Participation Is Not Passive

Elvis has left the building and he took the audience with him.

The only people left are fellow participants. Social media has made everyone an author, creator, director, developer, editor, critic and media outlet. There are millions of voices, but they are all saying the same thing – listen to me.

Participants do not consume passively. They do not sit silently ready to have their eyeballs converted into cash. Participants participate. They create their own original information, entertainment and art. They remix their own version of mainstream pop culture – copyrighted or not. They post their thoughts, publish their fears and fact check faster than any newsroom. They share with their friends to discover the quirky and interesting, making it an instant blockbuster- at least for 15 minutes.

Participants have ideas to be declared. Each of them is a market of one. Collectively they are a trend, a publishing powerhouse and a voice to be heard; a voice that has something to say. Participants have changed the way media is published and interactions are monetized. But more broadly and importantly, they have changed the flow of global information from top down to bottom up. They are changing the tone and tempo of the conversation.

Who’s Listening

While there are so many buzzwords surrounding this topic – social media, Web 2.0, conversation – many are overused, misused and misinterpreted.

The word conversation comes up over and over, but it’s a concept that is as old language itself – maybe even older. It is not a new construct invented by the social media advocates.

And while the medium for conversation has changed and evolved over time, the fundamental human need for conversation remains the same. We want to connect to each other. We want to express ourselves. We want to hear authentic voices engaged in a dialogue with us. Everyone wants to be heard and feel valued.

But who is doing the talking is also important. The conversation between customers and businesses must include people that are empowered by businesses to make decisions. This is not just about your support staff or marketing department interacting with customers. CEO’s, vice presidents, product managers, and other executives must be part of the conversations.

The Art of Conversation

It’s also what is said and how it is said that is key. With social media, you must treat these conversations as you would any face-to-face interaction – act like you would at a dinner party. After all, this is a social setting like any other. You say what you would say in any face-to-face conversation at a dinner party. Respond respectfully to criticism. Escalate the feedback. Act on it. Thank people for compliments. Elevate them. Ask them for more information. Reward them for their efforts. Empower them to spread the word.

That all sounds great, but ultimately for businesses, it’s about the return on investment or quantifying revenue generated by these conversations. At this point, it’s hard to put a specific value on a human connection or word or mouth. But imagine the value if all this “idle chatter” was publicly documented, archived and spread around to thousand of friends and connections. With social media and the web, it is.

The return on investment is nothing short of identifying your weaknesses in a rolling and real-time focus group. It is finding your friends in the marketplace and turning them into evangelists for your product or service. It is the new marketing – one-on-one influence of your market.

More importantly though, it’s beyond influencing your market; It’s about your market influencing you – shaping your product or service. It’s about making your stuff worth having a conversation about.

Getting Started

First, do some homework. Read some books – The Cluetrain Manifesto and Naked Conversations – are a good start. Then move on to Blink and Now is Gone. Then get off the beaten track. Start using the tools and services your market is using – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Seesmic and FriendFeed, to name just a few.

But having a Facebook profile or a presence is not enough. That’s just like walking into a dinner party. The next step is finding someone interesting to talk to. Participate. Find Facebook groups that matter. Search Twitter for people talking about your company, product, service, industry, competitors and pain points. Respond to them. Listen to them. And respond again. You just had a conversation. A dialogue between two participants where one communicates something, the other digests the information and responds.

It’s not magic, but it is magical. It is basic. It is human. And it works.