Edelman and NewsGator collaborated to launch Hosted Conversations in January. The new product provides Edelman clients a platform in which they can build a community of individuals through conversations on topics related to their products and services. It enables the clients to actually become part of a conversation with their customers and gain feedback that often eludes marketers. The lightly branded ads will appear on websites and blogs of the client's choice. The ad units can appear in a variety of sizes and forms, from DHTML to traditional banner ads.
Edelman will design the ad and work with the client to develop relevant topics to include in Hosted Conversations. Individuals who join the community will also have access to the latest news about a particular topic chosen by the client. NewsGator, using technology it had already developed for its private label solutions, will power the service that will aggregate all available content by RSS feeds. NewsGator also offers automated tools with which Edelman can enter specific keywords and generate content related to a specific search. "We've got a big taxonomy that they can use to search from to find things that are relevant," says Holston.
Edelman will then serve as editor and select the best, most relevant content from all of the data collected. "It can be a pro or a con for a client's position," says Murray. "We want it to be the best possible content all collected into one spot and available in one spot so the person visiting the site can actually make up his own mind by clicking through to a story on any given feed." Individuals can simply click and read a selected story at the original source of the content.
The content collected via the RSS feeds comes from a variety of sources and is available in many formats—from text and blogs to photographs, videos, and podcasts. Holston says that it's possible a client will choose to partner with a content provider, such as a magazine, and receive content exclusively from that publication. Content that appears in the ads will likely be updated daily.
Making Hosted Conversations even more interactive is the inclusion of a host who will moderate the online conversations related to the brands and the topics mentioned. Edelman will work with clients to find an appropriate expert to serve as the host. Murray said the host will likely be an expert on a particular topic. "What it's not going to be is the client's marketing department," he adds. A dietician could be a host for a conversation about healthy eating, a physician could moderate a conversation about the flu, Murray suggests. "The idea behind the host is that's where the client gets the opportunity to comment on trends they see in the blogosphere or in industry media as it relates to this conversation and invite comments from people visiting the site on those thoughts as well," says Murray.
When visitors click on a post within Hosted Conversations, a slide-out box appears next to the ad. Within that box, they either access a featured article or become part of the conversation by posting their own comments. Visitors can comment on the host's posts as well as publish their own posts on other blogs. They can also save the post, email it, or instant message the posts. The host will review the comments submitted by visitors before they are added to the post.
Holston says that implementing the Hosted Conversation solution took little time because the initiative was built from technological solutions NewsGator already offers. "It's just a different application of the various widgets we've built for the private-label business," he says. "The difference is the notion of a host and Edelman providing a service."
While Edelman was still working to secure clients for Hosted Conversations at press time, Murray was optimistic about the possibilities of the offering. Edelman is targeting clients in industries such as technology, consumer packaged goods, travel, and finance.
Murray expects clients will be able to achieve a greater understanding of their customers as a result of the feedback gained through Hosted Conversations. Perhaps the toughest part is that there are not yet any metrics that can be used to measure the success of the initiative.
Still, Edelman is counting on clients being able to measure a type of relationship they have not had with customers before. "There are a variety of ways we can look at engagement," says Murray. "It's not simply an impression or a click-through. It is the nature of the click-through and the relationship we have with that person and will build with that person over time."
Murray says that clients will be asked to commit to the project for four months because building online communities naturally takes time. The cost of a four-month program is in the high five figures to low six figures, adds Murray, noting the price tag varies depending on the scope and nature of each client's goals.
"Everyone is looking for ways to engage in the conversation economy," says Murray. "There's very little debate out there that it's harder and harder to reach people and more and more expensive to reach people through traditional channels. When you do reach them, your connection isn't necessarily as rich and valued as it might have been five or 10 years ago. People are looking for new ways to connect with folks. That, I think, is what we're trying to fulfill here."