Yesterday I moderated a standing-room only panel discussion at OMMA East entitled "The Rules of Engagment: How Brands Join Conversations." We had a cross section of stakeholders, including Bruce Ertmann of Toyota, Jeff Montgomery of Tribal Fusion, Shervin Pishevar of Freewebs, and Rohit Bhargava of Ogilvy Worldwide Public Relation's Digital Influence. Collectively, we probably used the term "authenticity" about fifty (50) times, and for good reason, I might add. Ertmann, a client (full disclosure) whose official title is "Manager of Consumer Generated Media" (how about that?) provided a particularly fresh perspective around how brands like Toyota are trying to figure out to first listen and then engage with consumers. It can't be intrusive, he noted, and the engagement must be relevant, contextual, and value-added; and even then, he added, you still need to be sensitive about how they respond.
OMMA Reflections: This is a very tricky subject, and frankly, I'm not sure everyone here at OMMA East (Online Marketing and Media Association) net's out in the same place as Bruce Ertmann. And in all candor, I'm starting to get really nervous and guarded about the term "conversation." Far from the early "conversation" idealism of Doc Searls spot-on ClueTrain Manifesto (First sentence: "A global conversation has begun.") the term is aggressively finding mainstream appeal among the entire marketing industry, and in the process its meaning is being stretched, embellished, and in some cases, co-opted. Some of that is good (we're embracing a "conversational" mindset), some of this is not so good (it's more rhetorical and manipulated than real). I also worry that we're all miles apart on what we mean by the term "engagement."
Is "engagement" code for the same-old-way but with a better face, or it
truly a model grounded in listening, consumer respect, and
co-creation? As I walked around OMMA, both terms pervaded practically every speech, vendor booth, and piece of sales collateral. But do we truly mean what we say, or are we embarking upon a "positioning
makeover" to sound more in tune with the realities of
consumer-generated media (or UGC, or CGM...or whatever you want to call
it...same idea). Better yet, are both terms merely a fix to our cognitive
dissonance over intruding or invading over the space of other
consumers? The last vendor I visited yesterday was PayPerPost, the "pay to blog" business model that's generated so much "conversation" on the web. Turns out they now have over 2000 advertisers, including a couple relatively big players. I found myself tortured over what role to play in the conversation with the founder: angry consumer, or "responsible" business leader looking to keep the space trusted and win-win for all. In the end, in the spirit of win-win (the only way to lead, I think), I kept it all constructive. (One positive note: I did manage to nab one of their pens.)
Conversational Crossroads: I think the entire advertising industry is at a "conversational crossroads," and we have on our lap some really big questions and challenges to grapple with. Questions around trust, authenticity, transparency, and of course disclosure. Yes, we're heard all this before, but they have new dimension and resonance today. The last one is a big one -- especially of late -- thanks in large measure to the controversy over popular video-blogger (excuse me, faux video-blogger) LonelyGirl15 duping the web community into thinking she was the real deal. Benign the surface -- "hey, at least it wasn't a marketer" -- but it's one of those incidents that's thrown the entire "online video" world into the disclosure debate, and for good reason. Notes Mark Kingdon, CEO or Organic, in his ClickZ column this morning, "Fake consumer-generated-media (CGM) is a dangerous business for marketers." Some groups like WOMMA are starting to tackle these difficult questions and issues proactively -- as I write, literally -- but so much more industry attention and cooperation is needed in this area. Yesterday, the cover story in Ad Age was about how American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) is hiring a PR firm, Golin-Harris, to help give the industry an image-makeover. My advice to AAAA and other associations: join the conversation on the really tough issues, and don't sit on the sidelines. Trust me, the "external" conversation will reward you.
Ours to Lose: Which leads me to my final point. We have something truly special at work in both with both "conversations" and "engagement," and I think there's real "sincerity in intent" among most marketers pushing this. Importantly, these may be the last zones of trust and confidence in advertisers. I'd be the last to claim I have the answer or panacea, but we as marketers need to have our own honest and open conversation before we spoil to the conversation for others. Ours to lose, and consumers so far are giving us some wiggle-room to rise to the occasion.