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Bars, Pickups, Advertising, and the Return to Conversation

I thought I’d toss in a quick comment about advertising and conversation while I work on kind of a ’12 step’ list about implementing conversation-centric organization using social media tools…

There’s a lot of discussion about why it is that social media is challenging advertising and on the roles of each in the future. Let me make a homely metaphor, and talk about bars and dating.

I worked with a guy once who had a remarkable plan for picking up women – he simply asked every attractive women he met to come out with him. Literally. If we went to a restaurant for lunch, he would ask out five women on the way to the restaurant, and once we were there, he’d walk past every woman on the path from the door to our table and ask them. He had matchbooks printed up with his name and number, and just handed them to women as he walked by.

He was – surprisingly – a salesman, and he applied basic doorknocking sales techniques to his personal life.

And, remarkably (to me) it worked. He had dates most nights every week – seldom more than two or three with the same woman, unsurprisingly. But enough women said ‘yes’ to him that he kept working the model.

And when I think about it, that’s the traditional advertising model.

You simply ask every woman [customer] in the world if they want to go out with you [buy your stuff].

If you’re smart, you target your advertising (as he did) and only ask the attractive women who are in your geographic area and likely to be eligible. Doing that limits your cost of advertising, and makes every ad you run more effective.

And it works. It certainly worked for him, and it has worked for people selling things since – I’ll guess – Sumerian times. Somewhere is a cuneiform tablet extolling Anu’s fresh-brewed beer.

But now it’s not working quite so well.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a single, eligible woman, and you walk into a downtown restaurant for lunch. A man walks up to you, and cheerfully asks you to join him for dinner next week. that’s kind of unusual, and he’s cleancut and not unattractive and well-dressed, so you might think “why not?” and possibly say yes.

Now imagine that you’re in the same restaurant and fifty men line up to ask you out. Somehow I’m imagining that you’d be more likely to flee than be intrigued.

Advertising has much the same problem; in the last generation, it has become so pervasive and unescapable that almost everything you do places you in front of an ad. And the reaction? many of us don’t even see ads anymore. Our minds have added built-in ad-killers which simply pass our attention over the ad without it registering on us. And when we do see them, while we still do respond, the effort involved in getting us to respond – whether in the number or intensity or complexity/interestingness/cost of the ad is skyrocketing.

That’s the environment we’re in; we’ve lived through an era of pickup lines in our business lives and we’re discovering that they just don’t work any more. Not only is it harder and harder to get a date using them, but we’re discovering that the dates we’re getting are less and less likely to lead to the kind of relationships we want.

Which brings us to conversation.

If traditional advertising is becoming less and less effective, how do we get attention? How do we get dates? How will we sell anything??

Well, one suggestion that may or may not be applicable to any specific situation is to, instead of walking up to every customer [woman] you can reach and directly asking them to buy what you’re selling [go out with you], to simply walk up to everyone you can reach and start a conversation with them, about things which are important to both of you. To understand that what’s important to you isn’t important to everyone – but to work to find the audience for it and to actually listen to what they have to say, to converse about things with them that are not 100% focused on an immediate sale, but to help create and participate in mutually useful dialog.

The presumption is that this will build relationships [friendships] many of which will in turn into sales [dates]. In fact, many of us can attest that this works as a strategy in our personal lives – most of us get our relationships exactly that way. And we’re starting to see it work in the commercial sphere as well.

The question (which we’ll have to monitor very carefully) is whether per unit of effort expended, we’ll get more results with one approach or the other.
Personally, I think the answer to that is going to be domain-specific. I am probably not going to have deep conversations with my grocery store. But I might with some of my grocery brands. I’m probably not going to have a lot to say to a tire company. But I’ll probably have a lot to talk about with my mechanic.

But the final thought I’ll leave with is this: At minimum, conversing with someone – treating them as an equal, being genuinely interested in what they have to say – can be a very effective way of building relationships.

There’s a famous quote by Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother about Benjamin Disraeli:

“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”

Of the two, Disraeli was quite the ladies’ man.