Cluetrain Manifesto: Why Companies Must Stop Hiding

by Stephen Pizzo

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An interview with 'Cluetrain Manifesto' co-author David Weinberger

It's been a long time since I've read a book like The Cluetrain Manifesto -- something written with genuine passion and a human voice that rings like a wake-up call. Silent Spring, for example, yanked back the curtain of societal self-delusion and exposed the industrial age's dirtiest little secret: massive environmental degradation.

Cluetrain does something similar: It exposes the way companies hide behind their marketing departments and refuse to wake up and take part in the dialog that's going on around them. It felt like a fresh mountain breeze was blowing through my weary head as I flipped the pages of Cluetrain, co-authored by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. In a voice that speaks clearly and without mincing words or worrying about offending the guilty, the authors lay down a whole new set of ground rules for companies wanting to capture online customers. Well, "new" is wrong actually. What the authors do is put down in words what veterans of the Net have always known, and businesses must now learn and learn quickly.

The bottom line, the authors say, is that commerce on the Net is about conversation and relationship -- not between the hunter and the hunted, the seller and the buyer. Rather, it's a relationship between equals. Businesses can no longer just broadcast demographically calibrated messages to targeted audiences and wait for the lemmings to place orders. As the authors point out, the market is already having a conversation about them, whether companies participate or not.

Companies that erect a fortress storefront on the Net and send goods out for sale, but immediately hoist the drawbridge at the first sight of a peasant rebellion, will fail. Only those businesses that "decloak" and engage with consumers online will have a fighting chance of succeeding.

I recently interviewed Cluetrain co-author David Weinberger. You can listen to the interview, read the interview, or just scan the highlights below. And, of course, let us know what you think.

David Weinberger on:

On companies hiding behind their marketing departments

"Companies for, oh 80 years let's say, have been in business primarily to keep themselves hidden from their customers -- for deep reasons. They don't want their customers, the market consumers, to know what's going on inside the business, so they have marketing departments that serve as a wall basically to keep people out. Marketing departments often view themselves as trying to bring customers in, but everybody knows that the stuff that's coming through the marketing orifice -- and basically through all of the orifices in the organization -- is so tightly controlled we know it's not representative of what's really going inside the organization."

On companies admitting they are fallible:

"Organizations are incapable, it seems, of admitting that they're made up of humans, that they make lots of mistakes, they make mistakes every day, on every floor of the building I guarantee there's mistakes being made because they're occupied by humans. That the products don't always work, the products aren't great for every application. Companies have this deep resistance to ever acknowledging any of those completely obvious and true things that everybody knows already."

On companies fearing the openness of the Web:

"When they hear about the Web, it's threatening to them, they've got to do something about it, and they figure they put up a Web site, they'll put up some nice pictures, and now they've done their Web thing when in fact we just route around it. It's completely uninteresting. The conversations are already going on, all over the place -- it's in the news groups, it's in review sites, it's in email, it's in instant messaging. I mean, it's all over the place. Conversations are there and companies, when they hear about that, their first impulse is again to try to manage those conversations. They say, "How can we control those conversations and get them talking about our message," and you can't. That reflex, which is an old reflex, it's like the lizard part of their brain. "How can we manage this?" is completely inappropriate."

On how Western Digital gets it:

There's Western Digital -- there's lots of places do this, but Western Digital is one of them: And if you have a problem with the hard drive, they route you towards their open discussion board, which is a completely unmoderated discussion board, so you read through these, and first of all there's just tons of information, and second of all, not only do you get a response really quickly from one of their tech support people, who speaks in her or his own voice, but you also -- there are messages from enthusiasts who jump right in, which is fantastic. When you read through some of these messages, it's not uncommon that the first subject line of the first thread is "Western Digital sucks," "your drives suck," and then you read through and literally the subject line gets turned around because they are being answered by human beings who, you know, talk in their own voice, and eventually it's "you guys rock," "you guys roll," whatever it is. And they've completely turned the customer around simply by being human, by being willing to admit, "Yeah, you know, sometimes our drives don't work. You know, they're not made by God yet, they're just made by people. So sometimes our drives don't work. Everybody knows that." What's the big deal when we have a hundred years of business that thinks it's somehow fatal to admit error.

On how Net marketing must change to succeed:

"Marketing has viewed itself properly as an act of war against an unwilling populace, because people don't want to hear from marketers. The fundamental fact of broadcast marketing is that the people you're trying to reach hate you. They don't want to hear from you. We don't like ads. We don't like billboards. We run from it. Sometimes you try to package up your ad into some mini sit-com so people will just watch it, but even then, you're acknowledging, "People hate marketing," so of course all of the rhetoric, all of the semantics of marketing is based on war. "Marketing campaigns," for example.

"The Web keeps inventing new roles for marketing departments, and we don't yet know what those are, but the temptation of the marketing department is once again to try to jump in and manage and control the public perception, and then when they hear that there are conversations going on, they want to control and manage those. The instinct to control is deeply buried, is deep inside of the marketing department, and what they end up doing, I think, is so far removed from what marketing has become but so close to what the most enthusiastic marketers and other people inside the company want to do. In some ways, it's sort of easy if they can just give up on their fear."

On how the Net marketplace is already full of talk about companies:

"So, conversations are going on out there. If you want to join a conversation in real life -- because these are literal conversations, this isn't a metaphor, these are literal conversations -- how do you do it? Do you go in with three key messages that you're going to now try to work in somehow, and make sure that you use the right sets of phrases because they're in your mission statement or in your marketing guidelines? No, if you're going to enter the conversation you have to have something interesting to say. That's the first thing. Second , you have to recognize that you're not the center of it. We're not on the Web because we want to talk about companies or talk with companies generally. We have better things to talk about. If you want to enter something to say, realize you're not the center and try to remember how to talk like a human being. You're perfectly capable of it when you're not at work. So try to do that when you're at work. An example is, you go to a trade show and you're talking with a friend outside the booth, who then goes inside the booth and starts giving the company spiel, and as she does it you hear this creature -- you know, you've done this too, when you hear this creature that's so alien from your friend that when the friend comes back out, and says, "Well, how'd I do," you know, you want to look her in the eye and say, "You're a jerk. Why were you talking that way? That wasn't you talking?" If you can get past the security blanket of the corporate lingo and start to talk like a human being, again, about things that you care about, then you're doing marketing. "

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