Adding a Chief Conversation Officer

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“Markets are conversations – talk is cheap, silence is fatal” – from the cluetrain manifesto – Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger

The statement above embodies for many the changed landscape of marketing. Bigco started to embrace this over the course of the last few years and now it’s time for Smallco to aggressively do the same.

This year’s next position for many small business should be a conversation officer – someone in charge of the story.

That officer could be employed to create, curate and sometimes manipulate the conversations that must be coming from your company. In the broad sense the duties of this position should include

Content – this one is pretty simple – full fledged blogger, article publisher, white paper creator and education based marketing materials and webinar creator.

Context – this one is a little trickier, but your conversation officer should employ RSS technology to aggregate and filter the content and conversations going on in every online and offline corner and package it to make it more useful for your organization and your prospects.

Connection – your CCO should be in charge of developing ways to include your customers and partners in the building of your business for mutual benefit. Your CCO should be in charge of the conversations your customers are having after they buy, as they decide to buy more and in the process of becoming a referral source.

Community – your conversations must eventually come together as community. You must facilitate conversation among your prospects and customers, introduce partners and find ways to co-create value. Intentionally hosting the conversation your customers are having with each other is a must.

The primary toolset for this new position is indeed social media, but don’t neglect traditional forms of conversation as well. twitter, Facebook, blogging and RSS must supplement phone calls, lunch and handwritten notes to produce the ultimate, full-bodied, authentic, value-based conversation.

Perhaps you can’t yet invest in a full-time employee to carry out this position, add it to the org chart and start developing the position, because it’s no longer an optional function.


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  1. Bravo — markets ARE conversations, and as an early signatory to the Cluetrain Manifesto, I applaud anything and everyone that reminds us of this fact.

    There was a lot of excitement and adrenaline and (dare I say it) conversation when Cluetrain came out (can you believe it?) a decade ago — but here we are, 10 years later, and Bigco and Smallco are sliding back into the same old same old.

    The worst part of it all: Bigco or Smallco says, “hey, markets ARE conversations! We have to blog and Twitter and get involved in Facebook and LinkedIn and…”

    … and the result is effectively a cruddy spamming of those communities. Bigco and Smallco need to understand not only that “markets are conversations” — they need to understand that it’s in their best interest to ENHANCE the user experience in those communities. Create value, don’t just interrupt and shout, “BUY MY CRAP!”

    As for the idea of hiring a Chief Conversation Officer? Well, that definitely dovetails quite well with number 10 of my “11 Things To Keep In Mind During This Crappy Economy”

    http://www.lohad.com/?p=2071

    Happy New Year everyone!

  2. On the Community, is it all about facilitating / hosting / leading the conversation? What about following conversational leaders in other conversations that relate to your target market? Maybe weighing in on a local issue that’s important to your community – you’re not there as your business (leading the discussion about you), but a simple voice in the community. This is not as direct, but certainly exposure, especially when you share the same values as those also participating. When you are talking with the community (which of course includes prospects and customers) about an issue important to the community or talking about ANOTHER person in the community, you are going a long way toward building and strengthening community.

  3. @Randy – yes I think there is much cross-over in all the Cs – following thought leaders could be an essential part of context and connection that add to commmunity

  4. @Craig – I know – 10 years ago. Sometimes it seems as though time flies on the Internet and then here we are still hoping for the Dick Tracy Communicator Watch from the 50s.

    Every form of marketing can be abused, look at the people still shouting at us on the radio, but in the end, it’s all about results, so people use new media to effectively achieve objectives will achieve results.

  5. Your suggestion is a great one on many levels. My experience in public relations has taught me spreading an entity’s communications across the board can be disastrous. Yes, everyone needs to be part of the marketing team and on the same page … but they can only articulate so much information so far. There needs to be a one-stop shop to call the plays and carry the ball. Like the flagging position of newspapaer ombusdman, the CCO is the perfect antidote for customers with issues who seem to get lost in the shuffle (when they’re not trapped in answering machine hell) … as well as marketing. I would add that it’s important for customers to perceive the CCO as their advocate, their champion within the company.

  6. @bob – really love this last point you make, great add – it’s important for customers to perceive the CCO as their advocate, their champion within the company.

  7. John, Great Post, Someone has to manage all of this,

    One might ask; why not just one medium, do I really need to have ten platforms to serve this purpose? The answer is yes. It’s all about how the end user wants to be communicated with. It’s all about creating value in their eyes and each and every person is different. Applaud those differences and work to serve them where they want to be served.

    Something happened along the path, in that the service provider, the vendor, no longer gets to choose how or when to communicate with the customer. The customer decides when and how the communication will occur, in turn, we can choose or not to participate on their terms.

  8. A CCO could be that link that strengthens the customer service chain. One issue is that the person gathering and collating all of this information appears to be having more fun than working hard. I began this sort of a project just a year ago. The work I was doing wasn’t viewed with sufficient value to keep it up. Tools I used were discontinued which made me seem even more redundant. Thanks for the post and all comments that re-engage my perception of my value.

  9. The “Chief Conversation Officer” reminds me of what we use to hope for out of our star salesperson. Or the person we would promote to sales manager. However, in today’s world your channels are so fragmented that marketing has to do a better job of qualifying prospects and the CCO may be just the ticket.

    P.S. Still need to do your homework on your Ideal Client, Target Market, etc.. It still takes 2 to have a conversation.

    Great piece!

  10. Great post on what marketing now demands – better conversations. Anything else is just going through the motions.

    Thanks for the article. I’ll recommend it often I think

  11. Hi John, just wanted to thank you for providing such great information and help to small businesses. I can say that your book and blog are the main sources of my marketing knowledge and gave confidence to start our own online business (http://truehotdeals.com). Sincere thanks!

  12. Love the idea of a Chief Conversation officer.
    Responsibilities:
    monitoring your brand online – what are others saying
    engaging in conversations and sharing more about your brand
    promoting / encouraging others to start conversations about your brand.

    I see this role as equal parts credibility-building, customer-relationship-management, reputation monitoring.

  13. great post. i like how you emphasize at the end that the new media outlets should supplement some of the personal touch, “old school” methods as well. communicating in a genuine way will inspire confidence and trust. something we’re trying to improve upon daily.

  14. The CCO position is a good idea and probably essential in the future – the implementation question is where the position fits on the Org Chart? My take is that it does NOT fit in the Marketing Department. To be effective and meaningful,the CCO needs to be able to touch and influence all functions of the business so that the “customer conversations” get reflected back into the business.

  15. I like your wrap up statement:
    twitter, Facebook, blogging and RSS must supplement phone calls, lunch and handwritten notes to produce the ultimate, full-bodied, authentic, value-based conversation.

    And if companies can’t afford a CCO — they can split up the duties or enforce the values, that all clients should get a handwritten thank you, or that more than one person should be assigned to monitor the twitter account with different duties, etc.

  16. I like the title Chief Conversation Officer but do you think it will become true in a foreseeable future? I mean all the brand or companies eager to get into social media barely now how to get the best of it and they will at best hire one or two persons to “engage the conversation”.

  17. Some PR folks may think of this as their job and it certainly could be, but they would need to give up the need to control the message and spin and just go with transparency in all it’s shades.

  18. Not directly related, but reminds me when addressing a letter to a Soil Conservation Officer during the early years of my career. It wasn’t until months later when we pulled up the letter again that we noted it said Soil Conversation Officer.

  19. John,

    The characterization of PR people as seeking to “control the message” may describe some, but not all. When we’re doing our best work, we’re serious about both halves of the phrase: the public, and the relations.

    As a public information officer (director of communications & public affairs is my title) for a university campus, I have an obligation to engage in conversations all the time, both live and in various formats and media. Whether people are happy with the university or not, I’m there to listen and to talk constructively, which does not mean parroting the “company line” ad nauseam.

    Certainly I try to communicate the rationale behind the university’s position, if there’s an issue. Being consistent in the stories we tell about who we are is not the same thing as seeking to control the message.

    No one controls a taxpayer, parent, student, elected official, or faculty member who has an opinion to express; same goes for an angry customer or stockholder.

    Our job is to help them understand our perspective, where it’s different from theirs, and to listen to and learn from their perspective. That makes all of us better at what we do to deliver value to the community and our customers.

    Everyone who works for a company or institution should be having those conversations–not just a CCO. The limitation in your suggestion is the notion that one person can handle the entire bandwidth.

    @BarbChamberlain

  20. I think we are overcomplicating the process, and creating yet another buzzword/acronym to describe what “The guy/gal in charge of sales and marketing” should be doing. You should always be looking for new channels to communicate with your customers, if social media is it great embrace it, but I don’t think that we should complicate the job with yet another buzzword. — it is what it is.

  21. @Jeff – generally I would agree that should be the case, but we need a new word and a new mindset because marketing has changed so fundamentally and most small businesses didn’t have the guy/gal in marketing doing much more than creating this week’s new tri-fold brochure – no, this is a wake-up call of the tallest order – take this new form of marketing, get it, or be prepared to flip burgers at McDonald’s

  22. @Barb – yes, I’ve been catching a bit of flack from PR folks for that comment, and you are right, not all PR folks are stuck in last century, but I can show you daily evidence from the pitches I receive and the handling thrown my way from PR firms that work with some of my sponsors that many do not get that the world of conversation has changed the rules in PR forever.

    I do agree that everyone in an org “should” be having those conversations, but the fact remains they aren’t so at least let’s appoint someone to do it, in one voice, full-time.

  23. @John, I’m just concerned that there is a trend over the last ten years to focus on titles instead of duties. Everything you say is true, but do we really need a title for it. It seems to add confusion when you try and understand what people are doing in an organization when you have CTOs, CSOs, CIOs, CFOs, CCOs, CGOs, etc. But this is really of an off-subject rant anyway.

  24. I share your opinion about the titles,but I usually try to find the information about the business and duties at the very beginnig of the stuff,sometimes it seems to me that I am seeking for a clue to a riddle which I set for myself.It is distracting.

  25. I do agree that it would be helpful to have one person in charge of setting the tone of the conversation, and crafting and conveying the message. Without that one person, you may have many people in the organization social media, but sending out different and possibly conflicting messages to the world at large, which doesn’t do the organization any good. In a way, there’s a bit of message quality control at play here.

  26. I have to disagree w/ @Mike, this is absolutely part of the marketing department, and agree w/ @Jeff, I don’t think a new title is required.

    Seems to me this is part of the CMO’s responsibility. Old media isn’t going away any time soon and is very much part of the “conversation” from the consumer’s perspective. As such, it is vital that all aspects of the conversation inform the other media channels.

    Giving the role a title may raise its profile in the organization politically but I’m not convinced it will have any meaningful impact on how the company, big or small, speaks with its customers unless it becomes part of the larger marketing activities.

  27. @James – Just to make sure I understand your disagreement with my post, you do NOT want to have the position and you DO want to make sure it is in the Marketing function for “message consistency.” That recommendation seems to be the logical equivalent of “Business as Usual” – it might miss the point of both listening to conversations and participating in those conversations in any meaningful way beyond singing the company song.

  28. Having a separate position makes a lot of sense to me, though I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve drank the social media kool-aid.

    John– what do you imagine to be the “typical” or ideal background of someone who would fill this role? Is it a senior exec at the company who is interested in using social media as a tool? Is it a young person with a big online presence from the marketing department?

    @brooke: not sure if you’re going to see this, but I’d love to hear more about your role. I see you work at a nonprofit

  29. Smart companies will be proactive about creating this sort of position. But I suspect that many companies will come to the realization after a problem arises with their online reputation. And of course at that point the poor schmo with the title of CCO will be firmly behind the 8 ball.

  30. So I totally agree on the conversation part of this, but I’m not sold on any one specific person. Josh Bernoff of Forrester and Richard Edelman both came out with the same advice for organizations of all sizes:

    Let your employees blog. The more employees you free up, the more stories you tell, the more conversations share…not to mention the search benefits of all this content.

    Remember Edelman say’s that Employee Bloggers are 5 times more credible than C-level bloggers.

    http://blogging.compendiumblog.com/blog/blogging-best-practices/0/0/people-dont-trust-ceos-they-trust-employees

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not necessary to have a dedicated person when most organizations have, if not a few, than perhaps a few hundred people who would be both credible and willing to tell the stories of their everyday experiences as it relates to the business.

    The final point on Employee blogging is that your content volume can really accelerate…that lessens the burden on any one person and is much more likely to align relevant content to those who might be interested in it.

    Best,

    Chris Baggott
    CEO
    Compendium Blogware
    http://www.compendiumblogware.com

  31. I absolutely think you are right. The traditional CMO has way too many things on their plate. Having a CCO would really enable one person to get down to the knitty gritty of how conversions are occuring and if they are a result of the current internet strategy.

  32. I’d like to think that having conversations with customers and other stakeholders would be one of the mandatory elements of a number of job descriptions (not exclusively the CCO but also the CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, and so on). I also think we need to focus on dialogue (as much as conversation) and on active listening. One of the shortcomings of an environment of Instant Messaging and other social media tools is that conversations are shorter than ever before; I think we need to work hard to develop the skill of having a conversation.

  33. Very interesting. You named the job title I’ve held for more than 20 years!

    My partner thinks globally and I think personally. She’s the strategist and I’m the connective tissue.

    It helps that I’m also an NLP trainer and have developed a very high expertise in developing psychological profiles of target markets and individuals. When I initiate a conversation, I’m actually appealing to at least 12 mental filters and a personality type configuration. Otherwise, I would be guessing at how my message will be received.

    Let’s talk….

    Michael

  34. I love this idea, especially considering it’s what I do at Bizzuka. I do agree with Chris Baggott though, that this should not be just one person’s job, but everyone’s to some degree.

    Perhaps the role the CCO should play is to serve as what Ann Handley referred to as a “social media mayor.” Someone who shepherds or oversees the efforts of the entire organization. After all, someone has to be in charge of this. At least, I think so.

    Great ideas too, that I’m adding to my list of things to do.

  35. Thanks Paul.

    For our Compendium Blogware clients we call this person an administrator. (not very cool I know lol)

    In our client companies there is one person who approves and declines content as well as make suggestions, rally the employees, cajole, hold fun contests etc….

    This ‘may of blogs-ville’ understands the value of frequent and high volume corporate blogging to engage a wide range of clients and prospects…especially through search.

  36. I was writing a research paper on managing complexity on the edge of chaos and discovered some research in a small business that pertains to the idea of “conversation officer”. They discovered that the leaders of the conversation were not who they thought. When they traced the “gate keepers” they found a couple of people through which much of the internal conversation flowed and these people were really influencing the dynamics of the business more than you would ever think. The point was that if you could identify who they were and utilize them in influencing the conversation, you had a major portal which the “identified” leaders could utilize.

    I heard a statement once that I have never forgotten: “Reality is in the conversation, the results are in the listening.” I think CCO really addresses the importance of a position necessary in the new realm of social media – but you may have a hard time convincing those in a company that need to support the idea. I would love to have such a postion.

  37. Cathy, Cool. You named two of the most important things we do in our firm. In our own research into Expert Networks, we discovered that the go-to people with the greatest expertise were not the managers or decision makers. In firms with a flexible structure, that was perfectly OK. In more rigid firms, it was not. Part of what we do is extract expert knowledge from the experts in order to make it available to other people within the firm. When management won’t let us have access to that real expert, everyone loses.

    The listening point is an enormous one. Another area of our firm is sales coaching. We’ve never met a sales person who had good listening skills.

    — Mike

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