Advertising as Conversation, Part Two

A few days ago, I wrote about the need to rethink web advertising. Sponsored editorial sites like the Borland Risk Management Center on O’Reilly’s are a step in the right direction, providing rich content rather than just slogans. These are akin to television “infomercials,” a proven and effective advertising format. However, companies can get even better results if they are
willing to embrace Cluetrain principles of markets as conversations.


The Borland center provides a number of white papers and customer success stories (as well as related news culled from the net), together with an invitation to participate in some company webinars on security. There’s some good material there. (For example, I thought the paper on Metrics for Requirements Management was a good outline for requirements planning, though I would have loved to see some normative data for the various suggested metrics.) What’s missing is any opportunity for user interaction.

In her wonderful blog, Kathy Sierra continually points out that the secret of creating passionate users is to make them, not you, the center of your universe. You want to make them feel empowered, excited, engaged, listened to.

Kathy has lots of great advice on how to put the user (or the target audience) front and center (and in fact, she’s giving O’Reilly’s marketing team a seminar on the subject as I write). She says:

We hear people talking about wanting (or already having) “passionate users”, but when they describe what it looks like, it’s closer to “satisfied and happy” users. And since we’re going for the full passion monty here, we can’t stop with that.
… are we doing something with our product, service, marketing, etc. that will help the user do any of the following:






Show Off

Spend Time

Spend Money

Too often, companies seem to focus only on the last one — they’re quite happy to find ways for the user to spend more money, but ignore the others.

As an example of an “infomercial” that goes further in the direction that Kathy suggests, let me point to (funded by Sun Microsystems but managed editorially by O’Reilly, and with collaborative software development tools from CollabNet) .


A few hiccups aside, Sun has done a good job of letting O’Reilly run with, with the mission to create a third party watering hole for the Java developer community. There are over 138,000 registered members, nearly 2000 development projects, and an active community conversation. The site is a rich mix of weblogs, forums, java-related news syndicated from the net (including other oreillynet sites), and original editorial content. Users sometimes express opinions that Sun might find hard to hear, or talk about competing products, but overall, it’s a reflection of what’s on the target community’s mind rather than just what’s on Sun’s mind. This is indeed advertising as conversation.

In response to my first posting on the subject, O’Reilly Network developer Tony Stubblebine wrote: “If we remade advertising as conversation would we even recognize it as advertising? You could say that our developer relations sites [,, and] are just conversations to advertise products for Sun, BEA, and SAP. We’re totally focused on facilitating the conversation and hardly ever consider the advertising effect.

“I wonder if we could take the developer relations concept down a notch, to the product launch level. I suppose taking money to hawk products might put editorial integrity in question. The way around that is to put community response front-and-center. Or to have a clear relationship like ‘Adobe hired us to show people how to use Photoshop Elements.'” (They haven’t, but they should :-)

While I agree that taking such an approach challenges the traditional “Chinese wall” between editorial and advertising, it’s the wave of the future. The secret is to give up control over the message, and let the users do the talking.