Conversations are still happening (just not where you think)

There’s been lots of conversation lately about whether conversations are dead. Ironic? Yes, but not in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word. Mitch Joel’s blog post, The End Of Conversation In Social Media asks the question:

“Are we seeing a new shift in Social Media? Are the conversations dead? Were they ever – really – alive? What do you think?”

(Yes, this is more content inspired by my boss and colleagues at Twist Image. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Well, I contend that the conversations aren’t dead. They’re still happening. But maybe it was unrealistic of us to expect them to happen in certain types of social media channels.

Blogs are publishing platforms. Twitter is a broadcast platform. Facebook is quasi-conversational, but only in the how’s-it-going superficial chatting about the weather sense. It’s easy to see how we can look at all of these platforms and wonder, is there any real conversation taking place?

Yes, it is. But not where you think. To find the real conversations, we need to visit online communities. The old-school kind.

Yes, they still exist. Yes, they’re still relevant.

Sure, they’re not as sexy as Facebook or Twitter. They’re not as glitzy or glamorous. They don’t have 300 million users; in fact, some only have 300 users, or even 30 users. Many of these communities are pretty basic in terms of technology. They use forum software like phpBB, and their site designs won’t be winning any awards anytime soon. You’ve probably never heard of most of them, unless you happen to belong to them.

I’m a member of a long-standing travel-themed community. I belong to another music-themed one. A third, writing-related community takes up a good chunk of my spare time. I frequent a political community where I participate in regular discussions and debates. I easily spend more time in these spaces than I do on Facebook, Twitter, blogs or email put together.

I know most of the regular members of these communities very well, and
consider their friendships to be every bit as real as my offline
friendships. Many of them have turned into offline friendships over the
years. And the conversations that take place in these spaces are not superficial at all. They’re deep, multi-layered, engaged, and very real.

It’s easy for marketers to forget about these communities, since they are usually many in number, small in size, and very niche-oriented. Luckily, there are tools that can remind us. Many of the social media monitoring tools currently on the market – whatever their shortcomings – do a nice job of showing you where the niche communities are for your area of expertise.

These communities are a tough nut for marketers to crack. They tend to be small, close-knit, and sceptical of outsiders. Just as you would resent someone intruding on a weekly lunch with your girlfriends to try to sell you something, community participants are usually not very receptive to outsiders coming into their community and posting spam in the guise of social media. The only way to break in is to put in the time, and build trust slowly and gradually. The cost-benefit of doing this is prohibitive, though, especially since you’re usually only talking to a few people at a time.

But if you’re looking for the real conversations, that’s where you’ll find them. In a way, these pre-social media-era communities are the most social of all. Just don’t make the mistake of calling them media.