The new art of conversation

Prague Leaders Magazine, January 2009

As 2008 came to a close, to no one’s surprise, Time magazine chose Barack Obama to grace the cover of its annual Person of the Year edition.

Though there are certainly many reasons for the selection, top among them would certainly be the fact that on January 20th Barack Obama will make history by being the first African American president to move into the White House.

Much has also been said and written about the success of his presidential campaign last year, which was notable particularly for its innovative use and understanding of new technologies, notably the Internet, to engage and motivate American voters.

As a business coach, my main focus is not on technology, but rather on people, their needs, behaviors and communication styles. As a member of the baby boom generation, my understanding of digital communication is limited. And quite frankly, I am not sure what added value this mix of new applications including wikis, microblogs, news aggregators, social media releases, videos, and podcasts would bring to my coaching practice.

However, after seeing how masterfully Obama leveraged social media and networking technology in his campaign to become the 44th US president, I realized that a whole new world of digital communications has emerged in the past few years and that, as a communications professional, it is important that I learn more about it.

While I admit that I still have difficulty navigating the field of social media and grasping all its possibilities, what fascinates me most is how social media is able to encourage conversation and get people talking. The monologue of television seems to have given way to the dialogue of the Internet and a new way of engaging with the world.

As such, social media represents a major shift in the way we communicate with each other. The younger generation is obviously already comfortable using these tools. While there will always be the telephone and email for us “old folks”, it is very important to understand that many important conversations are or will be going on exclusively in the social media arena.

Starting the conversation

Conversation once happened around the water cooler, in cafes, or over the counter. In such conversations, friends and colleagues shared stories and information about things they had heard about, bought, or discovered.

Today, the Internet allows people to get together anytime, anywhere and start a conversation about anything. Social media opens up the conversation to audiences big and small, who can in turn provide feedback, add new ideas or develop a completely new idea.

Businesses have a new tool with which to build a personal connection with their customers; perhaps more significantly, social media has provided customers with a novel avenue to express their ideas and opinions about a product or service, which can then be directed to both the companies themselves and to other consumers. For organizations trying to promote a program or cause, social media can be an important tool in encouraging people to evaluate their opinions, get off the fence and become involved.

For its part, the Obama campaign was the first presidential campaign to fully embrace the ideas and practices of social media and to confidently navigate an electronic landscape made up of bloggers, viral videos and virtual communities. As a result, attracted millions of hits and was a key factor in keeping supporters engaged and connected. Using all kinds of social networking platforms, they played an enormous role in spreading his message of hope and his vision of “Yes We Can”.

Thanks to the power of these new technologies, this campaign was less about money (though the Internet was also successfully used to in collecting millions of dollars in donations) and more about the millions of people who were now engaged in the dialogue. The Internet helped Obama shape a campaign that was increasingly built around the concepts of community, conversation and participation.

Online conversation

The virtual water coolers of a new millennium include social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as microblogs like Twitter and Jaiku. The conversation is similar in many places: people are talking about their interests, expressing their opinions, posting comments about what they are doing or blogging about what they think about various issues.

These social networking platforms allow people to join in or create groups and invite like-minded individuals to participate in the dialogue. Anyone with a computer and a connection to the Internet has a voice, the ability to participate and the chance to share information.

It’s no surprise of course, that brands throughout the world see social media as a way of raising their profiles, and attracting the attention of Internet users at home and at work. Companies want to be part of the conversation too, or to at least occasionally influence the conversation with the aim of pulling people away from their computers and into a store. However, even if a potential customer doesn’t actually buy anything, the time they spent engaging with the brand online still makes any investment of time and money worthwhile. For that reason, many companies are setting up dedicated teams assigned to the “social media project’, because they realize that they too need to join the conversation.

Businesses could certainly take a page out of the Obama campaign’s playbook: its use of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to mobilize young voters, a demographic that has traditionally been uninterested in politics, was considered pivotal in the success in the election.

Joining the conversation

Thanks to Internet and social media tools, we are increasingly living in a conversational culture. People will talk about anything; the question is who is listening?

Before you or your company joins the conversation, first consider your target audience and understand how and with whom they are interacting online. Factors such as gender, age, nationality and socio-economic background all play a role in determining which social media is most appropriate for you to join in the conversation. While the Obama campaign did use mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to reach out to potential voters, it also established a presence on lesser-known, alternative social networking sites such as Black Planet, MiGente and AsianAve, as well as Eons, Faithbase and Glee. Additionally, the campaign created its own platform on, which saw more than 2 million people create their profiles there.

Participating in social media is more effective when you have a deeper understanding of your audience and not simply the social tools that facilitate interaction. This is about creating and cultivating relationships with people, online and in the real world, and these relationships are defined by mutual value and benefits.

It’s not important to be involved in every social media channel – but it is important to understand where your customers are and how they are communicating with each other. Pick the most appropriate “conversation” for your product. As you participate in these new discussions, be sure to listen to what people have to say and try to learn from them. They learn. You learn. It’s about building a community around people. The rest is just tools to facilitate the conversation.

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.