Monday, May 5, 2014

Digital Conversations

Don't you hate how impersonal mega-corporations are? If you have a problem, someone wordlessly hands you a hotline number that goes to a robot recording with multiple choice answers. Someone complains about a product and they erase the comment from social media as if you can wipe out problems by denying them. (What happens, of course, is that social media blows up and calls them rat-faced turds. You'd think they'd learn by now.)

There's no conversation, no interaction, and no humanity.

For most of human history, businesses were as large as the family that owned them, with an apprentice thrown in. The history of corporations spanning not just counties but continents is a tiny blip in the expanse of social evolution. For most of our memory, we were used to knowing who we were buying from and controlling consumer markets with the force of social disposition.

Consumers' opinions used to matter. In many rural places, they still do. If all your neighbors think you're a nasty person who beats his wife and kids, they won't buy from you, and there goes your business. These days, corporations like Walmart can stiff thousands of employees out of livable wages and if anyone righteously refrains from shopping there, they just move to another town, another market.

The thing about my generation is that we're really passionate about the social issues of our day. Most millennials have strong opinions about the environment, gay rights, the debt crisis, modern slavery, poverty, racism. Moreover, they're saying something about it.

That's what our generation is good at: getting the word out.

We're plugged into a vast network of friends, acquaintances, and people with shared interests. We carry that network around in our pockets and we check in all day long. Instead of reading newspapers, we read news apps tailored to our interests. Consequently, we get all the news we care about, constantly, and all day long we sort through the information, find the good stuff, and pass it on to our networks with a tap of the finger.

My generation is really good at that. Sorting mass quantities of information. Speaking out in the right forums.

It's truly incredible how things can go viral and get millions of views in hours. What's even more incredible is that there's something going viral every day. There's always something new piquing our interest. The older generations often tease us about how our attention jumps around like a bunny on crack, but in this day and age it's the only way to keep up. We're really good at it.

The mega-corps haven't figured all this out yet. They haven't figured out that the internet is a place where everyone listens and everyone talks. They haven't figured out that online, CEO is just three letters in caps.

In all of this, the (forgive the stereotype) old white guys just transfer of information. When bad info about their company gets out, they try to change it. They try to control information. Wrong. With the internet, you can't control information. You can only interact with it.

That's why millennials are glued to smartphones. The internet is primarily about interaction. Real friendships are forged there. People say, "you need real relationships!" and I wholeheartedly agree: nothing replaces the face-to-face. But you need to understand that we have real relationships online too.

Remember what millennials are good at: sorting information and knowing when and where to talk about it.

We can navigate the internet like no one else because we were raised on a steady diet of it. When someone oversteps a bound, we know exactly which network to connect to in order to send the news down the grapevine to all the people who care. We know how to start movements online. It may look like we're sitting lackadaisically on the couch, but we're actually forging paths of social justice and shouting out with everything we've got. It's a cyber-world today, and while the older gen worries about the white picket fence, the younger is picketing online to change the world.

This is where corporations need to go: into the online communities. They need to join the conversation. They need to forge relationships. If they really want to have a say in what millennials think about them, they need to be willing to let communication be a two-way street.

This is as true of mega-corps as it is of consultants. Anyone doing marketing needs to hop on this train. Join social media, start a blog, have a website, but don't stop there. Keep up with your contacts; comment on their posts; reply to comments; share and promote people or articles you like. Marketing isn't about pretty pictures any more. It's about who you are and about building real relationships with your followers.

My favorite social media outlet is Twitter. I follow all kinds of people: friends, old coworkers, favorite authors, people who post news about The Hobbit movies. Before I consider following someone, I look at one thing: do they follow other people? If you have 10k followers but only follow 100 people yourself, I'm less inclined to follow you.

Why? Because I know I'll just be consuming your posts, never interacting about it. There are some fantastic, even famous, people out there whose posts I've commented on and gotten back a short response. They didn't spend tons of time on the comment. It's twitter; your responses can only be 140-characters anyway. But those responses are why I love social media and why I follow that person. I know it's a conversation.

The internet is the agora of modern society. Online, there's true democracy, with all the accompanying chaos. It's not the powerful who hold sway, but the people who have a point.

If you want to sell to millennials, don't just post pretty pictures. Have a point. Say it. And listen when we talk. If you want people to listen, you have to listen to them.

Word count: 991.