Controlling the conversations

I was revisiting some of Seth Godin's work today, and one phrase in particular got me thinking. When discussing Hallmark's e-cards website, he observed of the customers: "many of them aren't looking for Hallmark to have a voice in the conversation, so they're not listening to any news Hallmark might want to share." If the internet gives you the opportunity to have global, distributed conversations with friends, customers and strangers, then if you want to create a platform for this to happen, working out your role in those conversations strikes me as essential. So off the top of my head, here are four roles you can play as the host of online conversations:-

  1. Get out of the way: how often have you heard from the creators of Facebook? If you are providing a utility to allow other people to talk to one another, then they really don't want to be bothered by you. It's like your local pub landlord constantly butting into your conversation with an old friend to tell you about the pub quiz next week, or the special offers for Christmas parties. If people are coming to your website to talk to one another, don't get confused and think they're there to talk to you. Just concentrate on clearing the glasses and responding quickly and unobstrusively when they ask for more nibbles.
  2. Chair the meetings: sometimes, strangers and business associates need structures to support their conversations and make them more constructive. In these situations, your role as host is to provide facilitation, moderation and definition to each conversation, by setting the agendas clearly and providing tools to help people focus, interact and reach decisions. Digg, for example, limits the conversation topic to "news", and then to particular subject threads, and also provides users with systems to decide which stories are most important, and to moderate disagreements to keep things constructive. Sometimes, as on discussion forums, this is about direct interventions in the conversations; but often it's just about framing the meeting right and giving people enough post-its.
  3. Join in: in some cases, particularly in private communities like local societies or the fellowship network Sociability are developing for the RSA, the people running the platform actually have a great deal to contribute to the conversation themselves. Charities and membership organisations in particular usually have paid officials who lead the organisation's activity in a particular area, who carry authority in any conversation with members and volunteers because of their expertise and their access to organisational resources. But is this the same as the users wanting to hear from the organisation? Of course not. It's not about the organisation at all, it's about the people in it. The best way for an organisation to join in conversations is for each staffmember to participate as an individual, just like everybody else. Drop the corporate front and gain the ability to condition the space through your own actions and add value to the community, and your organisation. Stop treating your staff as separate from your online community, and set them free to join in and meet their customers.
  4. Deus ex machina: at the end of many badly-constructed plays, movies and novels, the deficiencies of the plot are resolved by the sudden introduction of an improbable new element, the Deus ex machina who descends from above, halting the action and setting things right. Of course there are times when you need to talk to everyone who uses your website, the "time Gentlemen please" of your distributed local pub. But just remember that, when you do, all the other conversations will stop as your booming voice echoes across the stage. And when you do that, you better be saying something worth hearing.

The challenge, of course, is how do you tell (and sell) things to the community if you can't broadcast corporate messages to them. That's the challenge of course, and not a straightforward one. But if you can build a community of people around particular topics, a shared vision or a pleasant social environment, then you are closer to your customers than ever before. So, perhaps the next step after that is to ask them what they need?