Online Dialogue: The End of an Era?

Declining interaction between online users and brands, frustration as brands attempt to start online conversations, cutting out comment sections on news sites…it’s becoming clearer than ever in 2016 that the promise of online dialogue turns out to be all talk and no action.

In December 2015 the Toronto Star took commenting off its website. The paper said it wanted to let readers focus on what really mattered: the published content. After ReutersPopular ScienceThe WeekRe/codeThe Daily Dot and the Toronto Sun is the latest in a long list of media to delete their dialogue space for lack of constructive debate.

Brands, for their part, have an issue that’s radically different: they’re desperately seeking conversations with consumers. For nearly 10 years now, the champions of relational marketing have extolled the virtues of Twitter and Facebook as the platforms for talking with consumers and engaging them directly. But there too, the conversation is hitting a wall and engagement is almost nothing at all.

The dangling conversation

Cutting the comments section is tantamount to renouncing the ideals once cherished at the dawn of the internet – an internet that Fred Turner’s spot-on genealogical analysis in From Counterculture to Cyberculture described as the triumphant incarnation of 1960s Californian counterculture communal ideals.

Turner explained that in the beginning the internet was steeped in libertarian and independent culture and that the networks were seen as an authentically democratic space where message senders and receivers were on equal terms.

Counter to the age-old hierarchies that distinguished authors and readers, experts and laymen, individuals and institutions, brands and consumers, the networks presented an egalitarian vision: message receivers were also message senders.

For publishers, the internet was to be the perfect tool for participatory democracy. It would recast the agreement between writers and readers in new media co-created by internet users and journalists.

For businesses, the web, and social media a few years later, also came with a promise of proximity to and interaction with consumers.

At the turn of the 2010 decade social marketing gurus dipped into the wellsprings of the digital promised land and proclaimed a communications revolution: the 2.0 revolution that would make it possible not only to send messages (the old vertical advertising) but to interact intimately with consumers.

This la la land even came with a vocabulary all its own (2.0 communication, consumactors, digital tribes).

What you’re saying un-says what i’m writing…so say no more

Nearly a quarter of a century after the web made its debut, publishers are facing a painful truth: instead of participatory democracy, the media are increasingly encroaching on people’s right of expression.

That expression has been hijacked by fringe groups, the loudmouths and wack jobs who use comment threads as their personal verbal toilets. They contaminate news articles with comments that are off topic or of no interest – often stupid, racist, sexist, aggressive…Recently, the CBC temporarily suspended posting comments on any online stories about indigenous peoples because of the deluge of racist or hateful comments.

To maintain a semblance of participation, publishers like the Toronto Star are referring those who want to discuss a news topic, but rarely join the discussion, to social media platforms. In France, it’s already common practice to outsource the moderation process to third parties.

Message to relational marketing:  no one wants to talk to a brand

Facebook and Twitter are the two platforms that marketers had high hopes for, perhaps overestimating the interest consumers had in online brands.

According Cefrio in 2014, 14% of Quebec internet users were connected to Twitter, far behind the 70% on Facebook. A study from Twopcharts, however, explained that 44% of Twitter subscribers in the US had never even written a single tweet, while only 13% of existing accounts had written more than 100 in total. And Twitter is supposed to be the microcosm where activists, journalists, opinion makers and ghost accounts are supposed to intermingle…

Mark Ritson, an associate professor at the Melbourne Business School, explains in this connection that the Twitter subscribers (those famous communities) who follow the 10 largest Canadian companies represent less than 1% of their customers – a number too small to even really matter.

Facebook, on the other hand, can claim to be by far the most widely used social media in absolute numbers of subscribers and time spent. Sixty-five percent of Facebook users connect to the network at least once a day. Brands are having an increasingly difficult time, however, in capitalizing on these habits and are watching their reach melt away like an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.

According EdgeRank Checker, the average reach of a non-sponsored post on Facebook dropped from 16% in 2012 to 6.5% in 2014. According Locowise, that was down to 2.27% by March 2015 for brands with over 1 million fans. So a brand with a base of 1 million subscribers will reach only 22,700 people with each post.

The statistics are even worse for rate of engagement, which represents the number of people interacting with a publication (clicking, sharing, etc.), compared to the total number of fans a brand has. According to a Forrester Research study of 50 major US brands, the rate of engagement on their Facebook page is 0.073%, a figure about as close to insignificant as you can get.

The conclusion is clear. With very rare exceptions, internet users do not interact with brands on social media. They go on these platforms to maintain relationships with friends and family, which is essentially what social means. Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2007 was still advocating a participatory vision of information and advertising, has now reversed his position and considers brands as traditional advertisers who must pay to push their message to the general public.

For retail banners, food, clothing, banks, and insurance companies, platforms like Facebook and Twitter serve as last-stop customer service sites for handling requests and complaints.

Not everyone is in on the conversation

So we’re faced with an astonishing fact: fewer and fewer publishers or media outlets want to interact with internet users on their platforms, while brands, on the other hand, are trying to drum up conversations like never before, but with very little to show for their efforts.

What’s also interesting is that the situation for all concerned was not nearly so grim before the latest updates to the Facebook algorithm.

According EdgeRank Checker (a site devoted to marketing on Facebook), some business sectors on Facebook, including the media, magazines, radio stations, podcasts, artists, and film producers, have an organic reach well above retail stores, food, clothing, financial services or insurance companies.

What these properties have in common, according EdgeRank Checker, is strong social DNA – the content they produce is unique, high quality, and information rich.

Video game brands such as Ubisoft have very loyal and engaged communities on Facebook and Twitter. Highly anticipated games still in production, like Star Citizen for example, profit from maintaining an interest among their fan base by distilling daily updates.

Film producers too have realized that social media are the main sounding board to now promote their product. The case of The Hunger Games, as analyzed by the team at Frontline PBS, shows how marketers capitalized on the enthusiasm of fans demanding to interact with the film crew.

Although there’s a good deal of concern over Twitter’s health, it also seems that some TV shows, like the Rendezvous series, are still managing to maintain some form of online dialogue on episodes with their audience. So all is not lost…yet.


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