Starting a dialogue: why sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut.

Since the rise of social media, there’s been a distinct shift in the world of brand communications. Instead of taking the traditional approach of telling the world how amazing they are (also known as advertising), more and more brands are now cottoning on to the novel idea of a two-way conversation. That is, using the internet as a platform to engage with their customers, ask them questions, and (lo and behold) sometimes even listen to the answers.

In communications land, we’re now referring to this using all sorts of delightful new terminology. “Online engagement” is one term commonly bandied about. “Collaborative marketing” is another. My personal fave: “starting a dialogue” (mmm, love the smell of jargon in the morning).


In many ways, this zeal around ‘dialogue’ is a great thing.

Gone are the days of boring, self-obsessed monologues from brands waxing lyrical about their own brilliance. Gone is the expectation that people will listen to this drivel like wide-eyed toddlers. Thanks to the internet (in particular social media), consumers have taken a stand, found a voice, and are demanding to be heard – not just told. As a result, the onus is now on brands to take a genuine interest in what their customers think, instead of making convenient assumptions.

There’s nowhere to run, and no billion-dollar TV campaigns to hide behind.

Sabir Samtani, founder of digital experience agency Reborn, definitely thinks this change is positive. “Brands just can’t get away with shouting at us anymore,” he says. ”There’s an expectation that they’ll make an effort to communicate with people when and how they want.”

The beauty of an online dialogue is that it also gives brands a direct line to customers, so it’s pretty easy to see how communications are being received. Unlike old school ‘above the line’ ads (involving hard-to-measure media like TV and outdoor) online campaigns can be deemed a success or failure almost immediately. All you need to do is watch the likes and comments roll in (or the tumbleweeds roll by).

And speaking of comments – this is actually where things start to get a little complicated. Because, while opening up an dialogue is fine in theory, it can be quite another matter in practice.


The problem with starting a dialogue: you never know where it’ll lead.

No matter how well we think we know our audience, we are not mind readers. So when we kick off a conversation online, we can never ever really be 100% certain what will happen. These days, even a seemingly innocent post can trigger a stream of vitriol, and cause offense to god knows how many minority groups.

One organisation that certainly learned the hard way was the New York Police Department – who, back in 2014, naively invited the public to share pics of themselves with local police officers using the hashtag #mynypd. Sadly, it quickly (and embarrassingly) became clear that they were a wee bit out of touch with how New Yorkers really felt about the cops.

A similar thing happened more recently here on home turf, when betting business William Hill asked Aussies to #NameAHorseRace – and also back in 2011, when Qantas tried to put words in people’s mouths. In every case, the lesson is pretty clear: ignorance is not bliss, at least not when it comes to the opinions of the twitterverse.

Of course not all social media surprises are bad. Sometimes dialogue helps a brand to gain fresh relevance, or find unexpected pockets of supporters. But the thing is, you never know for sure. And thanks to the Share button, sh*t can escalate scarily quickly. Just ask the folks who were responsible for last year’s Australian Census.


So how do you avoid your dialogue ending in disaster?

While starting a dialogue is never foolproof, there are a few ways you can keep things (more or less) on track, mitigate the worst disasters, and avoid wasting your time and money. Here’s what we recommend that our clients do.


#1. Listen before you speak.

Just like in life, it helps to know who you’re talking to (and what’s on their mind) before you blunder into a conversation. Luckily, brands can now take advantage of social listening tools to do just that.

“These tools have been around for a while but they’re becoming increasingly sophisticated,” explains Samtani. “A lot of brands have previously seen this type of research as a ‘nice to have’ but really, it’s something well worth investing in. You just never know what insights will come out of it.”

It’s true that social listening has helped companies like Pizza Hut and Uber refine their offering – and it was even used to predict the results of the 2016 Federal Election. In my mind, it’s kind of like eavesdropping before you even enter the room – if you had the opportunity, why wouldn’t you?


#2. Make sure the conversation has a point.

Once you have a rough idea of how people perceive your brand, it's time to decide what you want from the conversation you’re about to have. Do you want to gain new customers? Change how people see you? Get some free market research? Before you move another inch, get this clear in your mind (and across your team).

Because let's be honest, we’ve all felt the annoyance that comes from pointless brand communications: those emails you regret even opening, those robotic status updates, those lame Instagram posts that are a waste of pixels. The internet is clogged with brands (and people) who are talking for the sake of talking. Please, I beg you, don’t add to their numbers.

Instead, consider the power you have, and use it to actually do something useful. Ask for people’s opinion on a product. Quiz them about their bugbears. Gauge their interest in an idea. Share something you think they’ll find entertaining or useful. There are so many great things you can do by connecting with customers. Talking sh*t to give yourself a token ‘presence’ is not one of them.


#3. Never leave the room.

It’s surprising how many brands start a dialogue online, only to panic or vanish as soon as people start to engage. Should go without saying, but being there is kind of essential. After all, anonymous public forums can easily become unbalanced, off topic, or derailed by overly vocal assholes. If you don’t take the time to answer questions, respond to comments or moderate debates, you kind of deserve what’s coming to you.

“Quite a few brands have moments when they nail social media, but the hard thing is being consistent,” says Samtani. “But that can often be attributed to one great Community Manager. It’s not really fair, or sustainable, to rely on one person. The brands who do well invest in language guidelines and resources to make sure they’re communicating actively and consistently across all touch points. Vodafone and Qantas are both good examples of brands who have managed to get back in customers' good books by taking this approach.”



#4. Don’t let your hard work go to waste.

Forgive me if this sounds boringly practical, but when it comes to dialogue, I really believe it’s best when all the talk actually helps achieve something. If you’re going to the trouble of engaging with your customers, why not use all the insights (and data) you’re gathering to make things better for them?

I mean, how annoying is it when someone asks your opinion on something, then proceeds to ignore it?

Give people more of the stuff they like, and less of what they don’t. Thank them for their loyalty. Listen to their feedback, and use it to improve what you’re doing. Acknowledge when you’ve gotten it wrong, and commit to making a change. Do whatever you can. It won’t go unnoticed.


So, what’s the bottom line?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, successful dialogue ain’t for the fainthearted. It requires strategic thinking, long-term commitment, significant time and energy. And it requires guts! If you have what it takes to engage in a meaningful way, you’ll be rewarded in spades. In my mind, there’s no better way to get closer to customers, and build relationships that actually mean something.

So…. anyone want to start a dialogue about dialogue? I’m wide open.


Emma Heath is a Sydney-based communications professional and founder of copywriting & tone of voice consultancy Words By Nuance.