Digital Essays: Join the conversation

Making a brand part of our collective daily discourse is the ultimate goal of interactive marketing.

There's something of a paradox happening across the land at the moment. Digital evangelists are preaching the gospel of Web 2.0, telling marketers that the dawn of social media and user participation has risen, and citing the success of MySpace, YouTube and the ever-growing number of bloggers as evidence. While, of course, this observation is true, when these digital evangelists close their PowerPoint scriptures, they're likely to return to an agency that's struggling to make sense - and take advantage - of this trend.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this paradox is in the creative briefing. I'll bet that while the digital evangelists are preaching that we need to create "dialogue, not monologue", their internal creative process is anchored in the traditional advertising creative brief, designed to deliver cut-through monologue messages. A brief that will probably contain a component entitled Consumer Take-out, predicated on that delusion of marketing grandeur that makes us think we can control people like a shepherd controls a flock of sheep. But where is the component titled Consumer Input? Where is the component that challenges us to think about the role people should play in this so-called dialogue?

Understanding how brands can create dialogue with people in this era of social media is actually a lot more difficult than it seems. The first step, however, is to recognise that interactive marketing is much larger than simply getting someone to interact with something.

There's a natural tendency to think that "interactive" refers simply to the interaction with a website or advertising - for example, mousing over a rich media unit or texting in a short code from a press ad. But this kind of interactivity, although brilliant in certain situations, doesn't embody the fuller picture of interactivity.

Interactivity is not just about how a brand can interact with a person; it's also about how a brand can facilitate interactions between people.

People have influenced other people since time immemorial, and the fact that word-of-mouth recommendations have always been more influential than advertising is testimony to this. If we extend this truth into social media, the influence of people who contribute content, reviews and opinions online is no longer restricted by geography or physical contact. Their spheres of influence can be instantly global.

For a brand, this means the views of a few can have a disproportionate effect on the many. The challenge, therefore, is to get these influential people creating positive social acceptance for a given brand. And there's no more powerful way to do this than to make that brand a part of the natural conversations they have each day. This is what I call "thinking of the 'We', and not just the 'I'".

So, how can interactive marketing make it happen? How can it influence the "We" and make a brand part of our collective daily conversations that include football, celebrity scandals and the latest episode of Lost?

One way is by creating "brand currency" - something people can easily exchange in conversations on the social market.

A great way interactive marketing can create brand currency is by developing tools (applications, products, mash-ups, etc) that are, simply put, useful. Last week, I mentioned to a colleague that I was considering a holiday in Mallorca. He suggested I check out DK Travel, which has do-it-yourself digital travel guides for specific areas within various destinations. This approach struck me as brilliant: it would save me carrying around a book about the whole island, most of which I would never read. My colleague was happy to promote the service, not only because it's genuinely useful and something he had used, but because it was something "tangible" he could easily trade in conversation. He's also been able to easily trade it within his online community, by adding DK Travel Guides to his blog, and to his del.icio.us public bookmarks. Without thinking twice about it, he had been heavily promoting the DK brand through several channels - and all for free.

Another way interactive marketing can create brand currency is to tap in to areas and issues that people are passionate about, and passionate about discussing. If a brand can credibly be part of a conversation in one of these areas and develop a brand community around it, the results can be very powerful.

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty did just that: it formed a community of people who wanted to participate in, or eavesdrop on, discussions about the perception of women's bodies and superficial beauty in Western society. That's why the Dove "evolution" video has received nearly three million views so far on YouTube. By creating a community around this hot issue, Dove spoke to the "We", and made the campaign "viral" - without it having to be funny or pornographic.

Interactive marketing, at its heart, is about facilitating conversations between people about brands. And these conversations will happen offline, as well as online (Shock! Horror!). But wherever they take place, one thing is certain: you'll need a real reason for people to talk about your brand, because there are already far too many other interesting things to talk about.

Interactive marketing can help develop a brand's currency so it is valuable, and easy, for people - especially influential people - to trade in conversation. That's incredibly powerful.

- James Clifton is the European planning director at Agency.com.