With the advent of social media, the concept of 'conversational marketing' has taken on new life.
To be sure, good companies have always engaged in a form of dialog with consumers but "conversationalists" (as some marketers now apparently call themselves) often hint at the notion that words are the keys to success.
Yet in my opinion, a major flaw with the modern concept of conversational marketing is that far too much emphasis is placed on conversation and not enough on making sure that conversation is meaningful and leads to outcomes that create tangible value.
This, however, isn't conversational marketing's greatest flaw.
The biggest problem with conversational marketing today is that brands are being led to believe that a conversation is more important than action.
This is exemplified by Shel Israel's recent interview with Richard Binhammer, "the Dell communications officer most involved in social media".
"In 2006, Dell was scorned by bloggers who accused it of shoddy support and products. I was among them.
"Dell today is praised as one of the companies that 'gets it,' when it comes to social media marketing, and the company's social media activities are a key component to a turnaround-in-progress."
These two paragraphs provide a subtle demonstration of the fact that there's apparently an increasingly unrecognized difference between talk and action.
Observe that the first paragraph notes the criticisms Dell received for lacklustre products and support. The second paragraph states that Dell understands social media. It says absolutely nothing about what matters - whether or not Dell improved the quality of its products and support.
Binhammer states that Dell's primary use of social media is to "listen to customers and respond to what they want from us."
Given that, the obvious question is: has Dell effectively leveraged its investor relations blog, Twitter account and IdeaStorm site to respond in a manner that satisfies consumers on a large scale?
According to the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, Dell was at the bottom of the pack in 2007 and actually lost 5 percentage points from the previous year. As reported by News.com:
"Dell also dropped 5 percent after raising its ranking last year. Dell's problem is customers' perception of product reliability as well as service, Fornell said. As examples, just this year, both shipping delays of the much-anticipated XPS M1330 notebook and the New York Attorney General Office's decision to sue Dell for consumer fraud have made news."
Interestingly, the article notes that Dell's decision to launch its Direct2Dell blog is a "direct result of the troubles they've had in the past".
Unfortunately for Dell, last week's New York Supreme Court ruling that it "engaged in repeated misleading, deceptive and unlawful business conduct, including false and deceptive advertising of financing promotions and the terms of warranties, fraudulent, misleading and deceptive practices in credit financing and failure to provide warranty service and rebates" is probably not going to help its image and won't help Dell make "friends" with the consumers it cheated.
John Spooner, an analyst at market research firm TBRi notes:
"Customer perception doesn't change very fast. You can do tremendous amounts of work and not move the needle very much. It's going to take a long time."
And therein lies the rub with conversational marketing.
Consumer perception is based primarily on the quality of the products and services you provide and improving those things is often not easy for companies.
Companies with less-than-stellar reputations can converse with consumers and the mere act of conversing will fool some of them (like Shel Israel) but such engagement realistically has little tangible impact if consumers are not satisfied with what you sell them.
In the case of Dell, listening and conversing means nothing if consumers don't see talk matched by action. In that sense, consumer sentiment currently essentially indicates that "Dell is more talk than action."
None of this is to say that brands like Dell shouldn't talk with consumers. But they do need to understand that the old adage "talk is cheap" applies to conversational marketing too.
It's very easy to start a "conversation" with consumers but it's usually much more difficult to provide a product or service that meets their expectations.
Successful businesses, however, are built on the latter - not the former.
While consumers may appreciate the fact that a company will "talk" to them, companies relying on conversation more than the strengths of their products and services have serious problems.
As such, companies should invest first and foremost in making sure that they do a good job of providing consumers with the products and services they want and need.
I would also point out what may seem counterintuitive to conversationalists - the fact that sometimes silence is the best indicator of consumer satisfaction.
Many consumers - if not most - don't want to hold a conversation with a company, however.
If I buy a computer from Dell, for instance, it's my hope that I will never talk with Richard Binhammer because if I have to, it probably means that there's a problem.
The truth is that good products and services speak volumes for themselves. They don't need dedicated "conversationalists" and "community managers" speaking for them.