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Book Review of: Conversational Capital

How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About

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Review of Conversational Capital, by Bertrand Cesvet, Tony Babinski, and Eric Alper (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

I read through this book quickly, because there really isn't much to it. The book contains enough actual material for an average-sized magazine article, but by "clever" use of filler and repetition, the authors stretched it into a book. I'm not overly impressed with this book.

This is a sales/marketing piece being presented as a "how to" business book. This tactic should backfire, given how blatantly they did it. I would never hire a company that considers this kind of behavior appropriate.

If you were the marketing director for a public relations company or marketing agency and needed a gussied up brochure to send to potential clients at large firms, you might decide to write a book like this one and mail it out to prospective clients. Busy executives scan, rather than read, so something about this size can garner interest because it stands out from the normal trash basket filler.

Read the title, read the TOC, go to the bottom line (chapter on implementation), and respond to the call to action. That seems to be how the authors intended for this book to be "read." A call to action does not belong anywhere in the body text of a "how to" business book. Yet, there it was. Repeatedly.

The target demographic of this book is ideal for getting an appointment for a "presentation," which means spending an hour torturing people with a few hundred PowerPoint slides until they just surrender and you walk out with a deal. If that's not the case, then the last four chapters and most of what preceded them serve no purpose.

The book is clearly aimed at large, bureaucratic organizations where one hand doesn't know what the other is doing. I say this because in the implementation chapters, the authors tell us to assemble a large and diverse team so we can "multiply cultural references." But if only huge organizations can be nimble, as this recommendation suggests, how did the deli they used as an example ever succeed? What kind of "cultural references" will you find on the payroll of a deli? There's a conflict, here.

It necessarily follows that the authors are also saying, "We don't have any recommendations for you sops whose companies are too small to have a culturally diverse payroll and whose companies don't waste thousands of manhours each year on mindless meetings. You have no way to properly manage your company's reputation."

Desperate in Montreal

Absurdly, the authors refer to Montreal as a location that naturally fosters the whole "cultural references" thing. Montreal, however, is noted as being especially parochial and insular--it's a running joke throughout the other provinces. And it's a constant source of friction, politically.

Now, there are many fine people living in Montreal and the rest of Quebec. And people from all over the world visit there, and it's a conference destination as well. But let's not let those facts lead us into mischaracterizing Montreal to be whatever someone thinks it "should" be. I don't have a problem with how Montreal actually is, but the authors apparently think it's not good enough. There's a whole lot of this spin and "creative" interpretation of reality throughout this book.

The authors trumpet the fact that "we speak English and French" but ignore the fact that many Quebec citizens speak little or no English and even more of them generally have a hostile attitude about being "forced" to speak English by "arrogant English speakers who won't take the time to learn our language."

Related factoid: In the 1999 movie "Grey Owl," Annie Galipeau, the actress who co-starred with Pierce Brosnan, was from Quebec and spoke only French. She had to learn English for that role. And why did she have to learn English? Because only 5% of the people in her hometown speak English as their first language and less than 1% of the people in her hometown are bilingual English and French as their first language. Her hometown of Maniwaki serves some "seat of government" regional function and is only a couple hundred miles from Montreal. True bilingual development is not a characteristic of the area. Not even close.

Yes, there is bilingualism in Montreal. But thinking in a bilingual manner doesn't derive from simply being there. And even if it did, what value does it actually have for marketing? Answer: zero. It's just not relevant. The authors try to make it sound as though the mere fact they live in Canada imbues them with insight the rest of us just aren't going to have and living in Montreal imbues them with even more of such insight. Yet, the evidence they give is unconvincing at best.

All of this smacks of desperation. "We can't sell you on the merits of what we know and accomplish, so we're trotting out a few facts and extrapolating statements that conflict with other facts." This material should be excised, if for relevancy alone.

Reputation marketing

One page 5, the authors tell us they are "totally unoriginal," aren't innovative, and haven't invented anything new. They say, "We've just given it a name." Incorrect. It has already had a name; they just gave it a different one. The book presents the concept of "Conversational Capital," which we all know as "reputation marketing."

We see this in various forms, such as (and this is a short part of a long list):

  • Word of mouth. Your customers tell their friends and associates about your products or services, without being asked to.
  • Referrals. Your customers tell you about other potential customers, and you can use their name when contacting those customers.
  • Testimonials. Your customers brag about you, and you can use their statements.
  • Viral marketing. Considered new on the Internet, it's been around for decades. In the old days, your company name was on a pen, mug, golf ball, or some other promotional item. Today, it's on a funny video.

Basically, reputation marketing involves taking actions to get people to talk about your business in a positive way. The authors are correct that it's not a new concept.

So, what are they providing? They list eight "engines" of conversational capital in one place and ten in another. While they have put their own labels on these things in an attempt to make it look like they are providing original analysis or new insights, what they've come up with is nothing new. Just new names for the same things marketing people have been doing for decades.

The authors also use examples that smacked of desperation on their part. The main example used in the book is an entertainment company and the other examples are mostly service companies (such as a deli). I am unfamiliar with most of the "successful" companies used as examples of companies that allegedly have mastered this concept. Of the names I did recognize, I have never done business with those companies. Not one. So, I felt a strong cultural disconnect. This, despite the authors' claims of being both European and American by dint of being Canadian, and thus really tuned in to the marketplace.


The book is divided into three Parts.

Part One is "Defining Conversational Capital" and it contains seven chapters. Chapter One provides the definition, explaining it in terms of the "engines" of conversational capital. We'll read this same stuff, slightly rewarmed, list again and again ad nauseum throughout the book. If the book were structured in a standard nonfiction format (things flow in logical progression toward a conclusion), most of the material would have been cut. The next six chapters made me feel dazed and confused.

Part Two is "The Engines of Conversational Capital" and it consists of ten chapters. The two engines missed in Part One are "Initiation" and "over-delivery." Much of the discussion on "initiation" defies logic, and the examples are poor. I can see why they skipped this, earlier. They should have just left it out. The "over-delivery" concept is a good one, and it's discussed in many business books. The authors don't seem to have read any of those books.

Part Three is "Implementing Conversational Capital" and it consists of four chapters. The underlying message is, "You need to be talking to us." So, once we get through all the "information" we get to the sales pitch. There are actually two sales pitches. One is "we can help you market your stuff" and the other is "send us your ideas via our Website, so we can sell them to our clients." Just before the Foreward (which is just before the Introduction), there's a two-page section with a big, bold heading that reads, "THIS IS AN OPEN SOURCE BOOK" (yes, all caps). I don't see how they make that happen. I did visit their Website, and it was not at all clear to me there was really any "open source" going on.

Where's the beef?

This book does cover the basics of marketing. But it often provides weak examples and explanations, so those concepts aren't clearly conveyed. I don't believe this was incompetence on the part of the authors. Remember that earlier I noted there's really just a magazine article here. A marketing strategy for subject matter expert articles is to provide just enough information to be seen as an expert without giving away your expertise in the article. If you're selling expertise to make your living, you can't be giving it away.

As an example, consider the thousands of SEO (search engine optimization) that have been written. If these were written to inform rather than to serve as marketing pieces, nobody would need to hire SEO experts because by now all readers would be experts. The articles do help the reader understand the issues, so they are actually useful. But they aren't going to tell you "how to." You have to hire the experts for that. This is as it should be, and we all understand this when reading these articles.

The tagline, "How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About" is not relevant to the book. This book is not about creating stuff and does not tell you how. So, the tagline promises two major concepts that the book does not deliver on.

A tagline of "Issues that determine what people say about your company" would have been accurate. The book helps the reader understand basic marketing issues. But, a reader with a basic marketing background already understands those issues. That leaves a couple of other people who would find this book useful:

  1. An executive looking to hire a marketing firm.
  2. Someone who has no marketing background but is considering starting a small business.

The authors had an agenda, and serving the general business community was not it. The authors would have better served themselves if they had written to a different agenda.


About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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