Social Media

Brad Barbeau

Stop Messaging. Start Conversations.

In an era of two-way communications, why would we use a one-way communications concept?

Messaging has been an important element of brand building. Sending focused, clear, simple messages communicates brand positioning and reinforces it for consumers. But with today’s digital marketing environment, messaging is outdated. Theming is its interactive successor.

Branding and Messaging

The essence of communicating a brand has been done through messaging. In the cluttered world of marketing communications, effective messaging requires that your brand messages be simple, clear, limited in number, and repeated early and often. Buyers see thousands of messages every day; they pay them little or no attention so simplicity, clarity, and repetition are important for getting your message through.  

But messaging is a one-way street. It’s a great tool when you only have one-way communications and you need to reinforce your value proposition. But the beauty of digital marketing is that it’s not one-way. We can invite customers to respond to our content, to engage with it actively.

Themes and Conversations.

So instead of employing messaging – “Buy Us” – “We’re the best” – we can engage customers in exchanges that develop a relationship with them. Messaging creates a “we know; you don’t” meta-message; engaging them in conversations creates a playing field of equals. Conversations let them get to know us; develop trust; build a common understanding between us and them. 

“Looking to post a greeting? Start a conversation instead.” 


As with messaging, your themes must represent the core of what your brand is about. Themes must embody your value proposition and your brand’s core values. Your themes provide meaning for your brand and allow your brand to be in the conversation without necessarily being the conversation. 

The intention with themes isn’t to tell them something, it’s to get a response from them.  to have them actively engage with the content you put in front of them. Engage them emotionally, then evoke or provoke a response from them.

Engage; Evoke; Provoke

For a theme to be successful, your audience has to respond. So your content needs to be designed to engage them emotionally, and to evoke or even provoke a response. Consider what emotional response you want: surprise, hope, belonging, empathy, even anger; the list of possibilities goes on and on. If their emotional response is strong enough, they will want to respond (evoked response). You may even want to include a Call to Respond, a CTR if you will, the equivalent of the usual Call to Action (CTA).

As Always, Use Visual Content

Nothing engages, evokes and provokes like visual content. Show them pictures, brief videos. As they engage more deeply, they’ll consume longer videos. Include opportunities to respond – ask questions, give them places to click for more. 

As they engage more fully, they’ll be willing to provide some value back – liking, commenting, sharing, subscribing, and eventually purchasing. 

Creating strong relationships is hard to compete with.

Case Study: Carmel Naturals

Carmel Naturals Deodorant is a tiny, newly-launched brand of all-natural deodorant. Carmel Naturals Deodorant was developed by a breast-cancer survivor, Patricia Langrehr-Marsh. Patricia wanted to create an all-natural deodorant that would avoid using harsh ingredients found in most deodorants while being far more effective than other natural deodorants. Carmel Naturals had a small marketing budget and needed to build the brand from its own resources. See any themes that would engage potential customers? How about breast cancer; being choiceful about what we put in and on our bodies; product ingredients; personal hygiene and long-term health. Going a little farther afield, but still staying connected to the brand, would be nature, the environment, organic products. 

It would be tempting to put out direct messaging: “Carmel Naturals is safe to use.” “Carmel naturals has only natural ingredients.” “Carmel Naturals is effective.” 

But wouldn’t it be better to engage consumers in expressing their own feelings on these themes? Demonstrate the brand themes by providing information and engaging experiences around these themes. Build a relationship with the brand’s audience around the themes. Create empathy, trust, and attachment to the brand that goes beyond “buy our product.”

Then, having built an engaged community, purchasing Carmel Naturals becomes simply another expression of audience engagement. 

Build Conversations

So move beyond messaging. Use themes to generate conversations. Create relationships with your customers that go beyond buying or using your brand (but that include buying and using your brand). 

Tell us about how you use themes and conversations. What has worked to get customers to respond? What have been the outcomes of the conversations? What have you found leads to the richest conversations?

Photo of Brad Barbeau
Brad Barbeau
Founder, 21CM Digital Marketing

Brad Barbeau is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at CSU Monterey Bay and Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development at CSU Monterey Bay.  He is also the Principal and Founder of Ascend Business Design and Development.