FEATURE3 September 2012

Conversation culture


Having convinced advertisers to embrace customer conversation, Steven van Belleghem is setting out to achieve full-scale corporate culture change with his new book The Conversation Company.

The book sold well and was positively received, but Van Belleghem soon realised that convincing advertisers of the importance of customer conversation was only half the battle. To be truly effective, company culture also needed to change.

And so, The Conversation Company was published earlier this year. Here, Van Belleghem talks Brian Tarran through the three-step process to becoming a conversation starter.

“Twitter and Facebook are full of lonely corporate accounts. Basically, companies are creating a whole load of unused conversation potential”

Research: What led you to write The Conversation Company?
Steven van Belleghem:
The first book was about how company communications needed to change from a one-way conversation model to a two-way dialogue, but I realised that changing the communication approach alone was not sufficient. The challenge is to create a company that is really consumer-centric and really believes in the power of people – employees and consumers – and which uses the full possibility of social media not just to reach out to people but to collaborate in a structured way. So this book is about changing culture, using people as media and using social media to its full extent.

Companies have become a lot more aware of social media over the past two years and there have been a lot of good experiments, but most of the time these are one-offs: one-time campaigns, one-time efforts. Twitter and Facebook are full of lonely corporate accounts. Basically, companies are creating a whole load of unused conversation potential.

If you look to the latest research, about 70% of companies have a Facebook page and almost half have a Twitter account. But if you ask them whether they are integrating it into their entire marketing philosophy, it’s only something like 12% of companies that are actually doing this. That’s the biggest missed opportunity.

So are companies getting bored of social media when they don’t see an immediate return?
I think it’s more that business processes have been built to manage an old system: of campaigns that switch on and off; of top-down communication; and of creating new products based only on the talent inside the company. Most of the companies I’ve spoken with need to go through three steps to adapt themselves.

The first step is to become more aware of new consumer behaviour and design a strategy knowing what goals you want to achieve. The second step is to create pilot projects that sit within the existing culture of your organisation and use existing resources. You don’t won’t to make a huge investment in time or people to make it happen. The final step is to make sure that the project brings in value right away. The definition of value can be quite broad, but if you combine these three things, these pilot projects should create a positive feeling in the enterprise about what you are doing.

The trick is to find projects that fit into the existing culture, but do enough of them and people start to see that there’s a different way of doing things that can be more effective. To really make change happen, though, it helps if you have someone who is responsible for managing those pilots and that they involve different departments within an organisation to speed up the process, to make sure that things get moving and that the learning effects are centralised.

The biggest problem, however, is that a lot of companies don’t have a well-described company culture. Half of companies don’t have corporate values and there are only a limited number of them who manage their values into everything they do. Meanwhile, I’m getting more and more convinced that if you want to be successful in social media, you really need those corporate values – and you need to manage them.

Why is that?
If you look at the old world of marketing, a company’s positioning was based upon marketing communication, whereas in the current world, positioning is based on company culture, and it’s the employees of a company that make that culture tangible. So, an advertiser can tell me whatever they want on a TV commercial, but if the friends in my network have a different experience and they share it with me, those voices are more credible to me than the advertising. For companies, this means that employees are the most important media. They are the mirror of a company’s culture. And so company culture needs to become part of the marketing strategy.

Can you think of a company that exemplifies all the lessons that you are trying to get across in The Conversation Company?
Well, there’s Intel, for instance. Intel is a company that is really advanced with social media and uses it from different angles. But they have always been innovative, outgoing and thought leaders in the things that they do.

One of the companies that is on its way is KLM. If you look at the financial data you’ll see that they haven’t been doing so well – but they are investing a lot in using social media to reconnect with their consumers. They were one of the first companies in Europe to have 24/7 online customer service. They are very good at content marketing, using the power of social media to reach out to millions of people in a very positive way. They also score well on collaboration. They do it in two ways. One is on their Facebook page, where they publicly source and share ideas and customer input, but they also have a private customer group for closed collaboration.

Within KLM, all these initiatives started with a small team of people, initially operating below the radar. Soon management picked it up, they started to win awards and get a lot of visibility for their work and now they are a team of 30. Top management see the value of this team because they increase the perception of the brand and bring in a lot of money by generating traffic for the company’s ecommerce platform.

Steven van Belleghem is managing partner of InSites Consulting. His books The Conversation Manager and The Conversation Company are available on Amazon