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June 30, 2009

Why marketers have trouble with full-duplex social technology

(Also published on Adage.com).

As I ponder what's so hard about social technologies for marketers, I'm reminded of the old joke about what the Grateful Dead concert fans said when the drugs wore off ("Holy cow! It's country music!"). Because I've been having my own drugs-wore-off moment about social technology lately and it goes like this:

Holy cow! It's just another communications channel!

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook -- yup, it's just another communications channel. So what is it about this channel that gets everybody's knickers in a twist?

We know about channels where you talk. We know about advertising, we know about PR, we know about direct mail and email and promotions.

We also know about channels where you listen. We call this research (surveys, focus groups) and customer service.

The problem is simple. Marketers don't understand channels where you have to talk and listen at the same time. Like one of those maddening not-full-duplex speakerphones where you can't interrupt somebody, this is what drives customers nuts. Think about it. None of those talking channels allows a response. None of those listening channels encourages actual feedback from the company.

The marketing industry's idea of a two-way communication is to put an 800 number or a web address in an ad and take orders.

This couldn't be more obvious than with email. Your company has a chance to turn its email list into a two-way communication. Except that most mass emails from companies are "do not reply". "We want to talk to you," they say. "But we don't want to hear back from you. Unless you want to place an order, and if so click here."

It's all in the name of efficiency. The people in charge of talking are in the marketing department. The people in charge of listening are in the research or service or sales department. They hardly ever talk to each other, let alone have full-duplex conversations with customers.

This won't fly in social technology because the minute you talk, people expect you to listen. And if you start to listen, you'll be tempted to talk. It's a full-duplex channel that befuddles one-way-marketers.

I won't ask you to reorganize your company to fix this, since I know that's impossible for most of you. All I'm going to ask is this. If you want to start any social technology activity, make sure you've got people in place to listen to the responses, and that you can respond to what they say. If you're blogging, you (or some of your minions) need to monitor the comments and respond. If you're Twittering, same thing. If you're present in a social network, or start a community, or ask for ideas from people, you'd better have a staff in place to respond.

This is so darn simple, but it will cause profound changes over time. Your company will seem more human. You'll learn a few things about how you're perceived, and maybe come up with a few new product ideas. And maybe you'll learn to get along with those folks in the call center. Get started. It's a good thing to learn, being conversational.


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Terry Golesworthy

Excellent points. The only experience to date has been the 'contact us' button on corporate websites which offered an email us option. Try using that - see how well that works! Generally you have a 3 out of 10 chance of hearing back. I think much of social media is being used as a single way process - pushing out a message. And why are we reading social media success stories - I can't think of many companies that have really got it working to the successful scalable stage yet.

Ed Gillespie

Good points, Josh, sounds from your post that managing social media will take a sneaker brigade for now. Technology will come, but may take a while. Companies dove into interactive communications like email and correspondence without a great mechanism in place to control content or create efficiencies. Just last year, solutions like PBBI's EngageOne were introduced to help on that front.

Jim Movo

It's not the channel, it's the company culture.

There are tons of companies than have been active listeners through snail mail, the phone, e-mail, etc.

I have worked with companies where customer comments are requested and VP level staff review customer comments every day - and this was through a call center in 1990.

These same companies jumped on e-mail as a listening channel as soon as they received the first e-mail from a customer.

Add another listening channel, full-duplex or otherwise, and the companies who don't listen still won't listen.

Same old story for decades - a company can choose to be product centric or customer centric. And they do.

Tony Loftis

The problem is that real two-way communication requires spokespeople who are capable of listening and speaking for the company. To minimize risk, most companies want their spokespeople to work from a script. Social technologies force realtime conversations and realtime conversations are improvised, not scripted and that scares companies.

Until companies can find more minions (as you call them), who are capable of working without the safety net of a script, social technologies will be limited to a tape delayed two-way conversation.

After all, in the heat of the moment, who hasn't said something they wish they could take back later?

My name is Josh to

I am working for a start up that is selling a single web product. We are now in the process of brainstorming the way in which we will add a community base so that we can have a two way conversation, where individuals can give new ideas for future products and constructive critisism . I am comming against all the problems listed so far except that this company views itself as a brain trust first - so it's the perfect business culture. Right now i am figuring out how to make the commentary coming from the individual quantitative so that we can graph our responses and im thinking tag cloud - any ideas i would love to here.....?

Nick O'Doherty

I agree with Jim and Tony. I think that this is a risk perception issue. And it is the organisation's attitudes to risk that determine whether they are good conversationalists

Many large well established organisations perceive a risk in allowing any but the PR department to speak for them. PR won't issue something until it's checked out, which takes time. The risks of allowing conversation at near real time rates is perceived as too high. It's not until they lose business consistently to their conversational competitors, that they will perceive the greater risk of not engaging in this way.

Rachel Cummins

If you invite conversation in social media, then you should also expect to reciprocate too - and not three weeks after it was initiated!

There will always be people in the company who will lean towards the blogging / Twitter / conversational elements of social media (that's me in our company!) so utilise these talkative people to engage with customers. It almost goes without saying that the person needs to be trusted to say and do the right things for the company without being watched over continually (and therefore be capable of judging each situation individually). Ryanair and Habitat, please take note (although as our MD says "No such things as bad publicity").

Karen Brown

Absolutely it's about genuine two way conversations - funny thing is, we have all been doing that since about a year or two after we were born.
How much do we really need to learn, or is it simply a matter of un-learning the corporate speak and remembering to communicate with people as we would with our friends - with sensitivity, humour, tact, enthusiasm, integrity.
And if we make mistakes, we apologise and move on. It's a brave new world, but it is really the same world, just being delivered down a different channel.
Perhaps what it will do is simply make us all a lot more mindful of our communication ... from the online conversations, to emails, to direct person to person conversations with colleagues, clients, friends, family and the staff at your local coffee shop.
Social media is really a magnifying glass ... whatever you say will be magnified by the number of followers or forum members or facebook friends ... and their networks if they choose to pass it on. So being mindful is important.
Pass it on ;)


You're right...except I'd characterize it slightly differently. I think the problem with the social web (for marketers) is that it is actually not a channel, it is a conversation (ie. two way as you say).

I reckon the problem many 'marketers' have is that they don't actually want to have conversations. In this context I should qualify this by saying that is most 'marketers' in large coporations who don't want to have conversations...Often because they are just not invested enough in the product, or they don't have enough authority to actually have meangingful conversations with customers and too often the culture, processes and policies prevent them from having a decent conversation even if they wanted to.

The people who are doing a good job of social media are more often those small passion driven startups and businesses where the founders and 'marketers' are one in the same, or atleast everyone on the team is genuinely excited about the mission they are on and is empowered to have real conversations and make real connections. For these folks it isn't actually 'marketing' it is just what they do. They don't hire PR firms to generate buzz, they just build great products and engage potential customers through the channels they themselves are using all day long, namely blogs, twitter, facebook, friendfeed etc.

Marketers who try to co-op social media because it is the new 'channel to market' will fail. Those who are genuinely invested in what they do and understand that social media is just about conversations will do fine and on this point I think we are in total agreement.

Andrew Cringle

Marketing has no problem with conversations, it has always been a circular process where feedback from customers is used to improve future products and services. Regardless of their job title or function, anyone who uses social media tools to better understand their audience and then respond with a better offering is practicing marketing.

The real challenge with social media is that in making the conversation easier it has increased the range and number of opinions that can be heard, organisations now need to develop ways of identifying the most widely held and / or useful responses and using them to make material changes in their business.

Simply talking isn't ever going to be enough. Something marketing has known for years.

Anthony Dayal

There is another problem the emergence of new social sites and technologies. Twitter emerged from nowhere. I anticipate a video technology will be available something like Twitter i.e. in real time.
This further complicates work for a marketer.

Rosie Phipps

Over the last few weeks I have been interviewing students, I always try and spend at least half an hour with each person before they join us. During the interview, I have been asking about their digital activities and also social networking. In most cases, after saying, this sort of thing ( blogs and social networking) would not suit their organisations, it has taken some time for people to confess that it would mean too much work and they do not want to go there. They do not have the resources and they have also not been given the right strategic direction.

Apart from this, I think there is a question of finding the right voice. We all now about the PR voice, the advert voice, the Google voice, the sales voice, but this is something new, and apart from the huge amount of work, without understanding how their organisation want to use these new channels, it is difficult to know how to progress, so the old defences go up. There is also the huge terror of total transparency and the understanding that although companies own brands, their reputation is now held in the minds and hands of its stakeholders who are able to communicate to huge numbers of people in real time. It is no longer controllable in the same way as it was.

It is quite something to know who you are as a company, what you stand for as a brand, get into role and then find the company or brand voice and still show you are a human being. To get more than one person to do this in a company is going to be quite difficult.

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