Archive for the ‘Dialogue’ Category

Dialogue: The Conversational Nature of Strategy

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

“To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”

Mark Nepo

By Kathleen Hosfeld

Increasingly strategy must be about dialogue. In a recent article about the changing nature of strategy and marketing  in the “Twenty-Tweens” (our current age),  I described three different forms of communication – information sharing, persuasion and dialogue. Information sharing and persuasion are the two forms most people associate with marketing. But the nature of business, the demands of customers and stakeholders are quickly outstripping the capacity of information sharing and persuasion alone to respond.

What do we mean by dialogue? I’ve said that it’s the type of conversation where two or more parties bring together information out of which something new is created.

Poet David Whyte has talked about this type of communication in terms of what it means to be a leader today. In a video on his website he talks about the conversational nature of reality:

“The conversational nature of reality has to do with the fact that whatever you want to happen will not happen. A *version* of it will happen. Some aspects of it will happen. You will be surprised also and quite often gladdened that what you wanted to happen in the beginning actually didn’t happen and something else occurred. Also it’s true that whatever society, or life or your partner or your children want from you will also not happen. They also will have to join the conversation.”

Whyte’s speaking engagements with companies on the conversational nature of reality have to do with what kind of leadership stance one can take in response to this dynamic. Who do we need to be as leaders to participate in the conversational nature of reality?

The same question faces organizations. What kind of stance do we need to take with our customers and partners in order to thrive in the conversational nature of reality? Many companies who have been early pioneers of collaboration and co-creation will say there’s tremendous potential return on investment from engaging in dialogue. Strategy– including communications, product innovation and more – is at its best in dynamic collaboration with customers and other stakeholders. To tap that potential we need to start from a place of strong core of identity and purpose, and then have the skills and tools to support dialogue as it scales through the organization.

The scale of dialogue takes place on a continuum of complexity. On the left side of the X axis we have dialogues one-to-one; on the right side we have dialogues one-to-thousands or even millions. On the left side of the continuum we rely on interpersonal skills and good facilitation of conversations to get to the shared creation. On the right side, we need technology platforms (crowd sourcing, social media and corporate social platforms) to support true two-way “conversation” on a mass scale.

All along the continuum, we need to be able to relax our grip on our own ideas and be open to what we can “create together.” In his video, Whyte takes issue with what he calls the “strategic” approach, by which I think he means predetermining a set of actions and getting too attached to them in ways that ignore the conversational nature of reality. I would say that the type of strategy – marketing and organizational — that actually works today is one that takes the conversational nature of reality into account. It is not static. It is not a fixed plan. Rather it’s a framework that includes a strong purpose and identity and that creates a container – much like a greenhouse – where the seeds sown in dialogue can take root and grow.

The Secrets to Communication in the Twenty-Tweens

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

By Kathleen Hosfeld

Working with a series of nonprofits in 2010, it came home to me that when clients say they want to work on “communication,” they are categorizing activities by the tools used rather than their purpose. Activities that utilized a web site, email, social media, advertising, public relations, or media relations were all grouped as communications, and approached from the same perspective.  The perspective from which these organizations viewed communication was that of “getting the word out.”

“Getting the word out” – essentially one-way communication – is in fact only one method of communication. Although important, it is possibly the least powerful. We call this either information sharing or information broadcasting. It’ the kind that is conveyed in newsletters and websites.  The organization writes and publishes information; the recipient does not revise or shape what is sent or published. At times, the information is shared purely for “awareness.” A reader or recipient is a “consumer” of the information.

In dialogue, by contrast, information is exchanged, and typically something new is created by the parties to the dialogue. Each party brings pieces to the conversation, they put those pieces together, and a new whole emerges.  The information or feedback shared creates something new, beyond information exchange alone. This type of communication is the type that takes place in work groups, teams and in stakeholder engagement.

Communication that seeks to create cultural or behavioral change is a third type of communication, and it begins with a point of view about the change that is desired. Behavior change and cultural change are two distinctly different outcomes, but the element of persuasion is needed to generate both, and this distinguishes this type of communication from pure information sharing, which is more neutral in tone.  Fundraising and development in nonprofits uses persuasive communication.  Many nonprofits’ mission is to create social change, and they do this with a form of communication called social marketing (not the same as social media marketing).  When we call this marketing, we imply a commercial exchange or money. However, in common parlance people apply the term “marketing” to any type of communication that intends to persuade. In the case of behavior change, the persuasive speech must include a call to action that is specific and intentional.

One of the secrets to effective communication is to recognize the appropriate use of these three different forms. Organizations must recognize that exclusive reliance on “get the word out” communication only works in markets where the audience has no other choices. For most for-profit and non-profit organizations those days ended in the 1960s. If you have competitors or alternatives, your ability to use dialogue and persuasive speech is a critical competence.

Effective programs generally blend all three types of communication together.  Increasingly, organizations are using dialogue as a way to improve their persuasive capacity and to discover unmet needs of their constituents. By engaging stakeholders, customers or donors in dialogue, they better understand what the other needs for a positive exchange.  This underscores the most important component – the ultimate secret – of communications: listening.

Like it or Not: Companies Dragged into the Stakeholder Perspective

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

This article is one in a series of reports about the Spring 2010 Journal of Public Policy and Marketing special edition on Stakeholder Marketing. See an introduction to and a summary of our coverage of this edition here.

By Kathleen Hosfeld

While some companies step into a stakeholder orientation by choice, others find it forced upon them by stakeholder activists.  In “Stakeholder Marketing and the Organizational Field,” by Jay M. Handelman, Peggy H. Cunningham and Maureen A. Bourass, the authors begin with the story of Starbucks’ capitulation to human rights, environmental and nongovernmental organizations’ demands to carry fair trade coffee. Rather than settling the issue, this agreement unleashed further demands from the activist community. As stakeholder dynamics accelerated, Starbucks was forced to move from a position of trying to “manage” stakeholder issues and perceptions to a stance of collaboration.  By building partnerships with activists, the authors say the company achieved a degree of legitimacy that “mitigated” further attacks.

The complexity and rapid evolution of stakeholder demands, as demonstrated in the Starbucks example, can outstrip capacity to respond through what the authors call a “strategic” and what I would call an issues-management approach. As a result companies are forced to recognize their place in a field, which the authors describe as a community of organizations and stakeholders – marketers, consumer activists, government, professional and trade associations, and special interest groups.

In order to respond to stakeholder demands, Starbucks was forced to engage with members of the field, instead of managing them. They had to act as one of several constituents in network of embedded relationships.  The authors describe similar dynamics in the food retail business during a period of high inflation, when the industry fought stakeholder influence, and compared it with the same industry’s response to challenges between 1988 to 2005 (e. coli outbreak, 9/11 and childhood obesity) in which members engaged with stakeholders. As a result of engaging, food retailers profited, and found ways to leverage events or issues into marketing opportunities (such as appeals to patriotism during the aftermath of 9/11).

The authors make the point that as market and economic forces trigger stakeholder activism, conflicts between activists and the companies they target are based in ideology. Conflict occurs when companies stand solely for their own interests, while activists and other external stakeholders advocate for those they see as vulnerable – consumers, environment, social groups, etc.  Parties that begin to see how their own interests are aligned or compatible can bring resolution to issues more efficiently.

The article concludes with recommendations to carefully monitor trigger events that lead to stakeholder activism, to monitor the firm’s own institutional (social, economic and financial) capital relative to stakeholders, and to be conscious of the ideological assumptions that inform the response to stakeholders.

Missing the Point With Social Media

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

By Kathleen Hosfeld

As much as organic models of organizations may be taking root, and the industrial metaphor of “business as machine” may be dying back, the latter lives on in marketing. As a result, many companies may be missing one of the biggest opportunities of social media as a tool for growth and profitability – supporting authentic relationships.

In the industrial paradigm, marketing is a machine that makes sales. Depending upon how many resources one plugs into the machine, one can turn a crank and expect sales as an outcome. The machine pumps messages through pipelines directed at target audiences. The messages fall upon the target audiences, a portion of which respond. It’s believed that the more resources one puts into the machine, the more sales occur. The problem is that many companies feel the machine has become unreliable.  They are putting more and more resources in, and getting fewer and fewer sales as a result.

traditional push

A Machine That’s Running Down

Continuing to conceptualize marketing with this metaphor is to ignore many cultural shifts that point to change. The emerging metaphor depicts marketing as a series of co-creative dialogues with stakeholders. A book published a decade ago, The Clue Train Manifesto, put this idea on the map: “Markets are conversations.” Mutually constructive dialogue builds trust, which leads to sales.

The traditional paradigm of marketing is a push model, where target audiences are passive receptors (or at times victims) of marketing campaigns. While most good marketers understand the role of dialogue, in the push model it’s a relatively small part of the overall mix.

Strengthen Your Core

In the trust paradigm, marketing starts as dialogue with a core group of stakeholders that share the company’s passion for its products or services.  This core group can be viewed as the center of an ever-widening series of relationships, depicted as concentric circles (but not nearly as neatly categorized). In the center of the circle, the relationships with the company are the strongest and are the most likely relationships of advocacy. As word of the company and its products or services travel outward through layers of connection, the marketing message is propelled by the network’s relationships with each other rather that a direct interaction with the company.

trust based

What gets lost for many companies is the importance of cultivating that inner core. One of the important tasks for companies is to determine who the key stakeholders are. Who lives in the center circle? And what do they need to be advocates for the company? Traditional marketing focuses primarily on customer prospects, but employees and other stakeholders are often part of the core.

In his book, The Gort Cloud, author Richard Seireeni notes that many of today’s successful green brands used little or no push strategies during their start-up phase. Contrast this with the start-ups of many of the companies in the ‘90s that spent millions on brand awareness and mass media (many failed). The companies in Seireeni’s book didn’t have those funds and couldn’t grow that way. Instead they cultivated a network of advocates – employees, suppliers, specialized journalists – that grew steadily until the companies reached critical mass and were able to scale.

Pushing less

What’s the role of “push” tactics – traditional advertising and promotion – in a trust-based paradigm? Increasingly such tactics focus on permission-based or “opt in” techniques like search marketing and social networking.  Even when a company is doing all it can to collaborate with its core, there may always be a role for push strategies that invite people into permission-based relationships. The degree to which this is necessary will vary by industry. The point is that push strategies and their associated costs will diminish as a percent of marketing budgets and activities.

Unfortunately, many of the organizations using social media don’t recognize this paradigm shift. They are using social media as another form of push marketing, instead of a tool for dialogue. It’s a step in the right direction to convert to permission-based or opt-in communications with prospects or customers. If that’s where social marketing ends, however, a great opportunity for relationship and mutual advocacy is lost.

Who’s Your Primary Relationship?

Using social media only as a push strategy places the emphasis on customers’ or prospects’ relationships with each other, rather than their relationship with the company. Building a sense of community around your products or services is a great thing to do – it’s what makes Harley Davidson, as one example, as successful as it is. These communities take the company’s message out through viral networks. This works best, however, when the company is an integral part of that community and strong relationships have been established at the core.

What are some ways to capture the benefit of social marketing to foster authentic relationships?

Start With Face to Face Dialogue With Core Stakeholders – Identify your core stakeholder groups. Who cares deeply and passionately about your product or service?  Design in-person, face-to-face conversations with people who are core stakeholders. This certainly will include employees, some customers or clients (but not all), suppliers, regulators, distributors, etc.  Adopt a position of mutual learning. Nurture these relationships over time.

Use Social Networking to Continue and Broaden the Conversation – After establishing key issues with your core stakeholder groups, invite more people into conversations on those issues. Include feedback options social marketing campaigns. These can take the form of polls, surveys, discussion groups, etc.

Networks That Connect Other Stakeholders – Many of the free social networking resources are more appropriate to prospective customers or customers. Remember to support ongoing dialogue with other stakeholders through online collaboration software or other technology appropriate to those audiences.

Not Everyone Uses The Web – While many people do enjoy connecting online, there are many high-value contacts that don’t. An inclusive approach that designs opportunities to connect in person in person or on the phone will ensure you do not miss important customer segments.

Don’t Spread It Too Thin
– Nurture the core.  Remember Gerald Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam: “The wider you spread it the thinner it gets.” Keep in mind that the mass communication doesn’t take the place of face-to-face in creating a core of committed advocates.

Many younger companies have used this model because they didn’t have the money to do it any differently. Yet for decades, companies with diverse clients – from highly affluent individuals, other businesses, athletes, foodies, and more –  all have gone to scale, and navigated numerous lifecycle transitions by cultivating relationships of trust with key stakeholders. Social media, in this context, can be a powerful tool for cultivating these relationships.


This article began as a conversation with my associates Jenny Mish and Ron Benton, at the Portland State University Business and Sustainability Conference in October 2009.  It evolved in conversation with Matthew Wesley of Agility Partners. Thanks to all of you for collaborating with me.