advertising as conversation

John Battelle wants you to think of advertising as a conversation. That thought has made quite a lot of money for him and Federated Media. Except last week they got slapped about by readers for inviting their authors to become part of a "conversation" with Microsoft. (His defensive apologetic explains more.)

In short, Microsoft would like "people-ready" to mean something. So they get bloggers they advertise with to write nonsense about what people-ready means to them ("if I was people-ready, I'd be really ready to engage and entertain people, readily"). This, apparently, is not advertorial, it's a "conversation", and we should be pleased to have a conversation with a marketer. What's the problem?

Battelle has a great point about the rise of conversational media, but goes astray when he thinks this means we give advertisers a second run at our trust:
I do not agree with those who regard marketers as a necessary evil. I think that approach reflects the worst baggage of traditional approaches to media, and I for one have dedicated my working life to eliminating it. Marketing can and should be useful, relevant, helpful, and add value to the conversation of a site.

The "baggage" of our traditional approach comes from years of being burnt. We have advertising standards bodies so that companies can't abuse the public's trust; we have codes of ethics so that journalists are not writing with agendas hidden from the readers who expect them to be, if not objective, biased on belief, not biased for pay.

The very first example of conversational marketing has to do with a very large computer brand which I will keep anonymous, as it's not clear they'd want me talking about them in this forum.

You can't have a conversation with an anonymous party. An agenda is an agenda, whether it's the bent journalist writing a puff, a politician's spin, a full-page advertisement or a "marketing conversation".

Advertising is not a conversation. A conversation where one side has an ulterior motive is not a conversation, it's a persuasion. You don't have a conversation with a car salesman, you have a sales pitch. If you think otherwise, you're in danger of leaving the lot in a shiny new vroom you had no intention of purchasing.

Making the pitch feel like a conversation is what marks out the best salesmen, but it doesn't make it one.


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