Archive for March 2009
Many communicators I know have some art in progress on the side. One paints with oils. Another writes science fiction. Another makes masks. Copywriters who sketch and art directors who write. It is a human thing, this urge to make sense of the world. Certainly it is an integrating impulse—when we take steps to portray the world as we understand it, in whatever medium we choose, the very effort has the effect of enlarging our vision. Even if no one ever sees the painting or reads the novel or puts on the mask, we have still accomplished something. We’ve understood more—maybe we’ve become more human—plus we’ve contributed to culture. We’ve left some integrating artifact behind.
But those acts of creation are not content to idle as we go off to work. They don’t sit quietly on the easel while we earn our bread. They pursue us and our work. Those acts of creation whisper vivid colors and paint sounds as we type. They interrupt with scenes of conflict and resolution projected momentarily over the spreadsheet before us. Our acts of creation hint at a rich interior life that refuses to live in compartments, refuses to walk the same path again and again, and thinks it can make specific sense of a world of input. It is part of bringing our whole self to our work.
What does your art say to your work?
The other day a friend painted a picture of marketing and sales at his company: it looks like a telephone. His firm had not spent on outward-facing communications for a couple years. Instead, they picked up the phone and called people. This company targets a very tight niche of companies needing specialized fabrication services.
We talked about the state of their communication, and how brochures and the usual assortment of tools seemed like a waste of money—given that his industry has very few players and most are well-known to each other. I wondered aloud whether he could position his employees as expert problem solvers—which exactly is what they are—as walking, talking brochures. Is it possible that the very thing they do on the telephone could have a broader reach and work for them all the time? This is the promise of entering into dialogue.
But before moving that direction, set aside tactics for a moment. Before freeing employees to be public experts, any company—and especially my friend’s company—must make an extraordinary commitment. They must commit to communicate. If my friend’s company uses today’s conversational tools like he previously used advertising or brochures—tossing one-way benefit messages out in the marketplace every once in a while—he will fail. Instead, he and his company need to cultivate an attitude of sharing what they know in a way that draws out interest and conversation. And that is an on-going commitment. That’s how experts become experts.
Interestingly, putting experts into conversation is also a route to increased employee satisfaction. Good employees love to use their expertise to help real people solve real problems.
We have redeemed you, O AIG.
We have provided bailout monies,
because we pity your groveling
and hope to reign in the damage from your reckless ways.
We have pulled your donkey back from the flame,
To carry a burden another day.
Your bonuses smell of loathsome stool
From saggy trousers of insurers gone wild
Whose excesses are piled
For all to sniff and consider corporate contempt.
Your demand for plenty
From the hands of those who want.
Let public pain
Visit the craving maw of your greedy accounts.
Put away your business as usual
With the spotlight on you
And 170 billion public reasons to turn from your ways.
In the coming age where conversation fuels our business, we’ll need to sharpen the usual tools in a different way. As a copywriter, I help my clients hone their messages, kill jargon, simplify, and answer “Who cares?” But helping my clients engage in conversation with their customers demands something more. Good conversation is about sharing useful information, information that goes beyond primary and secondary marketing messages. Conversation is markedly different from the old formulas that required key selling points to be repeated over and overin the presence of an audience that is assumed stupid or hard of hearing or both. Of course, officially we say we’re just trying to “break through the clutter.” But unofficially, do we think less of our audiences when we dumb things down? The dialogical world assumes clutter breaking up like spring ice as customers locate their real interest.
But conversation may well be a lost art, given all the years we’ve spent crafting our one-way messages. I was reminded of this when reading about the healing power of conversation in Edward Wimberly’s “African American Pastoral Care and Counseling: The Politics of Oppression and Empowerment.” Wimberly writes about how oppressed peoples (in particular) get recruited into stories that powerfully shape their world—leaving them powerless. In fact, we all get recruited into stories that shape our world, for good or ill. But the power of conversation is in reshaping how we engage with the world. The best conversations have, among other things, elements of truth-telling and deep listening.
How does this relate to marketing conversations in the dialogical world? It means we’ll need to grow in our ability to listen. We’ll need to grow beyond techniques for active listening (the “Uh-huh” and “I see” we mutter from behind the newspaper when our spouse talks). It means listening because the person across from me has value, because as whole people they are truly interesting, and because their life experience—not just their experience with my product—has a bearing on your route through this world.
That’s why growing in our ability to converse may actually help us grow more human.
Yesterday’s StarTribune included an article about TCF returning TARP funding (“TCF rejects rescue money,” 3/3/2009, p. D1). Chris Serres quoted TCF chief executive Bill Cooper as saying it was a no-win situation. If they don’t accept TARP money, people would think they couldn’t get it and they were in trouble. If they did receive TARP money, Cooper said, “you’re stigmatized as evil people stealing from taxpayers.” An article in today’s StarTribune reports on two more banks receiving TARP funding.
Turns out TCF didn’t need it and would write a check for the $361.2 million.
Is it possible we’ve turned some corner in this country where the big money-makers are starting to worry about their appearance to the working folks? TCF has always seemed like a bank for anybody—perhaps the PR department thought they could win points with their target audience by returning money they didn’t need. Did they feel just stigmatized—or maybe even a bit guilty? Or did they just tire of the public peeking into their expensive meetings. Whatever the motive, giving money back seems like a positive sign. Kudos to TCF and Bill Cooper.
It’s a tribute to the power of opinion that $360 million (and change) is being returned by a bank that didn’t need it in the first place. This act seems to elevate the actions that could result from public knowledge: people might bank elsewhere. And dialogue among the working folk could begin an exodus from a stigmatized TCF.
It could happen.
My friend is a corporate philosopher who lives out his work life in a tall glass tower thinking about, among other things, how to adapt his corporate culture to create more honest dialogue. My primary concern with dialogue in this blog has been how to engage customers honestly. But yesterday’s conversation with this friend I realized that honest dialogue (and if not honest, is it really dialogue?) requires truth-telling. And truth-telling starts inside corporations, even inside individuals. As Mrs. Kirkistan put it, “It seems sort of obvious, doesn’t it, that people should tell the truth?”
But what is obvious to us on a personal level gets twisted in a corporate setting, and processed and stuffed into an animal bladder and offered as a truth-sausage at the other end. Such manipulations are standard procedure for any organization to present their product or service in the best light. That’s where the one-way messages have always come from, the ones that fall flat with potential clients because they stink of the processing plant and are exactly similar to all the other one-way message that land on their mental doorstep hundreds of times each day. My friend suggested I read the Cluetrain Manifesto, which I’ve ordered. The cluetrain website offers to dig much deeper into the notion of conversation between companies and customers, and also promises that customers will—and are already—finding the relevant information they need to make a decision. And they are finding it independently of (and likely contrary to) the one-way messages thrown at them. The website is dated at 1999, so these are not new thoughts, but seem to be gathering force in 2009.
Which brings me to another conversation with an FDA-regulated firm wanting to engage in dialogue but knowing the limits of what their regulators and lawyers would allow to be said in the corporate space. As we kicked around the idea of blogging and just how much truth-telling (in the raw, personal form the blogosphere rewards) could really happen, we stumbled on the peer-review model and wondered if more truth-telling must necessarily happen outside the corporate site, where dialogue could be engaged with experts offering unfiltered opinions. Naturally, such a web site must offer hearty benefits to any dialoguer. I hereby declare these site “Manipulation-Free Zones,” though I recognize that manipulation is part of the human condition. It is the rare human who does not present himself/herself and his/her interests in the best light. But can we aim high?