking for help online, they are looking to have a conversation about what they need instead of just finding a solution to their problem.
What if putting conversation on a pedestal as a goal of your marketing online was actually setting up your small business for failure? What if your customers wanted something other than a conversation from you—and needed your help to get it?
There is a word for this need: utility. Utility means providing something of inherent value for people that is so useful it solves a need that they either realized or didn't realize they have. Utility trumps conversation online.
This fundamental shift was a topic explored in two recent bestselling books, Youtility by Jay Baer and CTRL ALT DELETE by Mitch Joel. Both highlight the importance of utility as a fundamental quality people are seeking from brands they chose to buy from and recommend to others. So how do you make sure that your small business is focused on providing utility instead of having empty conversations? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Add value to interactions. One of my favorite examples of a missed opportunity is a cruise line that responded to a tweet from a customer excited about her upcoming cruise simply by replying "Woo hoo, have a great time!" Sure, that's conversational, but it adds no value and assumes a friendship that isn't there. Instead, what if the cruise offered a tip on what to see or do on the trip? Conversation alone isn't enough without adding some value.
2. Proactively answer questions. Not every question someone poses online will be directed at you, but being proactive about answering them can bring a lot of value to your business. On Quora (a social network where people ask each other questions), there are plenty of questions that people have asked which relate to your business. One recent question, for example, asked about recommendations for lawyers in the Austin, Texas, area with experience in working with startups. The question and its responses have been viewed more than 1,000 times. If you happen to be a lawyer in that region and with that specialty, being part of that question and response could easily lead to referrals for real clients.
3. Prioritize content above conversations. These days, content marketing is a hot topic for good reason. Having good content online helps you to provide more of that utility and elevate what you offer beyond the incidental conversation. Whether you produce some sort of video, write a blog post or article, or even curate content on a relevant topic together from across the Web—content provides that relevant hook to help you reach the people you care about.
The bottom line is, thanks to the wealth of social media advice out there for your small business today, it's easy to focus too much on idle conversation. Conversation is overrated. Sure, there is always the occasional customer who will always want to have a long and drawn out conversation. But they are in the minority. The rest are like you and me. They have a need. They are seeking a solution. And they are willing to give their loyalty and business to the company that best understands this fact.
Read more articles on marketing.
Rohit Bhargava is the bestselling author of four marketing books and the founder of the Influential Marketing Group. He has helped some of the biggest brands in the world to uncover their humanity, and routinely provides non-boring advice to companies through workshops and online training. He is among that small minority that has conversations with brands for the fun of it online. Then again, he usually gets paid to do it ... so that probably shouldn't count.