Why Do Brands Think We Want to Talk?

Reprinted from Loose Change (TCBMag.com)

The head of strategy for a Fortune 25 corporation said recently: “Engagement is a two-way dialogue. Without a conversation, there is no engagement.” Corporate engagement seekers salivate over the iconic one-on-one relationships, grounded in conversation, likes, views, shares, and comments. Why are major talents at corporations so wrapped up in bright shinies and impossible goals?

It’s B.S. that without dialogue there is no engagement. Frankly, I would argue the opposite. True engagement between brands and consumers is mostly silent, happening in the quietude of interest, attention, information gathering, rumination, and, if in a sales funnel, purchase. Ain’t no way the tipping point is a conversation, unless it’s a conversation with a friend or an expert. Most conversations that occur between a brand and a consumer have to do with something that went wrong.

Consumers haven’t changed much over the years, particularly when it comes to how they interact with businesses. Fundamentally, they mostly don’t trust business, and the recession hasn’t helped matters much. When was the last time you were annoyed by a floor salesperson with, “Can I help you find something?” When was the last time a salesperson disingenuously feigned interest in being your friend? When was the last time you were put off by an embedded sales promotion thinly veiled as information? When was the last time you groaned when you called a business and dropped into the abyss of a multiple-choice recording? When was the last time you went to a company’s website whose user experience was like navigating through a coral reef? When was the last time you ignored a solicitation on your caller ID?

And yet those pesky brands really want to talk to y’all. Getting into a dialogue with a business is right up there with removing a sliver, for most people.

Seventy-two percent of Twitter users don’t want to engage with brands. Six of 10 Facebook users won’t engage with brands. You can see the dynamic at work in B2B articles titled, “How Your Brand Can Gain Social Media Traction” or, “Five Ways to make Twitter Work For You.” Corporations are struggling with what to do. Indeed, many don’t know what to do, a confession a senior vice president made to me a few months ago in a private moment. What they are doing is spawning an entire industry of consultants who make a great living telling them how to bark up the wrong tree. For my money, brand engagement is a pig in a poke, at least the way businesses are currently attempting to do it.

It’s not that people dislike brands. But we’ve been conditioned since birth to believe that any messaging from a business is all about selling us, not telling us. It’s pitiful to watch grown-up capitalists spending millions of dollars on silly, wild-goose-chase YouTube videos and social campaigns, simply to get an isolated rise out of people. Exhibit A: Old Spice Man. A major Internet sensation. Lots of conversation. Early numbers, though impressive, were dramatically skewed by buy-one-get-one-free offers. One year later, this iconic campaign, the model for countless YouTube copycats, has translated into basically nothing. Old Spice market share is flat compared to competitors Gillette, Nivea, and other brands whose market shares have actually increased.

The digital revolution has conditioned us to believe that engagement happens with any movement of the dial. But the only real win is when a brand establishes and maintains a customer relationship. That happens when companies provide customers with value—not a yuk, a coupon, or a piece of swag for a “like.” If companies would stop talking about themselves and begin offering consumers more valued “entry points”—i.e, high utility, relevant information, or great performing products with fantastic and caring service—they’d find what they seek. As Ken Wheaton from Advertising Age said recently, “Put simply, conversation cannot build a traditional brand. It might build a personal brand, but when it comes to dishwashers, automobiles, and soaps, no. Talking won’t do it. Only solid products and smart marketing will.”

Too often companies spend their digital time and resources selling way too hard, forgetting that building relationships takes time.

Waiting for people to talk? It’ll be a long wait. Unfortunately, there isn’t a CEO anywhere who has the patience.

Editor’s Note: Gary Johnson is President of MSP Communications in Minneapolis, MN and authors the blog Loose Change for TCBmag.com.