Thursday, June 7, 2007

The rise of the Trialogue

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

When Moses climbed the mountain to collect a set of tablets, he wasn’t expecting a consultation exercise.  No focus groups had been conducted, and no quantitative research.  The tablets came with commandments on them, and there was a certain amount of implied definitiveness that came with that term.

And media’s been pretty much like that for most of the several thousand years since then.  A small number of people told a large number of people what they thought, and there was very little opportunity for the mass to respond – and if they did, it was subject to the editorial control of those in power.

Which is why when the web appeared in 1994, people started getting excited.  A new paradigm was emerging, they said.  In the future, where there previously had been a monologue, there will be a dialogue.  Consumers will be able to respond to communications just as easily as they can receive them, and the implications for brands are enormous.

I went to a conference in 1996 in Edinburgh, where hundreds of marketing and media folk debated hotly the exciting opportunity this new world of dialogue would bring their brands.  We spent three days talking about how brands would be able to have a dialogue with consumers, and that this would be a more powerful means of communication because of the level of involvement that consumers would have.

Throughout the debate it was clear what benefits a dialogue with consumers could have for brands.  The trouble was, there wasn’t much in it for consumers.  Speaking for myself, I don’t really want to have a dialogue with Persil, or Sainsbury’s or Yoplait.  I don’t even want to have a dialogue with Audi or Vodafone or Selfridges, in which I would normally be expected to be considerably more interested.  

Ultimately I want them to get on with being them.  Make my clothes clean, connect my calls – the hygiene factors are important, but the emotional elements are just as much theirs too, and I either buy into them or I don’t.

So the ability to create real, meaningful dialogue often ended up being too costly, too difficult and often simply too much work for the value generated.

But emerging over the last few years has been a new dynamic, infinitely more powerful than the dialogue ever promised to be, more threatening, more revolutionary and more valuable.

When we look back in another ten years, we will see that the true impact of digital media was not to find new ways to connect brands to consumers, but in connecting those consumers (or “people” as they like to refer to themselves) to each other.

This simple fact has created a new ecosystem.

Now, people collaborate together to create software, which they release back onto the web where it outperforms the ‘commercial’ competition.  They share information about medical conditions, challenging the authority of the medical establishment.  They co-operate to drive down fuel prices, publishing the cheapest price for your postcode.  And they join forces to bring down brands who let them down, publishing video of underperforming products.

The age of the Trialogue has arrived.

The challenge this poses for brands is that they’re no longer handing down the tablets.  Their consumers have relegated them to the position of supplier, and are talking about them, not to them.

Whilst this is a threat to those who adhere to the status quo, it’s an opportunity to those brands who can reinterpret themselves as facilitators.  They recognise that the bulk of the discourse will take place between consumers, and their role in this is to enable, empower, listen and just occasionally, talk.

The trialogue will influence every aspect of marketing, from product design ( through to product recommendation (, and its potency derives from opportunity brands now have not to talk at people, but to be a small part of billions of their conversations.