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Rediscovering the Art of Conversation in Digital Discourse

By Andrew Caravella / July 25, 2018

“Think before you speak.” “Choose your words carefully.” “Watch what you say.” It seems these once sage bits of advice are barreling toward extinction in today’s Tweet-first-think-second culture.

Our news feeds are filled with bite-sized, sharp-tongued criticism and callous call-outs from various politicians, CEOs and even our closest friends. Not to mention more than a few brands. All of whom could benefit from heeding some of this “ancient” wisdom.

But can we really blame them?

Is it only the messengers and the messages that have changed, or is the medium also responsible?

While so much of the current cultural cannon focuses on the new communication opportunities arising out of the digital transformation, there’s a gap in the conversation. We’re not talking as much about the loss of thoughtful, nuanced language in digital discourse—and we should be—because it’s arguably contributing to a larger systemic breakdown of our communications and conversations in real life.

Humble presentation of a personal viewpoint for consideration and discussion has been replaced with all-or-nothing, bold and provocative statements made by people and brands. Willing to say whatever it takes, their goal is to earn relevancy real-estate in the hearts, heads and feeds of their followers. But does that approach do more harm than good?

And even if and when there is a desire to present a more thoughtful point of view, character counts and platform limitations can make it difficult to fully and accurately communicate without the risk of misinterpretation.

In an age where the number of deleted Tweets, brand apologies and angry followers grows by the minute, it’s time we had a deeper conversation about a culture we’ve created. For marketing and communications professionals, the call to action must be even stronger.

Dissecting the disconnect should be driven by a desire to improve and impact change. When I became an assistant account executive at a global PR firm as a young twenty-something, my first manager gave me advice that I carry with me and request of others to this day: Don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with two possible solutions.

So as we discuss the need for civil discourse on digital channels, let’s take that approach and collectively consider some solutions. Because make no mistake, as professional communicators it’s our responsibility to pave the way and lead by example.

Take the Combat Out of Comms

In my career I’ve not been shy (just ask my colleagues) about my disdain for the battle/combat themed language that has too long permeated business and branding culture.

“Launching” campaigns at our “target” audience. Overcoming and over-powering their objections. In sales circles it’s even more endemic. “Crushing” quotas and “killing” competitors. Vanquishing them from even peaceful co-existence.

It’s as if we’re constantly waging a war against the very people we are trying to engage and embrace, creating an “us vs them” mentality that’s ruining our chances at real relationships.

Consumers aren’t conquests.

And frankly, we shouldn’t even be calling them consumers. So get out your red pens, because it’s time to make some edits.

First, “consumer” is rather impersonal and old-school, suggesting a one-way relationship based on consumption and intake versus the live reality that brand-people relationships are now two-way and multi-faceted. One of my former bosses, Daina Middleton, instilled this philosophy in our teams years ago and has tackled this dichotomy head on in her research and writing around Marketing in the Participation Age.

My preference is to use “person,” “people” or “individual” because they’re actually human, and supersede long-standing rhetoric that traditionally gives power to the brand and not the people. We should be talking about communities, not audiences.

I love the way author Shawn Miller puts it when he says, “consider your language carefully and stop thinking about customer conquests, churn, upselling and closing. Instead think conversation, referrals, ownership, and cooperation.”

We’ve got to be more positive, purposeful and strategic in our communication. And not just in our content, but in the very words we choose.

Imagine the possible ripple effect of this subtle shift.

Speak Their Language

One good way to rid yourself of antiquated marketing speak is to replace that language with another—that is, the language of the people.

This tactic can be difficult considering how much the cultural lexicon has changed and expanded since the advent of digital communication. The Oxford English dictionary now adds well over 1,000 new words every year—many of which are Internet-born or inspired. Bootylicious remains a favorite because, well… Beyonce.

But how exactly are these words chosen? The Oxford Dictionaries website states, “before adding a word to one of our dictionaries we have to see evidence that it is widely used in print or online.”

Evidence. Meaning they have to measure that words, terms or phrases are actually being used consistently across a medium, and becoming widely adopted.

That’s what marketers need to do to ensure our messages are resonating. We may not have Oxford language specialists or lexicographers at our disposal, but we do have social listening tools. There is no better way to research and learn the topics people are passionate about, and the words they’re using to describe them.

It’s also an effective method for optimizing and personalizing your digital communication for specific demographics or communities that might have their own unique systems of language, slang or dialect. Business Insider recently released an amusing but entirely relevant piece short listing the once popular words that, when brands still use, make teenagers cringe. Then they countered those words with the more timely replacements Gen Z have put in their place. The biggest takeaway is that it’s on the brands to keep up and do their research to ensure they’re using accurate and up-to-date language.

Never before have we had this level of direct and unvarnished insight into all the various ways people and communities from around the world communicate with one another. Speaking common language must be part of the solution. If used with respect, reverence and in the right context, the right words can offer meaningful connection opportunities.

Change the Channel

As we know, not all digital channels are created equal. In layering your business’ digital and social marketing strategies, your team most likely researched each channel’s unique strengths and opportunities to decide on which ones to build a presence.

And while channels may differ in features and technology, what matters most is the way people use them and why. What are they looking for when they sign on to different platforms, and what conversations (if any) are they hoping to have? Because motivations vary. We use some channels mainly to consume content, while others are primarily for sharing. And then there are platforms we use mostly for conversation and discourse.

There’s a time and a place for every conversation. And nimble marketers know when to speak up, and when to stay silent. Politically charged times and major scandals are prime examples when it behooves brands to dial down digital marketing efforts. AdAge writer Garett Sloane observes that, “all platforms have brand safety concerns, but brands on Twitter are particularly vulnerable to being caught alongside the news and politics of the day.” The last thing you want is to come off as ignorant or uncaring with a poorly-placed ad or post. Social monitoring and listening once again becomes an invaluable tool to gauge sentiments around certain cultural conversations.

There is a significant difference, however, between selling yourself in the midst of a scandal and taking an important stand on pivotal issues. We learned in Sprout Social’s 2018 Brands Get Real report that 66% of people actually do want brands to weigh in on important issues.

The solution here is to be intentional. People find brands most credible when an issue directly impacts their customers, employees or business operations. It cannot appear as if you are inserting yourself into a conversation simply to capitalize on it. And it should go beyond a reactionary, one-off comment. Brands that thrive in this space are those whose stance is part of their very DNA, living and breathing their beliefs in across communication elements.

Send a Message

But if you really want to know where a majority of conversations are taking place, you may need to look past the public posts and work your way into private messaging. Business Insider has released data confirming there’s an estimated three billion (and growing) monthly active users on the top four messaging apps (Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber), a number that now surpasses that of the top four social networking apps (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+).

And it’s not just where conversations take place that is changing. It’s the people who are having them. Dr. John M. Grohol, editor of the journal Cyberpsychology, concludes that, “when our friends circle widens beyond a certain point, identity management becomes the primary focus on a social network, which in turn becomes an increasingly impersonal platform.” People have become more concerned with curating the perfect life and building their own personal brand on social for many, than having honest, authentic conversations with a few. So they retreat to the smaller stage of messaging apps where it’s easier to be their true selves with their closest confidants.

But people aren’t just using messaging apps to swap secrets and stories. They’ve become a prime destination to share content. In fact, “dark social”—like emails or messaging apps—accounts for a staggering 84% of on-site content shared.

Considering the sheer amount of monthly active users and their proclivity for sharing content, messaging apps create a host of new opportunities for brands. For one, chatbots have become a popular strategy for brands looking to better serve people through this platform. When well conceived, chatbots offer a unique opportunity to provide personalized customer service, entertainment/content and a branded experience all in one. Some apps also offer a host of business solutions including ads, ecommerce and promotional opportunities.

Imagine how difficult it would be if all your conversations in real life were subject to the same challenges and limitations of those online. Character counts, competing voices, lack of context, and so on. Social may have ushered us into a new age of communication with more freedom, ease and reach, but unfortunately it’s also lowering the quality and meaning of our messages.

Individuals and brands aren’t the only ones affected by this (de)evolution. These changes have transformed the way our entire society communicates, and have made it more difficult than ever to connect and engage in mature, meaningful ways online.

But fear not. As people who communicate for a living, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate how it should be done—to truly connect on social through more thoughtful, open, honest and empathetic conversations. It simply relies on us no longer staggering over the problem, but intently focusing on the two (or more) possible solutions.

Andrew Caravella

Andrew Caravella

is the VP of Global Partnerships at Sprout Social.
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