Brands and ChitChat

This post is by guest blogger, Ric Dragon. Ric is the author of Social Marketology and CEO and co-founder of DragonSearch. We continue to celebrate our 3rd anniversary of this Twitter chat as we explore how small chat can help brands connect with people more effectively this Friday, August 10th, at 5pm BST/12pm ET/9am PT on #KaizenBiz.

“Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. (…) He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, and connected with the goal. “This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”-Anguttara Nikaya

Ric Dragon, allogrooming, chitchatIn the American evangelical tradition, the concept of gossip has been shaped by particular biblical translations, where the notion of gossip is closely associated with slander. One writer was explicit, “Satan started gossip.” [It is Written, by Kelechukwu O. Okafor]

The word “chatter” often comes conjoined with idle. In delicatessens in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, people schmooze, while others might babble, yap, yack, yatter, and say “yadda-yadda.” Business meetings across the world begin with small talk. But while people everywhere spend a majority of their conversational time in what might be called chitchat, marketers tend to maintain a chilly disdain for more informal conversation. Can it be on-brand to chitchat?

Robin Dunbar, the psychologist and primatologist that gave his name to the Dunbar Number, speculated that chitchat and gossip are extensions of social grooming. Dunbar hypothesized [Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, 1996] that as humans evolved, and needed to cover a broader territory as they sought out sustenance, they developed chatter as a means of connecting with one another, and that as a behavior, it is an extension of allogrooming.

Allogrooming, or social grooming as it is sometimes called, is performed by all mammals. It can take the form of licking, massaging, scratching, stroking, and picking. Allogrooming has been shown to increase dopamine in the recipient, which in turn is known to provide a feeling of well-being. It has also been demonstrated that pairs of primates that provide allogrooming to one another are more likely to come to one another’s defense when threatened by a predator.

In some cultures, it would be considered rude to jump right into a business conversation and skipping small talk. People have an amazing ability to find commonality quickly. On seeing some family photographs, “oh, how old are your kids? I see they play little league – so do mine!”

Vive la Revolución!

One of the great promises of the digital media revolution is that brands will come down off of their high horses and soap boxes of broadcast messaging, and talk with people one-on-one. Marc Pritchard of P&G has cited one-on-one relationships as a substantial objective of their brands. Yet there is an interesting difference between how most brands use social media and the way it is used by the average Jane and Joe. Community managers of brands by and large avoid the more personal conversations.

While a formal study has not been performed, I’ve often observed that if I enter a social community and begin with an informational post, even if I was sharing the cure for cancer, I’m met with silence. Yet, if I enter the community, share some small talk first, and then share the big news, I tend to receive a warmer reception (resulting in people visiting a blog or retweeting).

A 2009 doctoral thesis from the Karolinska Institutets discovered that people who feel disconnected from their managers are more likely to get sick, miss work, and even suffer heart attacks.. At MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, researchers have determined that teams will be more creative and energetic when workers have more time to socialize away from their work stations.

The Imperative

In order to join the social media coffee klatch, brand marketers will need to rethink the gospel of “staying on brand.” They will need to put more effort into defining the brand voice and personality and sharing it across the social media team, and develop acceptable ways to be more human.

  • How uniquely American is the reluctance to engage in chatting?
    • What other countries view chitchat negatively?
  • How does a company use chitchat to promote its brand?
  • How can companies avoid seeming manipulative in engaging in small talk 1st & later offering latest pitch?
  • As community managers come & go, how do companies keep their “voice” consistent?
  • What could “staying on brand” look like in a social media world where chitchat is the norm?
  • How likely is it that brands can master building 1:1 relationships in social media?

About the author: Ric Dragon is the author of Social Marketology,  a columnist at Marketing Land, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs and publications, as well as a speaker at events such as Blog World, Brands Conf, Socialize Conf, and SMX. Dragon is the CEO and co-founder of DragonSearch, a digital marketing agency.



10 thoughts on “Brands and ChitChat

  1. Ric,

    Love your Anthropological-ethnologist take on Social Media, always. For me the chit-chat is the seeking of anchors of substance. Perhaps it comes from my once-days as a bartender. I never stood for idle talk, even at the bar. I actually find the chit-chat #coffee tropes of SoMe a little tiresome, but yes, as a brand seeks to connect to so many others there are just so many ways to initiate and respond. Really it comes down to liking people, their dreams and the things they value. If the chit-chat only stays at chic-chat I think a community will find it disingenuous.

    I do find that for brands finding the right level of “human” is difficult from a HR and even strategy perspective. And every brand needs to find the threshold of intimacy that reflects the character of the brand.

    • Thanks, Kevin – I like that, “seeking of anchors of substance.” OR – perhaps people don’t even always NEED substance. Perhaps language then takes on the role of fingers – they soothe, stroke, or even tickle. An old blues song comes to mind referring to both meat and motion.

  2. Great points, Ric.
    “Community managers of brands by and large avoid the more personal conversations.” One reason for this reluctance could be explicit “orders” from managers and employers not to engage in chitchat and small talk. I suppose that has to do with the difficulty a brand faces in maintaining a consistent voice.
    However, I’ve seen lots of brands who engage in chitchat and still manage to maintain a certain voice that identifies them. So managing to “stay on brand” is not entirely impossible but only needs to be redefined. Errm, I think that’s what you said towards the end too. :p
    Thanks for the brain exercise in the middle of the night. 😀

    • Rabab,

      I like your thought about top down instructions to Community Managers. Social Media is a strange beast sometimes, where decision makers often can be those least experienced with the “feel” or the nature of success in the medium.

    • Yup; as Kevin says – those pushing the instructions often lack a feel fro the medium. Of course, I have seen community managers that were total social media chatty Cathys – and for some brands, totally inappropriate.

      It’s for this reason that I feel strongly that a major component of preparing for social media is the creation of a brand voice/personality document.

  3. Thought-provokingly deep as always, Ric. I’m looking forward to diving into the topics you raise here on Friday.

    I find the ‘chit-chat’ invaluable in creating social media connections, whether as a marketer seeking to participate in an existing community or a community member finding out more about a newcomer. It transmits the underlying human connection that can so often be lacking in business conversations online. Of course, it takes time to invest in this and there are significant barriers erected by brands that slow the flow, so the question of approaching small talk as a marketer fragments into myriad smaller ones…

    Is there a dishonesty inherent in any communication that, from the outset, hopes to eventually influence a decision?

    Can a brand, potentially made up of many different voices, effectively communicate one-on-one? Should the individual make the connection, then point to a brand profile, or can an individual make the brand identity their own for a time, without causing confusion?

    How much chitchat is required before business motives are appropriately introduced? And does the very fact that this question is asked sully the connection being forged?

    Being so early in the ability of brands to connect in this public yet one-on-one manner, I think we have a lot of experimenting to do and questions to answer before we fully understand what individuals and communities will find acceptable. This should be an engaging contribution to developing that understanding.

    • Steve: “Is there a dishonesty inherent in any communication that, from the outset, hopes to eventually influence a decision?”

      This reminds me of any sort of conversion conversation: When discussing things with a person who wants to convert you to a religion, or a fan trying to convert you to their favorite baseball team. Anytime conversion becomes the motivating factor the bells go off.

      I think there are lots of other motivations other than (or addition to) conversion that are frankly more interesting and make Social Media more enjoyable. One can try to learn about your (potential) brand community (what do they want? how do they feel about the market?) or one can try to grow community itself, connecting people to others.

      For me as soon as I know “what you are after” I pretty much tune out, even if I like you and EVEN if what you are after could have some appeal. I suspect that many others are like this as well.

      • When an organization is “purpose driven” – as, say, P&G strives to be – then that purpose can be the driving force behind all communications. Thus, even if you have other concerns like making money, they don’t drive the social conversations.

    • OK, Steve – you do know you just asked five questions? 🙂 But they seem to boil down. My hunch is that businesses in social do not need to – in fact, shouldn’t – introduce their “business motives.” The second that is done, as Kevin suggests, it can kill the social conversation.

      Shiv Singh in his delightfully intelligent book Social Media for Dummies – written years ago – talked about the individual voices within the organization – something he called the SIM voice. Worth checking out his thoughts. When the entire organization is in synch, though, with its mission, purpose, culture, values, etc – then anyone should be able to speak for the organization with their own unique voice. The brand voice can then act as a sort of Greek chorus, supporting the individuals’ voices.

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