From Monologue to Dialogue

May 27th, 2008

Today, the words “one way” belong on downtown street signs. Not in marketing.

Driven by the convergence of technological innovation that has sent competition into hyper drive AND caused major shifts in consumer behavior, a dialogue between brands and their customers is quickly replacing the traditional marketing monologue.

Why the shift?

  • The 50-year-old traffic light has burned out at the intersection of culture, media and commerce.
  • Newer audiences care less about polish and more about honesty.
  • The traditional limitations of choice (brand/product choices, buying venues, product/pricing data) are gone.
  • Customers are purchasing based more on the testimony of other customers and less because of us.
  • And customers are reinterpreting and representing our brands.

Buyers increasingly distrust marketing “claims” and expect businesses to show, not tell, through their actions. They expect transparency and no longer accept being talked at.

Now that technology has given word-of-mouth a steroid boost, the pond of influence is bigger. And buyers expect response and accountability from the companies they buy from. If they don’t get it, they make sure others know. Just ask Comcast about Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield and his Comcast Must Die blog. The blog’s creation could have been avoided if Comcast had listened and responded instead of ignoring its customers. And absolutely anyone can band together quickly to wield stronger influence. People with similar experiences responded to Garfield’s articles and actually pushed forth the creation of Comcastmustdie.com. And this genie isn’t going back in the bottle.


The more consumers can find open, honest dialogue about a brand, the more our finely honed messages can sound self-serving, inauthentic and untrustworthy.


It’s all about them. Buyers want the dialogue on their terms and when they want it — not when we do. Arguably, most people don’t want to hear from most companies most of the time, and in an era of marketing overload characterized by irrelevance as well as volume, unsolicited communication can provoke apathy — or even worse, resentment.

“Is this company so frantic to seize market share on voice and broadband that it is willing to disrupt customers’ lives, fail to appear, repeatedly lie to them, walk out on them and then treat the customer as if he or she is a nuisance? Well, we shall see. This is the Listenomics age. We will not take it quietly.”

Bob Garfield, Ad Age

November 19, 2007; Comcast Must Die: Seeking Ideas for a Consumer Jihad.

But people do still want to buy things and they still want information to make smart choices. It’s like a weather report — people need it when they need it. Too early, it’s forgotten. Too late, it’s irrelevant. It’s about listening. Paying attention and responding accordingly. Even if it means swallowing our pride and apologizing.

When Apple lowered the price of the iPhone mere weeks after enthusiasts waited in line for 24+ hours to buy their $500 version on day one, loyalists felt betrayed and voiced their irritation. Bloggers went wild with criticism, which made the price cut big news in the press. Steve Jobs stepped forward to explain himself and tried to make it right by offering early adopters certificates at Apple stores. Many felt the gesture was too small, but they credited him with listening, engaging and doing something about it. And Apple’s brand is none the worse for it.

Whether you choose to engage or not, the conversations about your brand will happen. On blogs, in forums, in product reviews and in videos on sites like YouTube.

And by no means is it a minority speaking out. These numbers from a Pew Internet & American Life study show that in the U.S. overall:

  • 90 million Americans have participated in online groups
  • 69 million have read or created a blog
  • 50 million have created content online
  • 44 percent have contributed thoughts and files to the online world
  • 33 million have reviewed or rated something

When you look at a segment like Gen Y (a group that will outnumber babyboomers and Gen-Xers by 2011) it’s even more pervasive:

  • 80 percent use social networking sites
  • 71 percent regularly participate in blogs
  • 55 percent visit MySpace daily

So what holds marketers back?

Because the path from monologue to dialogue is still largely uncharted, they’re hesitant to embark. Corporate risk aversion runs high, especially in companies that have been historically successful. Inertia’s a powerful thing. You tend to go with what you know, and in the fast-evolving world of marketing, there are a lot of unknowns. New media: Should we invest? Where? Who knows where this is all going?


1. The way people gather information and communicate with each other is changing – dramatically.

2. Marketers are not changing fast enough.

Status Quo = Go Nowhere

Yet as prospective customers become ever more distracted and interrupted, intrusive marketing methods are increasingly being tuned out. And gains, if any, are incremental at best. In order to see real growth, there’s little choice but to begin to engage in the dialogue about our brands.

It’s an exciting time to be in the marketing business. We are witnessing a massive social transformation and empowerment like none other. There are more venues and tools in our toolbox than ever before. Everyone is learning and there are incredible opportunities for innovative thinking.


  1. Reposition yourself as the primary bridge builder between the company and the customer — the CUSTOMER INSIGHTS CHAMPION. If you come at it from the customer’s perspective, it’s less preachy and you’re more likely to have a receptive audience among your co-workers or managers.
  2. Help create internal alignment around the customer.
    • Show examples of low money investment, high buzz/word-of-mouth value.
    • Make sure you have brand and message benchmarks to start with.
    • Present a strategy to engage your customer base without pandering to them.
    • No MySpace for MySpace’s sake.
  3. Help coworkers and senior leadership understand the need for a shift from monologue to dialogue. Use research, data and case studies to illustrate the points.
  4. Be the “Tony Robbins” in your company.
  5. Use dialogue and new channels to truly understand customer desires, not to merely validate existing strategy.
  6. Know the available channels ­– they change quarterly.
  7. As Pull becomes more interesting, be where your prospects look for you — search engine optimization is critical for most companies.
  8. Dedicate resources to community management.
  9. Listen via automated tools.
  10. Predetermine your action boundaries so you can act without getting caught in internal bureaucracies.


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