Kelly Walsh, MS&L - The age of the conversation

The growth of digital comms means brands have to think harder about the consumer.

Let's start with three big numbers. Current official UK national debt is £776bn, equating to about £30,000 per household. This is predicted to rise to £90,000 per household by the end of this Parliament, according to Treasury figures.

UK consumers' main fear is unemployment, according to GfK Roper's Mood of the World 2010. And fear of the future inhibits consumers from spending more than a tightened budget does.

To some consumers, this unhappy economic state of affairs has been a reason to develop a taste for good old-fashioned 'wartime' food and thrift.

Since the beginning of the recession, sales of powdered milk, sandwich paste and corned beef have increased, according to

Seth Godin blogged on 1 June about the conversations going on inside the consumer mind: 'Everyone has multiple conversations and priorities going on, competing agendas that come into play every time we make a choice about doing, buying, creating or interacting. These voices ... determine which career we choose, how good a job we do, where we shop and what we watch.'

It is this internal monologue, combined with and influenced by the exponential growth in digital multilogues (Godin reckons the world doubles the data it pushes at you every 18 months), that now define the business of PR. 'Twice as much email, twice as many friend requests, twice as many sites to check, twice as many devices. When does your mind lose the ability to keep up?'

If the resulting consumer behaviour has been to stick thumbs in ears while wrapping fingers over eyes in a desperate attempt to control the onslaught of requested and unrequested communication, we need to think hard about these changes and how best to try to influence the consumer.

Last year, McKinsey published research on the purchase decisions of 20,000 consumers across five industries and three continents. The research showed that the proliferation of media and products requires marketers to find new ways to get their brands included in the initial-consideration set that consumers develop as they begin their decision journey. They also found that because of the shift away from one-way communication - from marketers to consumers - toward a two-way conversation, marketers need a more systematic way to satisfy customer demands and manage word-of-mouth.

The confluence of economic and digital factors means we are in The Age of the Conversation. Which makes us all one of a new breed of conversation agencies. Our job has become about helping clients to have influential conversations with their audiences and stakeholders when they are most receptive.

We believe the best way brands, companies and other organisations can influence, persuade, cajole and explain is to deepen relationships with their audiences and stakeholders by having credible people advocating on your behalf.

MS&L has identified six critical intervention points in the consumer decision journey, each of which provides opportunities to interact with the consumer, build relationships and converse meaningfully with them.

The amount of consumer choice is still expanding as is the communication to go with it, but in markets such as the UK where the Government is looking to cut swathes of spending, and with it jobs, consumers face tough futures choosing what to spend their money on. We think that the relationships PR can have with consumers and the conversations that go with them matter most in such times.

- Kelly Walsh is CEO of MS&L


- What is the best coverage your agency has attracted for a story based on a survey?

This year we launched the Celebrity Lips of the Year campaign for our client Lypsyl. The survey was designed so that communities on beauty and fan sites could get behind it - they weren't just being given the results, they could affect the outcome, which created fantastic conversations about the brand.

- Who is your fantasy campaign spokesman/woman? Why?

A bigger, better, brighter version of myself - it's just that we believe 'people like me' because most public figures fall short on the trust and credibility stakes.

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