Mathew Lowry


Do people really want to have a conversation with brands, or their government?

[Note: At last, a chance to bury the lede in a blog post. I started this post during my 2012-13 blogging hiatus, never finished it and then forgot clean about it. For reasons that will become clear, I’ve just rediscovered it and given it a brief polish. Image from The Social Media Value Exchange, Michael Lis].

If I do ease my way back into blogging, it will probably involve more, shorter posts which shamelessly ripff off other posts I see and just can’t leave alone. Hey, it’s worked before.

The New Consumer Conversation over on Greg’s Digital Tonto blog is a case in point. His focus is consumer marketing, not (e)participation/democracy et al, but as usual he makes a lot of good points relevant to any discussion regarding EU Comms / Public Sphere.

So go and read it now, and you’ll see that its about the conversations companies are now supposed to be having with consumers:

“Ever since social media came on the scene, a lot of people have been talking about brands initiating meaningful conversations with consumers.”

So I’m going to riff off this to talk about the conversations that governments / public bodies are supposed to be having with citizens, and what this implies for the EU.

Products, Services and Brand Exchange

After an approving look at an Ad Contrarian post on how most discussions about engagement are so much b*llsh*t (“people want … products that work well, look nice, taste good and are reasonably priced from companies that treat them fairly. Is that so freaking difficult to understand?”), Greg posits that consumers want brand exchange, a transaction which is now expanding to include social aspects.

[Aside: Now what citizens want, surely, is a society over which they have democratic control which lets them get on with their lives without collapsing spectacularly, or robbing them of their savings while punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. It’s not that freaking hard to understand.]

Greg breaks brand exchange in the era of social media into three categories:

Product value exchange

What is it? Consumers want good value for money – see quote, above.

Similarly, citizens expect good value for the public services they finance through taxation.

The good news is that many national governments across Europe have really innovated over the past few years, using joined up egovernment to provide better value, more responsive services to their citizens.

The bad news for the EU Institutions is that, with a few exceptions, they do not provide front office services. A lot of the EU’s work in ‘joined up egovernment’, for example, is between governments, and hence behind the scenes for 99.9% of the population.

EU citizens thus know they pay for the EU (financially and democratically), but rarely feel any services. Unless you count “preventing war”, which doesn’t have the impact it did during the Cold War (see 25 years later).

Content Value Exchange

What is it? Well obviously, this is about content:

“Consumers increasingly expect brands to be partners by helping them get maximum utility and enjoyment out of their purchase… the Michelin Guides were originally conceived to help motorists get more out of driving to new places… L’Oreal Paris created the Destination Beauty channel to give consumers advice on how to use their products…”

The good news: EU sites like Your Europe (Citizens and Business) help citizens get the most out of the Single Market and the freedoms the EU brings them, like the ability to travel and work, visa-free, across 28 countries.

As I pointed out in 2011 (Being Useful beats Being Tuneful) these sites both help citizens make the most of the EU, and in the process emphasise some of the EU’s most remarkable achievements – by providing a useful service, not a brochure or advertising campaign which noone needs.

So while the EU may not provide many ‘front of counter’ services, it could do a lot more to communicate how to use useful EU achievements like freedom, mobility, trade, etc. Because if you help people take advantage of your services, they’ll use – and hence value – it more.

This is common sense, not rocket science.

Social Value exchange

What is it? Finally, Greg’s third category of brand exchange is about social, because:

“Every local pub owner has long understood that we’ll pay a whole lot more to go to a place where we can meet interesting people than we will to get drunk at home”

In other words, organisations can benefit from creating social value through convening a community around them.

Buried lede: Hence my upcoming EuroPCom workshop on online communities. While not all citizens will want to get involved in Communities of Interest of Practice, everyone’s interested in something … and the EU is active in almost every field.

Pulling the ‘interested general public’ into online communities convened around EU policies and/or programmes both enhances them (widening consultation, transparency and participation; diversifying perspectives, etc.) and brings significant communications side benefits.

Why? Because online communities foster deep engagement – creating Greg’s social value exchange – to a degree that getting Likes on Facebook cannot reach.

The bad news: As mentioned in some earlier posts, the EU has been convening pan-EU Communities of Interest and/or Practice for many decades, each bringing together people from across Europe to tackle similar problems and learn from each other. But only stakeholders – ‘in the loop’, with a travel budget or an office in Brussels – participated.

If EU programme and policy development managers don’t open their processes to wider audiences, they’ll remain dominated by the usual suspects in the Brussels Bubble, as has been the case since the 1950s. Maybe that makes the Institutions’ lives easier, but it limits the inputs to those processes, reduces their eventual impact and makes them basically invisible to 99% of the EU population.

The good news: online communities began widening this net in 2002, allowing non-specialists from outside the Brussels Bubble to get involved. These communities are best integrated with the existing communities (physical networking events, etc.) and need policy traction to create rewards for high-quality online participation.
The technology has been there for ages, and the approach has been proved again and again. The only question is therefore why these online communities remain the exception, not the rule.

“The shift right now for government is from being bureaucratic and authoritative to being open and sharing and collaborative.”
– Lena Trudeau, US General Services Administration (GSA), quoted in “Collaboration top priority for government communication“, Tony Lockett, March 2013

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