Tech Industry

Want to 'converse' with advertisers? Me neither

'Conversational marketing' smells like a new spin on old advertising techniques, just on the Web.

SAN FRANCISCO--I admit it; I'm cynical when it comes to advertising and marketing. I believe that the sole purpose of advertising is to convince me to part with my well-earned and limited supply of money and persuade me that I want things I don't really need.

So, it was with some skepticism that I covered the Conversational Marketing Summit hosted by Federated Media at San Francisco's Presidio on Wednesday. The notion is that instead of bombarding consumers with generic messages whose success rates are hard to measure, companies can use the Internet to deliver targeted messages that consumers will want to hear, can learn from customers through interactive features, and can entertain them with funny videos. Federated Media connects the many blogs in its network--including BoingBoing, Digg and Techdirt--to advertisers who are seeking that audience.

"Conversational Marketing is an exciting new practice that engages rather than dictates, invites rather than demands, and listens as much as talks," the Federated Media Guide to the conference states. "Advertising is becoming a three-way conversation, as marketers join readers and authors online. All three parties seek appropriate principles by which to hold these commercial conversations."

"Conversational Marketing is an exciting new practice that engages rather than dictates, invites rather than demands, and listens as much as talks."
--Federated Media Guide

Hold on. Who asked marketers to join readers online? I know blog publishers need to make money, and they do earn revenue off regular old text, video and banner ads. But I'm suspicious when the "conversation" is initiated by the marketer and not the consumer.

And what's this with the slogan of the conference--"Brands are conversations"? No, they aren't.

I can't help but view conversational marketing as a thinly veiled attempt by the ad industry to insinuate itself into the popular social media craze. Calling it a "conversation" makes it sound benign and implies that it is consensual. Sure, I don't mind hearing about discounts on products I buy, and between all the outdoor, print, TV, radio and traditional online advertising, it's a safe bet that I will have heard about new products that I might want.

Long before conversational marketing was a buzzword on Federated Media's letterhead, General Motors learned the hard way the risks associated with giving Internet users a way to "interact" with a brand. People turned an into an anti-GM, pro-environment statement with creative twists on user-generated video ads.

But then there's the example of the Dove Real Beauty campaign in which the company tackled common perceptions of beauty and showed scantily clad or naked models who were larger than typical models or were women over 50. Billboards showed aging women and asked "wrinkled" or "wonderful?" A popular video displayed on YouTube showed a woman become model-perfect with the help of a lot of makeup, hairstyling and Photoshop tweaking.

The Dove campaign generated a huge amount of debate and buzz on blogs and even mainstream media, and it contributed to an additional $500 million in sales, said Carla Hendra, co-chief executive officer at Ogilvy North America, the ad agency for Dove. More videos will be posted on YouTube on October 1, she said in a presentation at the conference.

But really, isn't that very similar to traditional branding, except using the Internet as a distribution channel? Pretty much, agrees Deborah Schultz, a blogger who advises Procter & Gamble on social media marketing.

The emergence of user-generated content has given average citizens a forum for recommending and denouncing products in a way they never had before. "I call it the 'relationship economy.' You value and feel empowered to control your time," Schultz said. "Do you really want to have a conversation and relationship with every product you buy? No."

Even session moderator Jonah Bloom, editor of Advertising Age, questioned whether "conversation" was the most accurate word for advertisers interacting with consumers online. "Seems almost the traditional (ad) model brought to the social networks," he said.

"The dialogue is real...when you find a way to combine commercial content with editorial content in a way that truly adds value," said Owen Van Natta, chief revenue officer and vice president of operations at Facebook. The popular social network offers a feature called "Pulse" that allows companies to ask questions of members and get answers back quickly, he said. "Users want to interact through these channels," he said. But, in my opinion, unless the marketer actually uses the feedback to change products or services that's more like free market research.

The most genuine conversation occurs when it is started by the consumer/reader or the blogger. A blog post about a product or company that elicits a response from the company is very effective, said Barak Berkowitz, chairman and chief executive of Six Apart. In another example, he said the makers of the movie Blood and Chocolate won major accolades when they allowed people to chat online with a character in the movie.

Even Google reaches out to the public to build its brand, mostly in other countries, said David Lawee, vice president of marketing at the search giant. For instance, the company has a "Doodle for Google" campaign in Australia that encourages students to create a doodle and logo. "It's a great way to localize and get people interested," he said. But again, that's not really changing the dynamic of marketing.

Just as advertisers have been able to get their ads printed on stickers on supermarket fruit, tattooed onto people's skin and even written in the sky, they will surely blanket the online world in ways we can not even imagine. But let's not confuse plain old advertising and gimmick marketing with a new form of commercial digital communication that ostensibly gives consumers more control.

The only thing they really control is whether they reach into their wallet.