The Conversation Ecosystem

The previous article, The Conversation Economy, lays out a perspective of approaching the success of your business, and of your product, in light of the conversations that flow around them.  You can view the ecology that defines your market in terms of the kinds of conversations you’re having with your customers, users, and prospects.  This article explores that ecosystem in more depth – categorizing the types of conversations that are critical to the success of your product.

The Conversation Ecology

I identified quiet, conversing, and promoting customers in the conversation economy article, with a focus on the paying-customers for your product in a freemium business model (check out the extended remix in the latest The Pragmatic Marketer). In reality, the conversations are important not only with the paying customers, but with all active users.  In other words, the diagram above is useful for an introduction to the conversation, but it is not a useful model for managing the conversation.  And you have to manage it, if you want it to influence the success of your product. In preparation for managing the conversation, we need a more robust, better defined model.

David Armano introduced the Marketing Spiral as a visualization of this user-ecosystem 2007, with a focus on the social-psychology of how people develop increasingly engaged relationships with a company.  The following image is from David’s article – a larger version is available on his blog.

As the diagram shows, Armano was keying in on the same dynamics of participation and engagement, and he had the insight that affinity (for a product / problem / domain) is a source of spontaneous community around a product or business.  What Armano doesn’t touch on is the criticality of managing this ecosystem for your business to succeed, but the spiral does inherently capture the notion that engaging your community is an ongoing affair.  So that model still doesn’t quite work for this use.

The three terms I previously defined – quiet, conversing, and promoting; really need to be split into five categories to effectively describe the different forms of engagement you have with your customers.

At the top of the heap are the people who most impact your business – the promoters.  At the bottom are the quiet users and customers.  The conversationalists still occupy the middle, but now are broken out into some distinctive (and meaningful) categories.

  • Quiet customers – these are the users and customers most at risk of being lost.  While probably representing the majority of your customers, you really don’t know how they are doing.
  • Conversing customers, following you – the first level of engagement you can get in social media is having your users listen to you.  In Twitter-speak, these are your followers.
  • Conversing customers, followed by you – the next level of engagement, and one you can proactively drive, is finding users and listening to them.  On Twitter, these are the people you follow.  Products like Buzz Manager are designed to give you insight into what these folks are saying about you – helping you discover the conversations that are already happening.
  • Conversing customers, friends with you – these are the people you interact with.  They talk about you, you hear what they say, and you have a conversation.  On Facebook, they may be the fans of your product’s fan-page.  They comment on your blog posts, you comment on theirs.  You respond to each other and retweet each other’s Twitter tweets.  You have dialogs in forums, email, or even in person.
  • Promoting customers – these are the folks that explicitly encourage other people to use (and sometimes buy) your product.  Some of the people in your ecosystem will arrive by affinity, others will be roped in by their networks – thanks to your promoters.

How To Improve Your Conversation Ecosystem

There are many people writing about very specific things to do to improve your engagement, or social-media presence.  Instead of trying to reproduce all of those pieces of advice (if you have a favorite – add it to the comments below), I’m going to provide some simple pieces of guidance for moving people from one level to the next.  Providing a comprehensive, prescriptive approach is out of scope for this article (as a former developer, I never tire of that one).  My goal in laying out the following transitions is to think about the (local) goals you should be focused on as part of each transition.  For example, in the first transition (below), one goal is to establish thought leadership.  Technically, that is a “design decision” and not a requirement, but it is slightly more abstract than “create a podcast and interview industry mavens” – a perfectly valid “implementation approach.”

Getting Quiet Customers to Follow You

You have to start by asking why one of your customers (from here on out, “customer” equals “customer and / or user”) would want to listen to you.  Personally, I believe the most effective way to do that is to provide relevant information and insights to them.  If you’re targeting customers in the health care market, write about the impacts of HIPAA, or the potential industry impacts of health-care-related legislation.  Whatever their domain is, identify important topics, develop insights, demonstrate relevance, and provide guidance.  Over time, you’ll develop recognition as a thought leader.  As a bonus, you’ll form relationships that help you get even better market insights.  As a tip – make sure those messages are going out consistently.  Not everyone uses RSS – some people will habitually look for your latest article every week – as long as there is one.

If you think that your customers aren’t out there talking, take a look at Forrester’s recent study, The Broad Reach of Social Technologies, which shows that the number of Quiet customers (United States online adults) has dropped from 44% in 2007 to 25% in 2008 to 18% in 2009.  Your customers are participating socially.  They are having conversations.  Probably about your products and companies.  You should make sure that your customers are hearing your voice in that mix.  But that isn’t enough – if they only hear you, and you don’t hear them, that’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue (or maybe even a soliloquy).

Following Customers

“Followed by” is tricky (I’m open to a better descriptor, if you have one), because it is a passive activity for your customer.  For one of your customers to be followed by you, the action is entirely yours – start listening.  I chose not to combine this with Following, because there is a distinct benefit to you – developing market insight.  A customer who is listening to you is valuable, but a customer to whom you are listening is even more valuable.

Starting a Dialog With Your Customers

One-directional communication is so not-any-more (insert your preferred definition of “a long time ago”).  Once you’re following a customer, the next step is to engage them in conversation.  If they’re posting product reviews about your product, respond – with thanks or with apologies and resolutions.  Respond to people, join in on conversations.  Not just the conversations about your products, but the ones about your customer’s problems.  If you can, instead of joining an existing community, host one.  It may be that your customers haven’t found a place where they can congregate and talk about their market – give them one.  Bazaarvoice has a new product called Bazaarvoice Stories, that gives companies a place to host the conversations with their customers.

Converting Customers into Promoters

In The Freemium Business Model and Viral Product Management in the current issue of The Pragmatic Marketer (and thanks again to them for publishing my article!), I wrote about the notions of altruism and implicit or explicit rewards for getting someone to promote your product.

To activate the altruistic mechanism of getting people to promote your product, you have to exceed the viral tipping point.  The viral tipping point works like the suck-threshold, only instead of being just good enough that your product doesn’t suck, your product is just good enough to reach the tipping point (ala Malcolm Gladwell) that inspires people to promote your product simply because it is good, and they want to share that goodness.

You can also use an incentive to get people to promote your product.  Explicit incentives are things like affiliate programs, or “refer a friend and save 20% on your subscription for as long as you both subscribe.”  Implicit incentives are the brass-ring of viral product management.  Create a product that becomes better for a customer when they get more people involved.  Facebook has that – because a social-network is more valuable to you when it includes your friends.

How to Make Your Conversation Ecosystem Crumble

What goes up can come down, but it doesn’t have to.  There are things you can do (really, things you should avoid doing) that will weaken the quality and nature of your engagement with your customers.

Losing Promoting Customers

The surest way to lose the help of your promoting customers is to violate their trust.  You can sell their email address, “change” your terms of service in a bad way (like suddenly announcing that all of their data is now your data), reneg on your promises, etc.  Almost as bad – fail to notice when their needs change.  When you provide a great solution to someone’s problem, they are likely to tell folks about it (she’s a great baby-sitter, and even cleaned our kitchen; or you have to try Rally – the burndown charts are perfect for our exec reviews).  But eventually, those problems either go away, or stop being perceived as big problems (sure, the kids were fine, but she ate all our ice-cream; or yeah, the tracking is nice, but you sure do have to click a lot).

Breaking Up With Customer Friends

The obvious one – don’t attack people, reminds me of an article from last year at On Product Management about bad customer service.  Definitely an easy way to get someone to stop interacting with you.  When someone is complaining about your product or company, don’t attack them, don’t be defensive, and don’t ignore them.  Help them out.  When this happens, you have an opportunity to make them a huge fan, or you have an opportunity to lose permission to have a two-way conversation with them.  Instead of ignoring, try acknowledging.

Stop Paying Attention to Your Customers

You have people you’re following.  As long as you don’t start ignoring them, you won’t slip backwards.

Losing Customer Interest

When your messages lose relevance – either because you’ve changed, or because your customers changed and you didn’t – they will stop listening.  If you stop sharing consistently, you’ll lose some followers.  And if you stop saying anything, you lose all of them.


One way to approach strategy is to ask “where am I, where have I been, and where do I want to go?”  In a conversation economy, to do that, you have to know how to measure where you are and where you’ve been, in terms of a conversational model like the one outlined above.  With those insights you can define where you want to be (and you’ll know how to determine if you’ve made it).  Then you can form your plan for getting there.

The Conversation Economy and Conversation Ecosystem articles are components of an approach to measuring and managing the conversations that affect your product and your company.  Future articles will look at how this conversation approach maps to your product’s success, and propose important measures of your conversation.  Any feedback, corrections, or suggestions is definitely very appreciated.  I believe there is some powerful stuff here, and some straightforward techniques to harness that power to improve the success of your products.  Let me know what you think.

And while you’re at it – try the handy “tweet this” button right below this sentance – especially if some of your followers would benefit from or could contribute to this discussion.  Thanks!

16 thoughts on “The Conversation Ecosystem

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  2. I really like this post.
    For most brands there are going to be folks that are talking about you whether or not you are engaging in that conversation. What I mean is that there will be people out there conversing that don’t follow you (Apple is a great example of a company that everyone likes to talk about that has not participated in social media at all) so it’s important to realize that customers won’t move through all the steps.
    With respect to marketing, there are different things you would do to engage the folks that are ignoring you vs. the folks that are talking about you. Then when you look at the folks that are talking about you, you would handle your vocal fans differently than your vocal detractors (something I got a taste of when I was at Nortel ;-)
    I love the points on making the conversation ecosystem crumble. I’m not sure every company understands the depth of the commitment required to do this kind of customer outreach/interaction properly. Starting and then stopping is a great way to turn your community against you.

    1. Thanks April (@aprildunford on Twitter)

      Great point about people not walking directly up and down the hierarchy of conversation – they absolutely can jump around, into the middle or all the way to the top or bottom. You definitely hit the nail on the head – there are different things you do to engage people that are having different types of conversations – that is the main idea behind applying this notion to your community. My goal is to help folks internalize that a single “social marketing” tactic is only right for a subset of the people in your conversation ecosystem. In one of the next articles, I’ll try and put these conversations in the context of impact on your business. And also how to measure it, so that folks will have some tools for explicit managing (and improving it).

      Also – really glad you liked the “downward transitions” part – you’re (again) exactly right – there is a level of commitment that comes with establishing the conversations. And a cost that comes with screwing up (through activity or inactivity).

      Thanks again,

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  8. I like the conceptual framework you have developed for this post – but to have long lasting impact we have to consider a few thoughts about the future of “as a Service” offerings.

    Will they become ubiquitous? Will they in time become the principal way we use applications? I believe so. I don’t know how long that might take, but if you look at the long term implications of a lot of various trends – netbooks, smartphones, remote workers, and most importantly – the rise of the Internet as an alternative to the desktop OS (think about that one), I think there is good reason to believe “as a Service” may not replace all local applications but at some level is is likely to at least a part of every application (think the Apple iTunes App Store).

    What might stop or limit the trend? Broadband connectivity in the US. We’re already way behind developed nations in both to the door and wireless bandwidth. In order for real, reliable, robust application suites to appear, the quality of service problem for delivery networks needs to be solved and delivered at a reasonable cost.

    But let’s say for a minute that last mile connectivity (something as a Service vendors have little control over) problems are over come in a relatively short period of time. How many as a service applications might the average enterprise end-user have? Many already have 3-5 and they aren’t even aware of it. I’ll make a wild stab and say that if we include line of business applications that are in full time use by only a small number of total users (Like invention submission systems) but available to 1,000’s – I’ll guess something like 20. That might not even include local applications that are clients of as a Service applications at some level.

    So, can we imagine full engagement by end-users with 20 applications? No. No matter how wonderful each application is, the only ones we’re likely to be really actively engaged with are those we spend a considerable percentage of our day. The problem is time and attention – we just don’t have enough of either to give more.

    A group of us discussed this and other aspects of this emerging paradyme on our first podcast at Haut Tech Conversations. We decided it is likely the as a Service model is going take over much of what is now the “installed base” but it is unlikely that the proliferation of offerings can operate independently. What we see evolving are “ecosystems” of applications that flexibly mix (or mash up to use current terminology) to meet a specific need and are more or less transparent to the end user. That is already happening in the drive to develop only what is core to each service.

    When this occurs, the ecoysystem in some way has to provide a point of customer interaction that can filter down to an individual appllication level or spread out to the broader ecosystem (think “why isn’t someone doing this for us?”). This level of interaction is way beyond the current system driven as it is by simple self-interest on the part of a vendor. It says that real communities will evolve out of the muck of say – 12 or so legal applications and a handfull of general productivity applications to give one example.

    I know, it is easy to say this is pretty farfetched. I think though, given Moore’s Law, it is at least a desirable outcome if we believe the as a Service model has something critically useful to give to the future and is likely necessary a lot sooner than we may think..

    1. Thanks Mike (@MichaelDunham on Twitter), and welcome to Tyner Blain!

      I agree with you about the SaaS market (see Is the SaaS Market Broken, or Just Efficient?). You do raise an interesting point – how much attention is there to go around? That’s a big part of the driver of focusing on conversation in this series of articles. Who gets more attention? The companies you talk with, or the ones who talk at you, or even worse – not at all.

      Realistically – if you got an hour of attention from each customer, each month/week/whatever, how much better would that be? But that’s only one dimension – attention is great for driving branding and awareness – and also useful for Ries and Trout’s Law of the Mind. The next level of value comes from the trust you can build, leading to collaborative conversations, resulting in gaining insights that your competitors don’t have. That lets you win. It lets you improve your product-market fit, and positions you for a better product-market fit before the (next) market even forms. Trust-based conversations allow you to discover other opportunities.

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