Social Engagement and the Cocktail Party Problem
How do you pick a voice out of the all the chatter, and attend to what they’re saying, especially when the conversations around you are louder than the one you're having? This is called the cocktail party problem. Yet the brain is able to defuse the ambient sound and channel the voices we’re interested in. In scientific terms this has been explained as "selective cortical representation of attended speaker in multi-talker speech perception." No matter how you describe it, although we give it little thought, it’s a remarkable and critical ability we use every day.
I often hear this question, in one form or another, “How can I, or my Web site, be heard in the worldwide crowd?” It’s easy to view the Web as a cacophony of voices in which it is impossible to expect to be heard over all the noise. That’s a reasonable conclusion. Why would you want to be heard over the voices? When you enter a crowded room are you inclined to yell in order to get everyone’s attention? It doesn’t make sense and yet some consider this to be the aim of social marketing. It’s an unattainable goal. A better approach is the cocktail party problem. Rather than trying to get everyone’s attention, enter the room, look for someone to talk to, ignore unwanted noise, and pay attention to what the other person is saying. This is exactly how we all “work the room” in real life. Also, don’t forget, the most interesting people are very good listeners. The Bible put’s it another way, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak.” (James 1:19) This is excellent advice and a principle that works online as well. Rather than clamoring for attention, if you listen carefully to online conversations, you can filter out posts about your brand, your products, customer issues, trends, and so on, allowing you to engage meaningfully with customers to bring to them real value and to bring to your business real money (to put it bluntly). More on social listening in a moment.
Social Engagement vs. Social Marketing
This is why social engagement is so much more effective than social marketing. Let’s take a moment to discuss social marketing. Marketing implies getting your name out there, brand recognition, top-of-mind awareness, and a million other buzz words. Abbreviations like SEO, for search engine optimization, and SEM, for search engine marketing, are the catch phrases of social marketers and unfortunately the esoteric language of online “snake oil salesmen.” SEO and SEM are passive marketing approaches that wreak of old world thinking. Consider it mathematically. Let’s say there are ten search results on Google’s home page and thirty car dealerships in your town. They all hire the best SEO and SEM marketers in the world. Can they all achieve first page ranking? For the sake of argument let’s say we lived in the world of quantum mechanics and they did manage to get thirty dealerships in to ten results, will this translate into clicks? Does this automatically translate into real business? Show me the money!
Sometimes very successful brick-and-mortar businesses appear to lose their minds when they open an online storefront. To illustrate let’s create a hypothetical retail store called Fred’s Fun Stuff. Fred spent years building a business, building relationships with customers, carving out a niche, and as a result he enjoys increased profits year over year. He knows he needs to go online so he launches an online store. He buys all the hoopla about social marketing and spends out the wazoo to get good search engine placement. It works, he gets good site traffic, but he’s not selling much online. He learns that nearly everything he has in his store can be bought on Amazon for less so he starts to cut his prices to compete with Amazon. His customers find out they can buy from him cheaper online. Now he’s moving the same amount of products, has less foot traffic in his stores, and due to smaller margins he has less profit. Well done Fred! The problem? Fred lost his mind.
In his brick-and-mortar store Fred doesn’t try to compete on price with the likes of Walmart. Why? He knows he can’t. So what does he do? Fred listens to his customers, engages with them, supports them, cares about them, and he builds relationships. “I go to Fred’s because of the personal attention.” “He has the coolest store and lets me try stuff out. If I don’t like it I can bring it back.” “Fred always stands behind his products.” You get the point. In a nutshell Fred does stuff Walmart can’t and won’t do. These are called differentiators and it is one reason some retailers stay around when others go under. There are many differentiators that make your “real world” business successful. The key is to bring those same factors to your online venture. Success tends to beget success.
In the cocktail party problem it's all about attention and how that attention can change your brain. The same is true for social listening. A system has to be put in place to serve as your ears to listen in on all the conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, and so on. Of course listening requires more than just ears. The system must be able to filter conversations by triggers like products, competitors, geographic location, key phrases, and then be able to bring these conversations to your attention. A dashboard shows you the conversations you want to “hear” in real time. Now you can engage. This is active, not passive, marketing.
To illustrate let’s say you’re listening to social networks for any mention of a competitor and you find several customers complaining because a product is out of stock. You have the product in stock so you engage the customer and let them know about the availability. Not only have you made a sale but, just as important, you’ve begun a new relationship. Relationship marketing, the differentiators, kick in, focusing on customer retention. (Check out my blog for more details on Social Listening)
I don’t mean to give you the impression there isn’t a place for SEO and SEM. These are important components for the same reason you may list your number and put a sign above your brick-and-mortar business. There is a place for passive marketing as there is a place for advertising. Online success isn’t about achieving good search engine ranking only to wait for someone to click on your site in hopes of a sale. Online success is about pursuing relationships. To put it in the framework of the cocktail party problem: You enter the worldwide social networking mixer, you have on your SEO/SEM name tag, and you listen to the conversations to identify that next opportunity. You work the room, you engage, you follow up, and you build relationships.