Tools: ‘Markets are conversations’

“Markets are conversations.

There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.”

At first sight the Internet seems just another tool for business communication, and for the business of marketing. But as the Cluetrain Manifesto demonstrates, it’s having much more of an impact than business expected. Markets are conversations between people, each in their own voice: yet for more than a century, big business has striven to stifle that conversation, drowning out any other voices but its own ‘marketing message’. Such control was possible in an age of one-dimensional, one-way mass media: in business as elsewhere, the ‘right to speak’ was, and often still is, jealously guarded. But as the Cluetrain Manifesto puts it, “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”: in the anarchy of the Internet, such one-way messages are despised as ‘spam’ or ‘brochureware’. Emails and newsgroups and chat-boards and the wild proliferation of personal web-sites support true multi-way conversations about business issues, and permit anyone to speak their own truth. Markets are conversations once more: and businesses had better learn quickly to work with these conversations, or they won’t be in business for long…

Through the medium of the Internet, everyone can speak to anyone else, and probably does – and does so in a way which is impossible for business to control without also losing the networked communications upon which businesses now depend. Yet after being silenced so long, this new ‘networked market’ is cynical, suspicious: it’s quick to identify and dismiss PR ‘position statements’ and the like, and search elsewhere for that rare commodity called ‘truth’ – or honesty, at least. And it’s more likely to trust the words of a junior tech from the workshop floor than those of an executive in the Marketing Department, because, as Cluetrain points out:

“Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.

People recognise each other as such from the sound of this voice.”

The old voice of ‘marketing’ was, and is, none of these things: it sounds closed, controlled, contrived – it sounds like a voice in which to lie, and all too often it probably was. Which is why it wasn’t believed – even when it told the truth. Which meant – means – that there was no actual communication anyway. Which is a problem… especially when the business’s staff no longer believe the ‘official voice’ of their own business…

To many businesses, this new aspect of the Internet may seem like another version of Murphy’s Law: “if something can go wrong, it probably will – just when we had everything under control, it’s all come apart at the seams”. And it’s understandable that many businesses won’t like it. But as Inverse Murphy indicates, it’s actually not a problem, it’s an opportunity – but only if we let it be so.

For example: “There are no secrets”, says Cluetrain. “The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products.” It’s easy to see that as a problem: many companies do. But by allowing customers to share their information and experience with us – which they usually want to do, as the success of the computing Open Source movement indicates – we provide better service, better support and better products: which means they’re more likely to stay with us, not less, because they become active ‘stakeholders’ in our success. And Cluetrain shows us how: by opening up to the Internet, and allowing ‘our own people’ to speak their own truth, in their own voice.

Sure, it’s true that in a few circumstances, the ‘anything goes’ openness espoused by Cluetrain could be genuinely dangerous: aircraft maintenance is one obvious example. But markets are conversations, and people will continue to converse, both inside business and outside of it, in a way that’s beyond anyone’s ‘control’: and that’s as true of an intranet or a simple company LAN as it is of the Internet itself. After so much ‘silencing’, many people may need help to find their own voice, their own way of speaking: and in the process, many people will indeed make many mistakes. But since ‘making mistakes’ is how people – and businesses – learn how to not make mistakes, it’s probably wise to learn how to work with that process as best we can!

This is a brief summary of some of the key ideas in The Cluetrain Manifesto: The end of business as usual ~ Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger / Paperback / Perseus Books / Published 2000.

The book and website are well worth a look, as perhaps the clearest description of the real impact of the Internet on marketing and ‘business as usual’. Companies that fail to take note of Cluetrain’s warnings, and to change themselves to match a much-changed market, have only themselves to blame…

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