Brian Solis and the Conversation Prism: “The idea is to pull the dashboard off, get under the hood and start to see what people are saying and feel it.”
Posted by Darcy Pierce on 9th February 2011
We had the privilege of interviewing one of the most well known, respected and influential figures in new media (basically a celebrity to us), Brian Solis. After seeing Solis speak at TWTRCON San Francisco in 2010, we discovered his original creation, the Conversation Prism. The Conversation Prism visually articulates the organization of the social web. We knew that gaining insights from Solis would be invaluable and relevant to our goal of effectively communicating with engineers and educating ourselves and others about the ever-changing state of the social media environment.
Brian Solis is the author of Engage, the complete guide to build, cultivate, and measure success in the social web. Solis is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders and published authors in new media. A digital analyst, sociologist, and futurist, Solis has influenced the effects of emerging media on the convergence of marketing, communications, and publishing. He is principal of FutureWorks, an award-winning New Media agency in Silicon Valley, and has led interactive and social programs for Fortune 500 companies, notable celebrities, and Web 2.0 startups. BrianSolis.com is among the world’s leading business and marketing online resources.
(Please see end of post for key takeaways)
Darcy & Hannah: We were very intrigued by your Conversation Prism. Can you please share with us why and how it was created?
Brian Solis: My post introducing Version 3.0 of the Conversation Prism has a very deep view into the why and the what. In the comments section of the post someone had asked for the first time ever, “Why is it called the Conversation Prism when it looks like a color wheel? If it has nothing to do with a prism, why is it called that?” That’s the first time I had been asked that, so I decided to address it because there is a reason. It was originally a prism because of the way a prism works—it is a refraction of light. The Conversation Prism was a play on “light” and “enlightenment”. Instead of taking the conversations that are happening on the social web and looking at them as one stream from an audience, run it through a prism; it bends the light so that you can see the light refract, and therefore see all of its separate conversations taking place. That was the premise of the Conversation Prism. We eventually had to put it into a circular format because after the first round of research, there were too many players to fit in the design of the original prism. If you can envision what Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album looks like, which was basically a prism, that was the original concept for how the original Conversation Prism would look and work: one light bending into the prism that was tiered from top to bottom. There are just too many solutions out there, so it had to become circular in order for it to make sense.
The inspiration behind the Conversation Prism was two-fold. One was that it was to visualize the social media universe. At that time, there had been an attempt to do just that where people were saying, “Show me all the networks for imaging, show me all the social networks, show me all the networks for music,” etc. Of course at the time, the popular ones were YouTube, Pandora, Facebook, Twitter and everyone seemed to attack it the same way. They would start in PowerPoint and create a slide to depict whether or not a business should be present in all networks, which was a popular theme several years ago. Another motive for these social media universes was to demonstrate the need to pay attention, because it was a big universe. I decided to bring a little more structure, or intelligence, to the understanding of the social web to demonstrate that consumers/individuals were using social networking in ways that could be compartmentalized. It was organized by how they were using these types of networks, hence each of the categories. The second inspiration for it, was to then say, (and this was in direct argument against all of the people saying you needed a presence in every one of those networks) “look, these are the four tools. Each one of these networks has a search box where you can use traditional Boolean logic search techniques to figure out whether or not that community was active for you and your market.” Using the Conversation Prism as a template, you should go through it and try to see where you customers are active, so you can put together a social map of where you should focus your attention and prioritize based on the results that come back. It also serves as a foundation or blueprint for how businesses should listen to conversations and put a structure around it. In fact, many listening tools today will tell you that they use the Conversation Prism as their framework for putting together their listening systems.
Darcy & Hannah: In your blog post titled, “The Business of B2B Social Media”, you stated that “B2B. . .is faced with a prime opportunity to not only cultivate communities in social networks and other social channels, but also amplify awareness, increase lead generation, reduce sales cycles, and perhaps most importantly, learn and adapt to market dynamics in real-time.” Elaborating on this, how can B2Bs, in general, apply the Conversation Prism to their efforts and their strategies?
Brian Solis: It’s interesting because I get a question similar to this a lot . . . It’s usually asked this way: “Brian we always see examples in B2C, but what’s the real play for B2B? How do B2B’s get something out of social media?” I stop and think, “You know what, I actually understand what you are talking about. Everyone is talking about the same examples over and over again: Virgin America, Starbucks, Dell.” I have this saying, this motto or mantra that is, that I really just encourage people to read the success stories of how people are using social media today, how businesses are increasing sales and attracting customers. At the same time though, you can’t make any assumptions that these successful companies had a strategy plan, had metrics going or anything like that. At the end of the day, every business is unique, the culture is unique, the market is unique, the conditions are unique. The answer for B2B is the same as it is for B2C, and it brings us back to your first question. The Conversation Prism is designed to get you answers, it’s designed to tell you what, when, where, how, why and to what extent. Most people approaching social media right now do not have those answers. Even those who are listening, monitoring and reporting on what they find, they’re still not able to tell you what the top-down strategy is and what the exact goals and predicted outcomes are. Most only know that that they want more fans, more friends, maybe some coupon redemption, maybe some sales or conversions, but really what we need to be looking at is “What is it that you want to know? What is the outcome? Where is this activity taking place? Who is leading that activity? Who are the influencers? Really, what you do to figure this out is you start to reverse engineer. So for business-to-business, I do the same thing that I do for business-to-consumer or the government. I go and research and try and figure out everything I need to know beforehand, and that is the big element that companies are missing in a lot of this. Many are reluctant to study between the lines and do the research. We’ll use a monitoring tool to say, “Ok, there were 4,700 conversations on Twitter this last quarter, 600 blog posts with mentions and the sentiment was 80% negative, 20% positive, and 60% neutral.” That doesn’t tell you what your social network strategy should be, it just tells you what is. The idea is to pull the dashboard off, get under the hood and start to see what people are saying and feel it. What are those negative sentiments all about? Where are they coming from? How is this conversation segmented throughout your organization? Are they for sales, for customer service for lead generation? Is this for marketing, for product development? And then you can really get a lay of the land and start to emphasize what you see, what you read and what you hear, because it’s really that which should inspire what your program should be. So for business-to-business the only thing that changes is the answers to who, what, where, when, why and to what extent? That tells you where you need to focus.
I’ve been hired by B2B companies in some of the most verticalized industries, only to find that there is always some level of online activity that is worth at least paying attention to. It’s funny because the ones that are really gung-ho about socializing don’t want to hear that their activity isn’t warranted or merited on Facebook or Twitter. They’re hoping they can bring a personal touch to their brand, because they are on the same platforms as individuals. Many times though, I have to tell them that they have no business being on Facebook or Twitter right now.
Darcy & Hannah: We find that reaching engineers (our customers) through social media to be very challenging. It seems like many have not adopted the use of popular social networking sites. Can the Conversation Prism be more specifically applied as a road map on how to communicate with engineers?
Brian Solis: It’s true for a lot of B2B companies, and even some B2C companies, it’s just too early. You know they’re going to be there, but why spend the time and resources cultivating a community that isn’t there. Time is finite. Money is finite. You need to focus where attention is focused, and in some cases that is in user groups and forums, and in the Conversation Prism there’s a section for those. There are master search engines in forums and groups that at least show you if anybody is talking about the space or the market. But in all reality, you see a lot of business-to-business companies, and even some on the business-to-consumer side, who are not using social media, are starting to leverage their email and newsletters to promote their presence and to start to attract audiences in order to force them into using specific domains which, in some cases, is working. At the same time it’s like fishing, you don’t necessarily know if you’re in the right spot, or if you’re going to catch anything with the right bait, so sometimes it’s just paying attention to where the early adopters are, and those early adopters are usually in the blogosphere.
Darcy & Hannah: Do you think for things to change, that it’s going to take Generation Y moving into more decision making roles?
Brian Solis: I think so. I think it’s a little bit of many different things, for example, this is not unlike the challenge that the art industry is facing. If you look at the local ballet company in your city, you know they live off of ticket sales and donations. Their whole business infrastructure is around emails, newsletters and events to try get people to donate and attend events, and those who do have generally been an older demographic. The organizations in this industry are freaking out because their target market is getting older, and organizations are saying, “wow, what do we do? We’re losing our source of income.” So, simultaneously they have to create a second augmented strategy to go after the younger individual so that they can start to cultivate their interests in the arts. In this case your hybrid is the blogosphere, because people are being sent links to posts that might be worth their time via email, so you’re still getting eyeballs outside of traditional media into this gray zone that helps people start to figure out what social media is all about. Usually at this level people are connecting through interests, not relationships, and interests would be around whatever industry you’re in. Now the second thing that I’ve learned about what inspires people in this direction is the social object, you have to give them some reason to pay attention, and that social object in many cases is a blog post. Another is video, for instance, a YouTube video is a social object. We did a project with a B2B robotic arm manufacturer whose customers were looking for automation solutions for workflow and work-lines. The company would create these videos to show what the robotic arms were capable of doing in a real life setting, which were just short snippets of things that were remarkable, and they would put them on their YouTube channel. Then, they would optimize the videos for social media with keywords, descriptions and links. More importantly they would take those social objects and reach out to bloggers, not A-list bloggers, but peer engineers that were sharing their thoughts and looking for solutions, and say, “I was reading some of your posts and decided to create this video that we thought addressed XYZ, here you go, feel free to share it if you like.” We would start to see these videos get 70,000 to 80,000 views because bloggers were taking the embed code of the videos and writing a post around it. That got this particular industry and other industries that I’ve done the exact same thing with, moving in the direction of engaging online, and some are still not on things like Twitter, but it got the conversation started.
Darcy & Hannah: On a slightly different note, where do you see social/new media in the future, say five years down the road?
Brian Solis: I realize that I don’t know that I have an answer to this generally or conceptually, and I really try to stop thinking about it that way. I’ll tell you where I am thinking about it though. Five years from now, the way people are connected to one another will change, today it’s about relationships. How you social network today is nothing like how you network in real life. In fact, you as an individual maintain maybe six to ten life groups; there’s your professional group, your family, your tennis club, your church, your best friends, but you don’t network the same way online. In fact, the way you network online today is exactly what we have accused media properties of doing wrong for so many years; broadcasting one to many, to one audience, and that’s exactly how we’re using social networks now. Five years from now, we’ll be far more sophisticated in what we share, where we share it and why we share it. Understanding at some level that this contributes to a digital persona that we will define online intentionally, it’s not what we’re doing today, but a few years from now it will be intentional, and that intentional persona that we create is going to affect us in the real world too. It’s going to have an impact on the way we see ourselves and act. Now on the business side, businesses are also going to mature as they understand the idea of how influence plays a part in information consumption and sharing, and they’re going to, as individuals are, be much more cognoscente about their role in all of this. They have to understand this in order to earn a position of authority, rather than trying to woe people all the time. It’s not scalable that way. You’ve got to make people want to come to you. Those two concepts working together will create a more enriched and complicated experience, but one where we are in control of the findings. That’s what the end goals look like, but I don’t know what that visually looks like five years from now.
Darcy & Hannah: What do you believe will happen to the skeptics of social media who are holding on to the idea that it is a useless trend that will eventually go away?
Brian Solis: The market for skepticism is finite, and one of the reasons I talk about Digital Darwinism quite a bit is in this exact example. The skeptic will become extinct before they ever realize that they were wrong.
Quotes & Summaries
We’d like to thank Solis, for lending us his time and brilliant professional insights. Looking back through the contents of this interview, we’d like to highlight some key takeaways:
- The Conversation Prism is a map designed to get you answers by pointing you in the right direction to help you find the what, when, where, how, why and to what extent, but you have to jump on the research road
- “The answer for B2B is the same as it is for B2C. . .”
- “I go and research and try and figure out everything I need to know beforehand, and that is the big element that companies are missing in a lot of this. Many are reluctant to study between the lines and do the research.”
- You can’t just look at the quantitative aspects that come out of your social media efforts, you need to dig deeper and figure out, “What is it that you want to know? What is the outcome? Where is this activity taking place? Who is leading that activity? Who are the influencers? Really, what you do to figure this out is you start to reverse engineer.”
- “You need to focus where attention is focused”
- “You need to figure out who the influencers and early adopters are”
- “The skeptic will become extinct before they ever realize that they were wrong.”
Have you used Brian’s Conversation Prism in a B2B setting? Share with us!