The Online Conversation You Should Be Nurturing Around Your Content

The grand experiments that Harvard Business Review, Forbes, McKinsey Quarterly and other business publications have been staging with their online editions if anything are proving one point: Readers don’t want to be just readers anymore. They want to engage in online discussions about the articles they’ve read – discussions not only with the authors but with other readers as well.

If you work in a professional services or other B2B firm that uses thought-leading content to attract customers, you should be watching these experiments very closely. (Editors at HBR, Forbes and McKinsey Quarterly who are helping to nurture these online discussions talked about how they do it in a Sept. 28 seminar by the Association of Management Consulting Firms.) Your firm, too, should be thinking about how to draw potential clients into your orbit through this online device.

chatIf you go to the web pages of these publications, you’ll quickly discover this: Readers no longer want to be passive participants in a monologue. They want to engage in dialogue with an expert who addresses an issue dear to their hearts -- or, as Fred Allen, Forbes.com’s Leadership section editor, put it in a recent phone call, a “conversation.”

Fred should know. Some online articles in the Leadership section he edits can attract hundreds of “reader” comments and more than 1 million views. Forbes.com’s online audience has doubled to 30 million monthly unique viewers in just the last year. So you can see why I put quotation marks around the word “reader.” It’s a limiting term. Even “viewer” doesn’t fully capture it. Viewers who comment on articles are participants in online conversations.

Professional services and other B2B firms are missing the boat if they aren’t shifting their online publications from monologues to dialogues/conversations. (You can read our deep dive on this here.) They are missing out on what I predict will become one the most effective relationship-building tools for the rest of this decade.

So what's the basis for my prediction? It’s the advantages that your potential clients get from engaging with you in online conversations around your content, your codified expertise on an issue. For your clients, I see three big advantages over the prevailing monologue model for publishing thought leadership content:

  1. The conversation doesn’t evaporate: A prospect who is so inspired to talk to you after reading your article can quickly forget the additional nuggets you voiced to him.  By responding to an online comment, you further capture your expertise for the prospect to go back to repeatedly.

  2. The prospect’s tire-kicking becomes a team sport: A prospect benefits when other prospects “kick the tires” of the expert online for all to see by asking probing questions that demand substantive responses. A phone call or in-person discussion means I have to rely just on my own probing questions to kick your tires. I’d rather have more tire-kickers than just me.

  3. The expert’s online responses become a Rorschach test that can reveal his personality. If the expert belittles a question about his article, that’s a sign of how things might be in an engagement. If an expert acts as if he knows everything, that’s another bad sign. On the other hand, if the expert treats commenters gracefully and thoughtfully, that increases my interest in talking to him.

HBR, Forbes and McKinsey Quarterly have built huge online audiences that actively weigh in on the content they read. Their online publications have spawned a professional firm’s dream: a dedicated group of people who are actively interested in their expertise. All of us have much to learn from their pioneering efforts. 

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