Can You Talk and Listen at the Same Time?

It's Conversation 101 That Trips Up Marketers Over Social Technologies

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Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
As I ponder what's so hard about social technologies for marketers, I'm reminded of the old joke about what the Grateful Dead concert fans said when the drugs wore off ("Holy cow! It's country music!"). Because I've been having my own drugs-wore-off moment about social technology lately and it goes like this:

Holy cow! It's just another communications channel!

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook -- yup, all just another communications channel. So what is it about this channel that gets everybody's knickers in a twist?

We know about channels where you talk. We know about advertising, we know about PR, we know about direct mail and e-mail and promotions.

We also know about channels where you listen. We call this research (surveys, focus groups) and customer service.

The problem is simple. Marketers don't understand channels where you have to talk and listen at the same time. Like one of those maddening not-full-duplex speakerphones where you can't interrupt somebody, this is what drives customers nuts. Think about it. None of those talking channels allows a response. None of those listening channels encourages actual feedback from the company.

The marketing industry's idea of a two-way communication is to put an 800-number or a web address in an ad and take orders.

This couldn't be more obvious than with e-mail. Your company has a chance to turn its e-mail list into a two-way communication. Except that most mass e-mails from companies are "do not reply." "We want to talk to you," they say. "But we don't want to hear back from you. Unless you want to place an order, and if so click here."

It's all in the name of efficiency. The people in charge of talking are in the marketing department. The people in charge of listening are in the research or service or sales department. They hardly ever talk to each other, let alone have full-duplex conversations with customers.

This won't fly in social technology because the minute you talk, people expect you to listen. And if you start to listen, you'll be tempted to talk. It's a full-duplex channel that befuddles one-way-marketers.

I won't ask you to reorganize your company to fix this, because I know that's impossible for most of you. All I'm going to ask is this. If you want to start any social technology activity, make sure you've got people in place to listen to the responses, and that you can respond to what they say. If you're blogging, you (or some of your minions) need to monitor the comments and respond. If you're Twittering, same thing. If you're present in a social network, or start a community, or ask for ideas from people, you'd better have a staff in place to respond.

This is so darn simple, but it will cause profound changes over time. Your company will seem more human. You'll learn a few things about how you're perceived and maybe come up with a few new product ideas. And maybe you'll learn to get along with those folks in the call center. Get started. It's a good thing to learn, being conversational.

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Josh Bernoff is the co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at

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