For exhibit and event professionals  

The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in the Digital Marketplace

August 6, 2012 By Editor

A review by Russell Reich

The social network

If you’re born a giraffe, you have about an hour from your moment of birth to learn how to get up on your own four spindly legs, high enough to get yourself some nourishment from mom. If you aren’t born with the natural inclination or capacity to do that, you can’t expect a lot of social support to help you out. It’s stand on your own, or else.

For us humans, though, it takes about 15 to 20 years for our brains to fully develop to the point where we can, theoretically, become responsible for our own survival. During those first couple of decades, then, we find ourselves dependent on others, and that dependency speaks directly to our identity as social beings.

“Our survival as a species,” write Ed Keller and Brad Fay, the co-authors of The Face-to-Face Book (Free Press, April 2012), “has depended not merely on our being the strongest or most aggressive, but on being collaborative…our evolutionary history has given us highly effective tools for reading the emotions and opinions of other people and for adapting to them.”

With that bit of biological anthropology in mind, Keller and Fay suggest that, as social animals, the messages we get are usually received within social contexts “in which people share with each other what they see and hear… [they] compare experiences and opinions, and then make collective choices.” Keller and Fay’s studies, and the evidence they collected from other sources, suggest that exploiting the massive opportunity presented by social contexts and behavior is imperative to business success.

Beware shiny objects

More than 90% of the conversations about products, services, and brands that take place every day in America happen offline.

It’s easy to be distracted in this quest by shiny objects like online social media sites, and Keller and Fay caution businesses against overly investing in technology instead of people. They assert that people flock to sites like Facebook not because they’re the source of social opportunities but the result of our underlying need for interaction with others, a need that transcends social media channels. After all, their research shows, “More than 90% of the conversations about products, services, and brands that take place every day in America happen offline.” (Emphasis added.)

With a ratio of offline to online conversations like that, Keller and Fay are most interested in identifying how marketers can encourage the live conversations and face-to-face sharing and engagements that influence brand attachments and buying behaviors.

Their thesis is this: “Good marketing starts conversations, and chiefly because of those conversations people make decisions that ultimately determine which brands are successful and which fail.”

What works. What doesn’t.

So what starts those productive and lucrative conversations? What makes a brand “talkworthy?”

It’s not what you might think, as Keller and Fay use their data to debunk some major marketing myths. Contrary to, say, Seth Godin, who believes that a Purple Cow (a wildly differentiated product that stands out in a crowded market) is the trigger to better WOM (word-of-mouth, to those in the know), the data show that the latest thing, the innovative or the cool is not particularly talkworthy in the long run. Neither are outrageous ads, public stunts and giveaways. Instead, the authors found the leading motivations for engaging WOM include:

  • Learning about the latest products.
  • Being one of the first people to know about a new product.
  • Sharing new products and ideas with friends and family.
  • Giving feedback to the manufacturers of the products.
Seemingly unexciting products and brands can ignite powerful and abundant conversations—no extra pizzazz or coolness factor required.

While “newness” animates conversational interest in three of these four motivations, it’s not the newness itself but the engagement, the verbs—learning, being, sharing, giving—that matter most to people. Instead of the old marketing line, “Sell the sizzle not the steak,” Keller and Fay propose, “the steak—the product—is the sizzle. And the steak need not come from a purple cow.” Seemingly unexciting products and brands can ignite powerful and abundant conversations—no extra pizzazz or coolness factor required. As examples, the authors cite data that show the most talked about brands include Walmart, Verizon, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.

Selling the Steak

The Face-to-Face Book provides a number of techniques and case studies that demonstrate how product-centric stories can be effectively built to trigger WOM. Here are some examples:

  • Blue Moon beer, its company’s CMO explains, is presented “in a tall Blue Moon glass with a garnish of orange…not [so] that people say, ‘Hey, check out my Blue Moon,’ but it’s that people see it and ask the bartender or drinker, ‘Hey, what is that?’ which is a version of WOM strategy: creating an interesting retail theater, which helps drive discovery and conversation.” The story behind the orange is that the product contains orange and coriander, but the slice not only brings out the flavor, it sparks the talk.
  • The same company uses cold-activated cans for its Coors brand. “If you want people to talk about your product, you’ve got to give them something to talk about,” says the same CMO, “[and] I’d rather that they talk about my product than my commercial.” To that end, the cans turn color when they’re cold: “When these Mountains turn blue, your beer is as cold as the Rockies” is written on the can. “As vernacular for ‘My beer is cold,’” he says, “you’ve got ‘My mountains are blue,’ ” which reinforces and dramatizes the idea of Rocky Mountain cold refreshment.
  • Apple’s white ear buds were “designed to be noticeable in crowds, to hit consumers with a bit of peer pressure.”
  • “The iconic glowing Apple logo on the lid of a MacBook is upside down if you are the user preparing to open your computer. Why? The logo is designed for other people nearby to see once the laptop is open: the logo is a conversation prompt, a cue for social influence.” (The authors are perhaps unaware that the logo on early Mac Powerbooks was the other way around, so I’m a bit skeptical that the change was made with the deliberate social influencing intent the authors ascribe. Apple may just have been queasy when they realized that, for years, they had been representing their own logo upside down when seen publicly.)

Aside from these insightful examples, the scientific nature of Keller and Fay’s research also provides some juicy statistics to help justify the investment in face-to-face marketing and deflate the online social media bubble.

  • 90 percent of brand conversations take place offline.
  • 71 percent of 1.2 billion tweets studied produced no response, suggesting they fell on deaf ears.
  • The remaining 23 percent did get a reply (but generally just one).
  • Only 6 percent of tweets are retweeted.

“Twitter,” Keller and Fay conclude, “has great potential to be viral, but most of the time it just doesn’t work that way.”

(I can’t wait to pull out some of these numbers the next time I'm told I have to tweet more or create another product Facebook page. I may do it, but I won’t be under the misperception that it’s worth more than it is.)

Bottom line

How else can we apply the data, stories and insights from this book to the exhibits and events business?

Here’s my suggestion. At MC², our output, our “product,” comprises exhibit structures, meetings, events and environments. We are responsible for the physical contexts in which people’s social behavior plays out. One way to think of what we do is that we design and build containers. Their purpose is to contain (that is, prompt, maintain and enhance) conversations about a brand and its products. Whether we’re planning an event, an environment or an exhibit, we need to start from the product story and create the context from there. Our test is how effectively we enable the learning, sharing, being and giving that people naturally want to engage in anyway, and enable those social activities around the product and the brand.

The Face-to-Face Book provides a number of valuable insights that not only can inform your exhibit design and event planning, but can also stimulate the conversations about why exhibits are designed and planned the way they are. After all, whenever you are able to explain how, for example, structures and visual cues can be scientifically applied to drive the conversations that bring about proven brand results, you elevate your value to your company. And that’s worth talking about.

Russell Reich, MC² Senior Vice President Creative Strategy Russell Reich directs creative strategy for new and existing business at MC². He has 20 years of experience as a senior creative and marketing communications strategist for an array of Fortune 50 clients. Reich has developed numerous interactive simulations for engaging and enhancing visitor experiences on trade show floors and at corporate events. His writing and creative credits include museum and trade show exhibits, product launches, video scripts and a wide variety of communications for such clients as IBM, Pfizer, Deloitte and other leaders in the technology, pharmaceutical and financial industries as well as in the non-profit field. Webmaster magazine called him “[one of] the people who could see far enough into the future to create it.” He is the author of numerous books and articles. Reich graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University and a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University.


  • This sounds like a great book and very timely. As a marketing consultant, I often need to respond to the question: “Why is my social media not generating business?” Perhaps because a one-way conversation is an oxymoron — that means it really isn’t a conversation. I encourage clients to show caring and respect for customers and potential customers. When someone responds to your post or article, show that you care by speaking directly to their comment or issue. In today’s marketplace, a brand cannot be a megaphone — it must be a telephone, where a two-way conversation takes place. This need to show caring and real interest in customers applies very strongly to the exhibit and trade show environment. Don’t talk AT the folks who come to your booth. Speak WITH them instead.

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