Like a lot of people, I read the Cluetrain Manifesto and was intrigued by the idea that markets are conversations. First it got me thinking, “Are we participating in the right conversations with the right message?” Then it led me to the conclusion that a big part of marketing’s role is framing that conversation for our employees and, by doing that, enabling them to become active, valuable participants in it.
Of course, framing market conversations means not being overly influenced by any one individual conversation. Instead, you have to look across all the conversations that make up the big conversation and look for patterns. “Pattern recognition,” after all, is the marketer’s stock-in-trade.
The way I see it, our sales folks are naturally going to be influenced by conversations happening at the transaction level. That’s totally appropriate because that’s where business happens. Marketers, on the other hand, are going to be influenced by markets and the insights we gather about the market – which could really be a segment or an industry or just a group of people with shared concerns and interests. These market place conversations should ultimately provide the context for that transactional conversation.
I’ll give you an example. We regularly conduct market research with the help of an external partner. (I think it’s critical that this partner be a third-party so you’re not just hearing what you want to hear.) The data collected through this process gives us a more or less objective context to discuss specific conversations our people are having.
For instance, at the field level, at the transactional level, talking to a unit of one, a sales person might say, “My customer doesn’t know what Novell does” or “My customer has a certain perception of Novell that is ‘this’.”
Now, I don’t dismiss or deny that in terms of that particular customer or person. It’s probably true that they said it. But I will try to temper the anecdote with third-party data that shows we are making progress and that, broadly speaking, people know what we do and are gradually changing their perception of us.
Something interesting happens when you share that data in conjunction with the “unit of one” data. People go, “OK, maybe I have a role to play in this conversation to help the customer understand.” It’s the realization that marketing as it happens on a conversation-by-conversation basis is not just the responsibility of the CMO or the marketing department but the responsibility of the entire company.
It’s important to note that I’m not talking about “telling people what to say.” I work very closely with our CEO, Ron Hovsepian, for example. I often kid him that he’s a “CTO in CEO’s clothing” because he is very capable of having a technical conversation and connecting the dots in that way. I won’t tell him what to say in that conversation – I want him to use his words and speak in his language – but I try to help him frame the conversation in a consistent, predictable way.
The same goes for our other 3,600 employees. I want to help them frame the conversations they have, not in a limiting way, but in an enabling way. There’s a big difference between a restrictive set of boundaries – “say this; don’t say that” – and an enabling set of boundaries. That kind of framing lets people know what matters to customers and what we’re trying to accomplish as an organization, and then encourages them to put their personality on the conversation.
At the end of the day, I’m always asking myself, “What kinds of conversations are we enabling?” What kind of conversations are you enabling?