Tell me what the central message of the book is.
The central message of Conversational Capital is essentially that the world needs more intense and meaningful consumption experiences, and critically, that there is a means by which to design these very sorts of experiences that translate into a clear payoff—positive word-of-mouth.
I feel that the subtitle of the book, “How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About,” is very much a good encapsulation of the topic. We go beyond the well-treaded territory of speaking of how word-of-mouth is transmitted to exploring its origins. Ultimately that lays a clear path to designing and engineering word-of-mouth into consumption experiences to begin with.
How do you see the book or subject evolving?
Conversational Capital will affect change not just in marketing departments, but across business units—across human resources, research and development, and operations. If it is to be impactful, Conversational Capital must transform the way we go about designing products and experiences because when our collective mission becomes rooted in giving people something to talk about, our behavior across organizations must change; not just the message(s). In other words, we have to walk the talk.
You certainly seem to understand how this book has impacted your own organization. How do you expect it to challenge those of other organization?
I expect and, indeed, I hope that Conversational Capital will challenge some long-held assumptions about what we do and why we do it. For example—I hope we challenge the belief that marketers are seeking to create satisfaction.
One of the key premises of the book is that product and experience design is fundamentally short-sighted in its mission. Many people design consumption experiences with the notion that consumers should be satisfied. We contend that customer satisfaction is merely baseline; it is about meeting consumers’ expectations and doesn’t provide fuel for conversations. Thus the claim is that to give rise to word-of-mouth, we should design experiences that provide the artifacts necessary for advocacy in the form of positive word-of-mouth. That’s a paradigm-shift from either of the dominant perspectives that underlie product design, namely a focus on engineering or operations.
Of course this premise may seem abstract—it is best illustrated with a practical example:
Pretend you operate an airline and you’re designing a product; a service. Let’s call it an economy-class seat from New York to San Francisco. Right now you’re really concerned about what happens during the six hours of that flight—is the plane clean; are the passengers fed and watered? What Conversational Capital implores you to do is design the experience not simply for the six hours that a passenger is going to spend in that seat, but also design it for its residual value; for the stories that are going to come out of that flight.
These stories are important to making your brand worth choosing. The storytelling required to give rise to these stories is a creative endeavor.
So, to other organizations, I think the primary challenge is to become creative, to become conceptual and most of all to become holistic about how we think about experiences before they even begin and after they end so that we give consumers something to talk about.
I think that if an organization takes it seriously, Conversational Capital is going to lead them to question how they bring products to market in the first place. I think often products or services are developed out of expediency or convenience or in order to take advantage of certain changes in the market without really thinking about whom the products are for or what they are supposed to mean, much less what the shelf-life of the product is. In other words, in our consumer society I would say that the bulk of products are fundamentally soulless. And the products we celebrate in this book are soulful, they are full of meaning, charged with the personal stake of the people who’ve invented and developed them and that is why consumers connect with them.
Do you feel that Conversational Capital can have implications outside the marketing world?
I think that Conversational Capital can have a tremendous cultural impact because Conversational Capital proposes that consumption isn’t an empty experience—that, in fact, consumption of products and ideas is a fundamental human activity. And yet, society at large doesn’t seem to recognize that. We lament conspicuous consumption and over-consumption. We tend to think of consumption as the enemy. And while I can understand where that comes from, the reality is that consumption has become an identity-defining process. It is something we take for granted as being a natural outcome of the freedom we enjoy—to choose.
Conversational Capital has the power to catalyze political movements; fuel the spread of ideas; transform our communities, and make us, as individuals, more compelling and interesting. It is a clarion call to the necessity of playing freely with our collective imagination and creativity in the realm of business and beyond.
The process of committing words to paper is one that opens your thoughts to criticism. Are you expecting any particular commentary from the public? If so, what?
You’re absolutely right; to me the process of committing ones’ thoughts to paper is a challenging process. It’s one thing to think of something and keep it to yourself—it’s quite another to share your thinking with the world. Exposing your thinking involves an inherent element of risk; risk that people will challenge your thinking. Fortunately, we’re pretty open people and we recognize that committing our thoughts to paper is an open invitation for readers to participate, and, by extension, challenge and augment our thinking. We recognize, too, that this isn’t a book for everyone. In writing Conversational Capital, we have encapsulated a process that underlies what had previously been an organic phenomenon. The process we refer to is as much art as it is science. So if the reader opens the book with the expectation that they will be reading a 12-step recipe to success or that it is the product of a group of study-obsessed academics, they might be disappointed. But ultimately, we wrote a book that we meant to get read—that means that we welcome all the feedback that comes with making our thinking public.
In terms of whether I expect the public to challenge the ideas in this book, I think that is something that we fundamentally invite. The title of the book, to restate the obvious, is Conversational Capital. What we expect to come out of it, is a conversation.
We wrote this book as a conversation between ourselves; as three guys sitting on a couch debating with the constant participation of members of our organization. We challenged each other, we had other people challenge us. And that is my expectation, that this book evolves into a conversation, where others influence the idea as much as we have. Ultimately, I hope that it becomes a conversation on what we can do to affect consumerism and consumer experiences in meaningful ways and I think that’s a healthy conversation to have.
Can you tell us how you see that conversation taking place?
I think that’s going to happen in other people’s organizations. I think that’s going to happen in any media in which people feel welcome to interact with us. Our view is that we need to be generous in terms of fueling the conversation. And our view too is that the examples that we bring to the table should interest people. If that proves to be the case, we invite them to challenge our own thinking. We invite them to participate and add to this philosophy. The conversation in our view will take place online, in print, in any media that is interactive. And indeed, at conversationalcapital.com.
SID LEE has a deep well of creative and strategic resources to draw from. How do people who want to embrace the ideal of Conversational Capital but don’t have deep creative pockets, go about doing so?
I think that an organization’s ability to leverage Conversational Capital will depend very much on the organization itself. Some organizations that are, let’s say, entrepreneurial in scope—that are driven by a single vision, may already be very rich in the engines of Conversational Capital and find it very easy to leverage the insights in our book because they have unconsciously lived by them. For organizations that are larger, more hierarchical and more mainstream, the challenge might be more difficult.
However, I think that the eight engines of Conversational Capital are very clearly demarcated. It is pretty easy to know what they are about. Conversational Capital is, in essence, a way of looking at things that is story-based. Every or ganization has a story to tell. Every organizationis distinguished from other organizations by the artifacts of its own stories. The engines of Conversational Capital help organizations mine the depths of their own stories so that they can tell their story not only to the public at large but also to themselves. The best any organization can do is come to a clear understanding of your story, its meaning and its effective transmission.
How do I expect organizations that don’t have deep creative pockets to embrace the ideals of Conversational Capital? The easy answer would be to say that they should come to us! But to be less opportunistic, I think that there is an innate creative sense in all of us. It is our job as thinkers, as consumers and as experiencers, which are universal qualities, to amplify that sense in ourselves; to wonder what it is that we can do to make experiences more enjoyable, stimulating and provocative.
To make that happen, organizations have to do a few things. Namely, they have to think about experiences not merely from their own point of reference, but from those of others. That necessitates assembling enthusiasts or “prosumers,” mining their frustrations and their motivations and, afterwards, gathering an enormous bank of ideas.
In essence, this exercise is about understanding what is meaningful, what is salient for consumers, what is resonant for consumers. In my view, you don’t need a staff of 50 strategists or 50 creatives to be creative and to be disruptive. It’s just about finding references and multiplying ideas.
Do you really believe that Conversational Capital is something that one can learn to develop, or is it innate?
I genuinely believe that there is a process to developing Conversational Capital. And while some (very sentient) entrepreneurs have been doing it organically for years, that doesn’t restrict us from learning how to imbue consumption experiences with meaning and intensity.
If you think hard enough about the eight engines and brainstorm about them and look at the consumption experience or product with a little bit of creativity, you can do quite well. We don’t claim that we invented Conversational Capital; what we have done is observed it and extracted its essence. To us, it seems pretty logical that anyone with a real passion for ideas and a penchant for storytelling can do well at creating stuff people love to talk about.