If it’s all about the conversation, who’s doing the talking?

Nigel Sarbutts, managing director, BrandAlert
I’m delighted to offer these thoughts for Smoking Gun’s blog.
Rick and Vanessa have all the technical skills you would want in a PR consultancy, but they also have the magic ingredient that will carry them through the ebbs and flows of running their own business: the right balance of ambition and decency.
Enough back-slapping, I want to ask Rick and Vanessa a question about the future. What will your customer strategy be?
Your client strategy will be clear – it will involve qualities such as professionalism, integrity, transparency, value for money and so forth.
But how about customers? It’s a word that agencies don’t really use too often. After all, they don’t really target them, at least not directly.
If a customer of a client ever rang any of the PR agencies I’ve ever run we’d be surprised and quickly pass them onto the client. You see statements on the newsroom pages of websites warning customers that only bona fide journalists are allowed to call the PR function.
If you’re ‘just a customer’ it’s off to 0870 limbo for you, to be told “your call is important to us??? and a longer exposure to M People or Phil Collins than the human body can stand.
But who gets through PR’s velvet rope?
You might be a proper journalist on a magazine with a circulation of 100,000 but in reality it’s possible that only a few hundred of the client’s actual target audience ever reads their stuff.
What if a customer has 1000 loyal followers on Twitter – do they count? Are they commentators? How about 10 followers on Twitter?
When Rupert Murdoch says: “technology is shifting power away from editors, publishers, establishment & media elite. Now it’s the people in control??? it’s a comment worth pondering, even though he said it four years ago.
Then Sir Martin Sorrell says earlier this month “agencies don’t own social media, customers do???, it’s time to start thinking about having a robust response when clients ask: ‘what do we do about customers?’
Customers becoming “micro-journalists??? is a significant challenge. They are hard to categorise and fragmented audiences sound expensive, but so is advertising to the 90% plus of a potential audience who are indifferent to a brand.
Smoking Gun has been born in the week that Nestle joined the growing list of organisations who just don’t seem to understand that MadMen is set in the sixties and that the picture of a mute, obligingly passive consumer has been false for decades. Even 50 years ago there were visionaries like David Ogilvy who famously said “the consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife.???
The choice of words, coming from a different era, makes you shudder, but the idea is absolutely solid and increasingly so.
But do customers think differently about brands today than say 10 or 20 years ago?  I recall the horrified comments of brand directors around the year 2000 when TiVO came along and threatened to wipe out TV advertising by letting us skip the ads.
TiVO never quite lived up to its hype (although a new tie up with Google brings it back into play), but the job has been done in different ways by the web which has so dramatically satisfied our desire to be distracted and entertained, but also our profound human need to voice our opinion.
In response, the marketing industry discovered search  and SEO and PPC emerged as important channels aimed at connecting consumers with relevant, targeted  content. Both have some way to go to deliver on that promise and the sooner social media is integrated into search strategy the better for clients.
Social media is a little like SEO was perhaps three or four years ago – on the meeting agenda but not a meeting on its own. Now it is a channel in its own right commanding significant spend.
Social media will get there, but the key challenge (and its great opportunity) for Smoking Gun and other businesses like it  is to answer the question:  if it’s all about the conversation, who’s going to be doing the talking, exactly?
Nigel Sarbutts