In 1999, a group of writers declared that “markets are conversations” and, in the style of Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517, published their own 95 Theses, as a response to what they considered outmoded and archaic thinking at the end of the 20th century.
I first read The Cluetrain Manifesto a few months after its initial publication. I loved its iconoclasm then, even if I perhaps didn’t grasp the full potential and implications of its ideas. I printed it out and kept it in my File of (Probably) Useful Things, and only recently rediscovered it.
It’s still enormously relevant and important (I especially like #28, #75 & #83!). Of course elements didn’t come to pass, and the old ways of Business As Usual have proved remarkably resilient. But broadband technology and the growth of social media in the last 2-3 years is now providing the environment for these conversations to flourish and grow.
Markets are conversations. The original trading posts and barter economies were based around individuals haggling with each other to exchange goods. Information spread through word of mouth, rumours. Wise men kept their ‘ear to the ground’, and those with the best networks could command the best prices and biggest markets.
In recent times these inter-personal conversations were drowned out: new technology and communications media enabled those with money and resources (companies and their brands) to shout louder and for longer. Advertising and marketing campaigns were monologues; broadcast messages from brands that mainly sought to inform and persuade rather than engage or provoke any response besides purchase. They effectively overtook the individual’s ability both to start conversations or to build what economists liked to call ‘perfect information’ about their markets.
Now the technology has developed further, and is giving those abilities back. News spreads fast; review sites and social media enable strangers to recommend or condemn brands and products. In some companies and sectors faster than others, this is and will require a fundamental change of approach.
When I was at Barclaycard at the start of the last decade, we used “BAU” as an everyday term, which seems to imply that the Business was doing everything it could to preserve what had gone before, while everything else seemed “nice-to-do”. The very use of language is conservative and incrementalist, suggesting that change will only come when it arises from the pre-existing models.
That’s no longer good enough, and businesses are changing. But it’s still true that many are clinging to their historic approach to media. They claim to want to engage their consumers more directly and personally, yet they continue to spend a tiny fraction of their time and effort on this. They prefer to spend money advertising online rather than hiring staff or systems to engage in conversations with their customers directly. They still fear the lack of control and certainty that comes from interacting with individuals, rather than the comfortable assumption that we’re all the same. Well, we’re not.
Technology is giving ‘us’ back the ability to engage each other more directly. I recommend marketers and their bosses (re)visit The Cluetrain Manifesto: it’s really easy to read the 95 Theses, and there’s more truth in those 11-year-old declarations than in most marketing reports published last month. But are they brave and honest enough to rise to the challenge?