Digital Marketing, Social Media Strategy, PR 20, Social CRM

Is Social Conversation a Myth?

Mitch Joel, whose blog and work I greatly admire, wrote a very interesting blog post recently that bemoaned the lack of conversation in social media. As coined by Joseph Jaffe (another good guy who was incidentally the very first guest on my series of live Twitter interviews), businesses have been trying to Join the Conversation for a while now. Yet, Mitch doesn’t see it happening in social media. He writes:

There is not much conversation going on at all.

Here’s what I do see:

  • Blogs that have comments, with little back and forth. Some Bloggers respond to the comments and some don’t.
  • Those that do have comments, usually have no further comment from the person who left a comment in the first place. That’s not a conversation. That’s feedback.
  • Individuals not leaving a comment to engage in a conversation, but simply to promote their own links or to chest-thump.
  • Twitter doesn’t really bring out a conversation. It’s a great place to broadcast and get some quick tidbits, but let’s face it, unless you’re creating spiritual and motivation tweets, it’s hard to have substance in 140 characters (or less – if you’re looking for a retweet).
  • Even in cool arenas like the #blogchat that takes place on Twitter every Sunday night, it feels more like everyone screaming a thought at once than a conversation that can be followed and engaged with.
  • Facebook has some great banter with the wall posts and status updates, but it’s more chatty than conversational and it’s not an open/public environment.

None of this is a bad thing… it just is.

Expect Less

I can see where Mitch is coming from. The increasing prevalence of social media is creating a lock step increase in uni-directional social media chest thumping. But what do we expect? That somehow we’re going to devise all these weird new technologies that allow us to send messages back and forth in cyberspace, and that somehow conversation is actually going to improve? We’ve been on a downhill slide conversationally ever since Alexander Graham Bell uttered “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.”

To expect social media to truly emulate conversation as we know it is a fools errand. The information exchange is asynchronous. You can’t have asides (other than DMs). You miss out on any and all non-verbal communication (which is the lions share of how we actually communicate).

The real problem is expectation management. Joe Jaffe coined “conversation” (wisely), but it’s a misnomer. Other than a tweet back and forth, etc. it’s really not possible for a company (or even an individual like me) to have true conversations within social media – and certainly not with any real scale or breadth.

But Don’t Settle for Less

Now, there’s a difference between striving for conversation and settling for broadcasting. The success path must lie somewhere in the middle of those two boundaries. That’s why “humanization” is – at least to me – a better and more accurate description of what companies and individuals can and should aspire to achieve on the social Web. Opening the kimono and giving customers and prospects a better sense of who is part of the company, how that company operates, and what it stands for in a less formal, more spontaneous fashion is doable. Remember, social media makes big companies seem small again. And that’s a worthy objective. Real, meaningful conversations? Not so much.

It’s like consultants telling companies to be “transparent”. Sure, we’ll just post every company memo, financial statement, legal preceding, etc. on our website. That’ll be great. I love what my friend Beth Harte has to say on this issue. She believes the best we can hope for is “translucency” – and I concur.

Is Technology the Problem, or the Solution?

The problem is not that people are too infatuated with their “personal brands” and refuse to engage meaningfully. Instead, our lack of social conversation is a byproduct of technological realities that do nothing but create obstacles for actual conversation. If you wanted to create a system that replicated as best as possible the physical act of two people speaking to one another in the same place at the same time, would you build Twitter, or a WordPress comment system, or Facebook, or Linkedin? Absolutely not. Google Wave was the closest we’ve come, and that got killed off faster than the new Knight Rider TV show. We can’t continue jamming a square peg in a round hole hoping it will eventually fit, and then being frustrated when it doesn’t.

But yet, the fact that true conversations per se are unlikely shouldn’t serve as sufficient cultural permission to turn social media into Headline News. There’s a happy medium, right?

Facebook Comments


  1. says

    I LOVE your blog, Jay, but with all due respect, how much of what you do is conversant and how much of it is simply broadcasting? I have tremendous respect for blogger that are not too busy to at least acknowledge comments with a simple “thank you.” Bret

  2. says

    I LOVE your blog, Jay, but with all due respect, how much of what you do is conversant and how much of it is simply broadcasting? I have tremendous respect for blogger that are not too busy to at least acknowledge comments with a simple “thank you.” Bret

  3. Anonymous says

    Nice piece Jay. The challenge is the fact that what companies are using to host these ‘faux’ conversations isn’t equipped to do so. Conversations require iteration and modifications as new information is digested. In a face to face setting, a human digests info so rapidly and changes the style or substance based on the new data. Technology isn’t quite there, but companies can allow for meaningful iterative phases. A sincere opportunity for legit back and forth where the end result is a transformation of content or output from the original source based on the new info absorbed. FB & Twitter (and blogs) simply aren’t equipped to handle these deeper paths, however, a good moderator/manager CAN make the most of it and gently shepherd the masses to meaningful and actionable pastures. Nice post, quality topic, thanks!

  4. says

    1. I’ve often wondered about this “conversation” issue. It seems like so much effort in the blogosphere is spent on telling others to comment, “Comment to get the attention of major bloggers” “Comment to become known in your industry” “Take part in the conversations where they’re taking place” I wonder how many people comment just because they, well, have a comment to make, without some ulterior motive?

    2. “Remember, social media makes big companies seem small again. And that’s a worthy objective. Real, meaningful conversations? Not so much.”
    But boy, social media is about “real meaningful conversations” I feel continues to be the mantra in so much of the social media world.

    3. Like all new inventions, people tend to try and make something new, fit something old. Just like initially newspaper websites were just electronic versions of that day’s paper. I think social media is still settling into a niche between real conversations, and simple statements.

    4. Twitter I feel is a conversation in shorthand. It eliminates distance/pedigree/position/and depth between people. So while incredibly useful, it’s usefulness isn’t obvious, because it’s not exactly a conversation, nor does it work primarily like a megaphone.

    5. Real conversations are extremely difficult to take part in on a massive scale. I can’t even read all the blog feeds I get, let alone comment on 10 percent of the blogs. I therefore think it’s unrealistic to expect deep conversations in this medium.

  5. says

    Excellent comment. Thank you very much. And no ulterior motive. I
    agree that Twitter is perhaps the most conversational, because the
    back and forth is more immediate. Still less than ideal, however.

    No question that “have conversations” is still the mantra out there,
    and it contributes to the angst among businesses, because it’s to some
    degree an unrealistic expectation.

  6. says

    Jay — spot on!! It may be unfortunate in some respects that conversation becomes the watch-word for this medium. Ah, the power of words to set a stage and tell a story… Humanization is more precise and perhaps honest about the interaction and its value.

    Ironically, I believe this is how brand relationships are now being built — at the center a relationship must be developed and “permission” earned for brands to “enter” the consumer’s life based on their meaning and relevance. For me I see this as a requirement for brands to humanize themselves — not only in their communications, but also in how they structure their value proposition. Stop treating consumers like transactions-in-waiting, and instead look to be enablers and helpers of their lifestyle passions.

    Another way of saying it: imagine if we treated customer relationships like we do our dearest and most important friendships. What a change in the dynamic. And in the end you can’t help but humanize the whole process of brand building if you buy into this as the right pathway for business growth.

    As always really enjoyed your post. Insightful.

  7. says

    Well, maybe ol’ Mitch and ol’ Joe are wrong to expect conversation. Elvis Presley never conversed with his fans, but he certainly connected with millions of them.

    Focus on the /connection/ that derives from newfangled social media tools. The conversation is icing on the cake, and it requires much more work of the old-fashioned sort.

  8. says

    Can’t say I agree here and perhaps it’s more of a personal experience thing here.

    A lot of the observations that you describe here, while certainly valid in that they occur, really seem to be symptoms of “marketing” and “social media” bloggers within the bubble. In the countless other areas of blogging that I’ve seen through Scribnia, there is a great deal of interaction between bloggers and their readers, and amongst readers.

    True, blogchat isn’t very conversational these days. A result of it’s success perhaps? Or perhaps, since literally every person in that chat has a blog (and therefore, a brand) they’re less concerned with discussion as opposed to branding?

    Other twitter chats still have a great deal of conversation. Kaizen Blog with Valeria Maltoni is one that has remained small but always guarantees great interaction and conversation.

    The u30pro chat that I moderate with Lauren Fernandez have amazing discussions every week as far as I’ve gathered from the community.

    I’ve seen some linkedin groups with great discussions. Also the Q&A system that linkedin and more and more sites are starting to use (sprouter, inc, etc…) while being very structured, could certainly be considered conversational.

    Beyond that, when I think of social media, I don’t just think of the tools like twitter, linkedin and facebook. I think of the great web based communities like brazen careerist and 20something bloggers. Both of these communities have a great deal of interaction and conversation. There are plenty more like them.

    I have “asides” daily, using tools outside of twitter, but with people I’ve met on twitter. I use skype and gchat regularly. Are they not “social media” tools?

    What about forums? They’ve been around for a long time but I’d still consider them social media where conversation occurs.

    Even around products, amazon reviews, movie reviews, the comments on Consumers are discussing products and media.

    So I think, if you take a look at social media and the web through a wider (and more applicable) lense, you’ll see that there is a great deal of conversation happening.

    David, Scribnia

  9. says

    Interesting thoughts here on what defines a conversation. Is a conversation asynchronous or synchronous? Is a conversation a monologue, dialogue or could it even be a polylogue?

    Here’s a different spin on conversations with some research about the effectiveness of online conversations. I’m going to get a little education geeky and jargon filled. I’ve tried to simplify it.

    Research published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication shows that online polylogues (multiple people talking with each other simultaneously) is better than a monologue (speaker presentation) or dialogue (turn-taking interactions). Virtual experiences that allow participants to control conversations through polylogues and that are asynchronous increase learning and retention.

    Traditional conversations demand turn-taking interaction, a dialogue, where the process of taking turns may become more important than the message, and comments may be out of sync as a result of waiting for one’s turn. In face-to-face conversations, words follow words, paragraphs follow paragraphs, people’s thought patterns follow a single, one-way linear medium—the talker’s speech–, which discourages flexible, open-ended, multidirectional and multidimensional thought. In short, we have to wait our turn.

    Dr. Davis Foulger has studied online interactions and calls the experience Supersynchrony which allows participants to control of level of synchrony with parallel interactions. He says it’s like bending hyper time. The results: magnified learning opportunities, retention and increased feeling of engagement. Fougler says such hyper synchronous, multi-layered online interaction not only connects each participant in a web of discussion, it affords each participant time to respond during the online synchronous discussion and time to reflect and digest what was said in the archives (comments, tweets, posts). This increases interactivity, learning, retention and is a better than face-to-face learning or conversations. Wow, that’s powerful. Now to just figure out how to monitor and measure the ROI of that.

    For me, it is a redefining interpersonal communication and recognizing the limitations of the traditional conversation as a one-to-one linear dialogue. Polylogues and online conversations increase participants’ interactivity and engagement. We just have to readjust our thinking that everyone is screaming at each other and no one is listening. It’s a new way to define conversation and it feels foreign to most.

    Make sense?

  10. says

    Let’s be frank (whoever Frank is?). True “conversation” doesn’t scale. I don’t care if you’re a Fortune 500 or a little #blogchat on twitter at some point conversation falls apart. So from that perspective I think it’s fair to say that it’s an unrealistic expectation for a company since they can never achieve the ratio necessary to succeed.

    However, I tend to think of it in a slightly different way. I’ve spent a lot of time noodling on the issue of scale in social media, and things like advocacy programs, etc. are partial remedies to that. “Facilitation of Conversation” may be the more proper term (and hey, it even rhymes). It’s the guiding of the dialog that takes place around your brand. The nudge here and there. The thought instigator.

    Basically, it’s ok to be the Linda Richman of the ‘conversation’. Facebook is neither a face, nor a book. Discuss.

  11. says

    Hi Jay,

    I just discovered you recently and I’m in love. :-)

    Aside from that, here’s my beef with the expectations of social media: Businesses need to make money and sell stuff. Period. That is why they exist. Now as a branding strategist, I preach that having a mission-driven brand helps you do good things while STILL making money. It also enable you to inspire employees, attract partners and get people to love you….and, hello, BUY from you.

    Social media is great for setting your business or yourself up as a thought leader, for sharing ideas, for finding articles and blogs and resources you never knew existed. I believe that social media provides some of the air cover needed to get people to like and trust you – again, so the business can ultimately sell more products or fulfull its mission.

    This unrealistic idea that businesses just want to connect and converse for the fun of it is crazy. Why do people think a business can’t – or shouldn’t – sell using social media? Why else would they invest in it – even if the sale is way off in the distance? Businesses spend time on money on things that yield them more money. Period. To say otherwise is to not understand what profit and loss really mean.

    It’s like the uproar with everyone wanting something for nothing content-wise these days. No commercials, no membership fees, no subscriptions. But by God, I want quality reporting, creative content, advanced technology platforms and expert advice. Yes, some people and businesses enjoy providing this for free for branding purposes or marketing reach, but no one should “expect” good content to be free. Since when have we been able to expect something for nothing? If Facebook wanted to start charging tomorrow, more power to them. I may not use the service anymore but it’s their right when they are putting all the work and technology into connecting everyone and providing the service.

    I’ve gone off on a bit of a tanget and I might be the lone voice in the wind on this, but bringing it back around to say: social media can be a conversation in a SOCIAL setting. But it will never take the place of face to face because you don’t always have everyone in the room at the same time. I think that is what leads to comment-less blogs and promotional updates. Anf if a company is using social media, bottom line is they don’t necessarily want “conversation”. They ultimately want sales. There is no denying that. The positive side of that is that, if it sparks great thought, conversation or creativity (for however long), then that can be a good outcome.

  12. says

    Genius comment, thank you. And I love you right back. As I said the other day, the goal isn’t to be good at social media. The goal is to be good at business, by using social media.

  13. says

    WOW. “Humanization” makes so much more sense, Jay–and it really IS where Social Media excels. I recently ranted about how Facebook makes meaningful converstation among professionals nearly impossible. SO superficial. However, the value in “opening the kimono” is spot on. Even small companies and solopreneurs benefit from showing their human side. Being a brand that people can engage with, emotionally, goes a long way. Social media can certainly help achieve that emotional attachment.

  14. Cbaldwin says


    I liked where Patrick went with this. I agree that social media helps big companies connect with users on a more one-to-one scale and to me, that’s the goal. To let our publics know that they can talk to us and we will listen. You’re right, that might be in 140 characters or less, but honestly, in this impersonable world, I believe at the end of the day, most people (consumers) believe no body really cares about them or that nobody hears them. That to me is what makes social media so exciting. Not that we can have deep, Earth-moving conversations, but simply to know that a brand/company has not only a voice, but an ear and a brain. You simply can’t get that from any other channel.

    Keep up the good stuff. Loved this post.


  15. says

    This is a great post and I agree with the majority of what you say. But, it also made me think of what I use social media for on most days – and I realize that conversations do happen in social media, but it depends on the context of the interaction and the medium being used.

    At Holman for example, the majority of our social media conversations are based on helping people who are moving. As such, I spend a lot of time on forums where I see a lot of real, meaningful conversations unfold. In fact, on, you can read entire threads between victims and moving pros where some serious problems have been solved together by the community. They’ve gone on for days. So, in this context, I think conversations happen every day.

    When it comes to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, however, I’ve had more success using these tools as stepping stones for a greater conversation offline.

  16. Anonymous says

    Your post yesterday sparked some healthy debate, both within the company and from the local Twitter community. Maybe the platforms themselves could create better conversations if they were adapted to do so. You think? As a consequence of your post, I wondered aloud on our own blog what would happen if Twitter simply increased its character limit. Would that change the nature of the engagements? The post is here. if you have an opinion.

    Thanks for starting an enlightening conversation.

  17. says

    Thanks for the shout out Jay. Most companies I talk to live in the world of translucency and their lawyers and management like it that way. The issue with conversation is, as we know, that it’s not scalable. While most companies are trying really hard to keep up, sometimes responses, sharing, engaging, etc. slips through the cracks.

    Is a few back and forth interactions at a cocktail party or local event considered conversation? I’d think so. Perhaps there’s too much pressure for conversation to be something bigger than what it actually is naturally. Just a thought.

  18. says

    It’s great to see a jaded view on social media after flipping through 1,000’s of “Why I love Twitter” posts.

    The social media world to me is like living in New York City. You are one insignificant person among 8 million. In the beginning you try to have conversations with people on the street (twitter?) and nobody really gives a shit about you. You are ignored or insulted. Then you work on building up a network and putting in the time to really know people. Eventually, you do have a small community that you can converse with. This is where most people end up with some effort.

    Then there are the real networkers that get out there everyday and build an empire (not me obviously). I guess the point is that to make it in a sea of millions it’s incredibly hard work and most people will not be able to do it. But with some strategy and time you will be able to meet some good new connections, find relevant content, and maybe even find a lead!

  19. says

    I agree that Google Wave came close to mimicking an actual conversation – looks like Facebook messaging may be heading in the same direction and with Lars Rasmussen’s move to Facebook there is hope that Wave’s brilliance will be seen again – great post thanks

  20. Anonymous says

    Really good post, Jay. I thought about your question, “Is technology the problem or the solution?”

    Maybe technology is the solution, but too much technology is the problem?

  21. letstalkandchat says

    If you’re looking for webinar software, then check out Evergreen Business System. Its perfect for marketers and let’s you automate the scheduling of your webinars, build your list, and even follow up with your webinar registrants. If you’re going to buy Evergreen Business System, then you might as well get a free bonus! So check out and you’ll get a great bonus that tells you how to create a webinar, what is a webinar, and a blueprint for making a successful one. None of the other people offering bonuses are offering this. Hurry in case the guy (some dude that worked on Lord of the RIngs) offering the bonus decides to pull it down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *