order from Amazon

chapter four

the following is the complete fourth chapter of

The Cluetrain Manifesto:
The End of Business as Usual

Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.

cluetrain.com

back to table of contents 

NEXT: Chapter 5: Hyperlinked organizations



Markets Are Conversations
Doc Searls and David Weinberger


When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack
trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships,
whizzing by countless billboards.

Think of a table for two.

- @man

It was April in Paris, several weeks before a big press conference where my client, a large but rapidly shrinking French computer company, would roll out a wonderful new computer, the first of its kind. The whole project had been veiled in secrecy for years. Security was intense. Code names were used. Deep alliances with Big Players were mentioned only in hushed tones. The company had hired me to develop a strategy for the rollout. In particular, they wanted a "message," one that would serve as a tagline for the event and for all the advertising to follow. A meeting of the company’s marketing communications people was convened for my analysis of the market and a briefing on a strategy that would make the press conference great.

The assignment was painfully hopeless. Oh, the new computer was nice and the usual customers would buy it, but the larger market -- the one this company needed to penetrate -- could care less. The company had been too silent too long. With nothing to lose, I told them the truth.

"We have three problems," I began. "First, there is no market for your message, least of all among journalists, who want facts and stories. Second, there is no market for your secrecy. You have long ignored the market, now they will choose to ignore you. Third, there really is no market for your press conference. Journalists want to be briefed exclusively."

They stared at me. I continued:

"Markets are nothing more than conversations. See these magazines? They’re a form of market conversation. We should already be in their stories. We are key to the subject, but we’re missing in action after working in secret for years. Our only hope is to talk. Starting now."

I outlined a strategy for igniting as much conversation as possible in a very short time, suggesting some fun, creative, and ultimately pointless ideas. Later, a dozen people came up and thanked me for telling the truth and giving them new hope (although presumably for their next jobs).

Then the project manager took me aside and said, "That was brilliant. Now, what’s the tagline?"

First Things Last

The first markets were markets. Not bulls, bears, or invisible hands. Not battlefields, targets, or arenas. Not demographics, eyeballs, or seats. Most of all, not consumers.

The first markets were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first markets were places for exchange, where people came to buy what others had to sell -- and to talk.

The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged someone. There were often conversations about the work of hands: "Feel this knife. See how it fits your palm." "The cotton in this shirt, where did it come from?" "Taste this apple. We won’t have them next week. If you like it you should take some today." Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.

Market leaders were men and women whose hands were worn by the work they did. Their work was their life, and their brands were the names they were known by: Miller, Weaver, Hunter, Skinner, Farmer, Brewer, Fisher, Shoemaker, Smith.

For thousands of years, we knew exactly what markets were: conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, the artifice of positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations.

These were the kinds of conversations people have been having since they started to talk. Social. Based on intersecting interests. Open to many resolutions. Essentially unpredictable. Spoken from the center of the self. "Markets were conversations" doesn’t mean "markets were noisy." It means markets were places where people met to see and talk about each other’s work.

Conversation is a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.

The Industrial Interruption

The advent of the Industrial Age did more than just enable industry to produce products much more efficiently. Management’s approach to production and its workers was quickly echoed in its approach to the market and its customers. The economies of scale they were gaining in the factory demanded economies of scale in the market. By the time it was over we had forgotten the one true meaning of the market, and replaced it with industrial substitutes.

In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote that the rise of industry drove an "invisible wedge" between production and consumption, a fact Friedrich Engels had noticed over one hundred years earlier. As production was ramped up to unheard-of rates, the clay pot of craftwork was broken into shards of repetitive tasks that maximized efficiency by minimizing difference: interchangeable workers creating interchangeable products.

In the market, consumption also needed to be ramped up -- not just to absorb the increased production of goods, but also to promote people’s willingness to buy the one-size-fits-all products that rolled off mass-production lines. And management wasted little time noticing the parallels in efficiencies they could achieve all along the production-consumption chain. If products and workers were interchangeable, then interchangeable consumers began to look pretty good too.

The goal was simple. Customers had to be convinced to desire the same thing, the same Model-T in any color, so long as it’s black. And if workers could be better organized through the repetitive nature of their tasks, so customers were more easily defined by the collective nature of their tastes. Just as management developed a new organizational model to enhance economies of scale in production, it developed the techniques of mass marketing to do the same for consumption.

So the customers who once looked you in the eye while hefting your wares in the market were transformed into consumers. In the words of industry analyst Jerry Michalski, a consumer was no more than "a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and crap cash." Power swung so decisively to the supply side that "market" became a verb: something you do to customers.

In the twentieth century, the rise of mass communications media enhanced industry’s ability to address even larger markets with no loss of shoe leather, and mass marketing truly came into its own. With larger markets came larger rewards, and larger rewards had to be protected. More bureaucracy, more hierarchy, and more command and control meant the customer who looked you in the eye was promptly escorted out of the building by security.

The product of mass marketing was the message, delivered in as many forms as there were media and in as many guises as there were marketers to invent them. Delivered locally, shipped globally, repeated inescapably, the business of marketing devoted itself to delivering the message. Unfortunately, the customer never wanted to take delivery.

The Shipping View

During the Industrial Age, the movement of materials from production to consumption -- from flax to linen and from ore to musket -- was a long and complicated process. Potentially vast markets had potentially vast distribution needs. The development of new transportation systems eased the burden, and global systems flourished. Even huge distances could be spanned so that products could be delivered efficiently. Inexorably, business began to understand itself through a peculiar new metaphor: Business is shipping. In this shipping metaphor -- still the heart and soul of business-as-usual -- producers package content and move it through a channel, addressed for delivery down a distribution system.

The metaphor was effectively applied not just to the movement of physical goods, but also quickly applied to the packaging and delivery of marketing content. It’s no surprise that business came to think of marketing as simply the delivery of a different type of content to consumers. It was efficient to manage, one size could fit many, and the distribution channel -- the new world of broadcast media -- was more than ready to deliver. The symmetry was perfect. The production side of business ships interchangeable products and the marketing side ships interchangeable messages, both to the same market, the bigger and more homogeneous, the better.

One problem: there is no demand for messages. The customer doesn’t want to hear from business, thank you very much. The message that gets broadcast to you, me, and the rest of the earth’s population has nothing to do with me in particular. It’s worse than noise. It’s an interruption. It’s the Anti-Conversation.

That’s the awful truth about marketing. It broadcasts messages to people who don’t want to listen. Every advertisement, press release, publicity stunt, and giveaway engineered by a Marketing department is colored by the fact that it’s going to a public that doesn’t ask to hear it.

Marketers felt this truth in their bones, and learned to cloak their messages, to disguise them as entertainment, to repackage the content as regularly as business learned to vary this year’s product line. Today, we all know and have come to expect this. We are even disappointed if it’s not well done. Commercials disguise themselves as one-act plays, press releases play the part of important stories, and advertising masquerades as education. Marketing became an elaborate game between business and the consumer, but the outcome remained fixed. As sophisticated as marketing became, it has never overcome the ability of people to smell the BS behind all the marketing perfume.

It is not hard to understand, then, that "business is shipping" at times felt more like "business is war," another pervasive metaphor. We launch marketing campaigns based on strategies that target markets; we bombard people with messages in order to penetrate markets (and the sexual overtones here shouldn’t be dismissed either). Business-as-usual is in a constant state of war with the market, with the Marketing department manning the front lines.

Consider the distance we’ve come. Markets once were places where producers and customers met face-to-face and engaged in conversations based on shared interests. Now business-as-usual is engaged in a grinding war of attrition with its markets.

No wonder marketing fails.

The Axe in Our Heads

Every one of us knows that marketers are out to get us, and we all struggle to escape their snares. We channel-surf through commercials; we open our mail over the recycling bin, struggling to discern the junk mail without having to open the envelope; we resent the adhesion of commercial messages to everything from sports uniforms to escalator risers.

We know that the real purpose of marketing is to insinuate the message into our consciousness, to put an axe in our heads without our noticing. Like it or not, they will teach us to sing the jingle and recite the slogan. If the axe finds its mark we toe the line, buy the message, buy the product, and don’t talk back. For the axe of marketing is also meant to silence us, to make conversation in the market as unnecessary as the ox cart.

Ironically, many of us spend our days wielding axes ourselves. In our private lives we defend ourselves from the marketing messages out to get us, our defenses made stronger for having spent the day at work trying to drive axes into our customers’ heads. We do both because the axe is already there, the metaphorical embodiment of that wedge Toffler wrote about -- the one that divides our jobs from our lives. On the supply side is the producer; on the demand side is the consumer. In the caste system of industry, it is bad form for the two to exchange more than pleasantries.

Thus the system is quietly maintained, and our silence goes unnoticed beneath the noise of marketing-as-usual. No exchange between seller and buyer, no banter, no conversation. And hold the handshakes.

When you have the combined weight of two hundred years of history and a trillion-dollar tide of marketing pressing down on the axe in your head, you can bet it’s wedged in there pretty good. What’s remarkable is that now there’s a force potent enough to actually start loosening it.

Here’s the voice of a spokesperson from the world of TV itself, Howard Beale, the anchorman in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network who announced that he would commit suicide because "I just ran out of bullshit." Of course, he had to go insane before he could at last utter this truth and pull the axe from his own head.

Networked Markets

The long silence -- the industrial interruption of the human conversation -- is coming to an end. On the Internet, markets are getting more connected and more powerfully vocal every day. These markets want to talk, just as they did for the thousands of years that passed before market became a verb with us as its object.

The Internet is a place. We buy books and tickets on the Web. Not over, through, or beside it. To call it a "platform" belies its hospitality. What happens on the Net is more than commerce, more than content, more than push and pull and clicks and traffic and e-anything. The Net is a real place where people can go to learn, to talk to each other, and to do business together. It is a bazaar where customers look for wares, vendors spread goods for display, and people gather around topics that interest them. It is a conversation. At last and again.

In this new place, every product you can name, from fashion to office supplies, can be discussed, argued over, researched, and bought as part of a vast conversation among the people interested in it. "I’m in the market for a new computer," someone says, and she’s off to the Dell site. But she probably won’t buy that cool new laptop right away. She’ll ask around first -- on Web pages, on newsgroups, via e-mail: "What do you think? Is this a good one? Has anybody checked it out? What’s the real battery life? How’s their customer support? Recommendations? Horror stories?"

"I’m in the market for a good desk dictionary," says someone else, and he’s off to Amazon.com where he’ll find a large number of opinions already expressed:

I love the look of this book, and the publisher did a great job; but I made the mistake of buying it without realizing that it was first published over 7 years ago....

I’ve had this book for two days and I keep going back to it. I may not be typical since I collect dictionaries and wanted this when I heard about it last year, but....

Ugh, they don’t have "aegritudo" but they have the "modern" definition of "peruse"....

These conversations are most often about value: the value of products and of the businesses that sell them. Not just prices, but the market currencies of reputation, location, position, and every other quality that is subject to rising or falling opinion.

It’s nothing new, in one sense. The only advertising that was ever truly effective was word of mouth, which is nothing more than conversation. Now word of mouth has gone global. The one-to-many scope that technology brought to mass production and then mass marketing, which producers have enjoyed for two hundred years, is now available to customers. And they’re eager to make up for lost time.

More ominous for marketing-as-usual is this: finding themselves connected to one another in the market doesn’t enable customers just to learn the truth behind product claims. The very sound of the Web conversation throws into stark relief the monotonous, lifeless, self-centered drone emanating from Marketing departments around the world. Word of Web offers people the pure sound of the human voice, not the elevated, empty speech of the corporate hierarchy. Further, these voices are telling one another the truth based on their real experiences, unlike the corporate messages that aim at presenting what we can generously call a best-case scenario. Not only can the market discover the truth in the time it takes to do a search at a discussion archive, but the tinny, self-absorbed voices of business-as-usual sound especially empty in contrast to the rich conversations emanating from the Web.

What’s more, networked markets get smart fast. Metcalfe’s Law*, a famous axiom of the computer industry, states that the value of a network increases as the square of the number of users connected to it -- connections multiply value exponentially. This is also true for conversations on networked markets. In fact, as the network gets larger it also gets smarter. The Cluetrain Corollary: the level of knowledge on a network increases as the square of the number of users times the volume of conversation. So, in market conversations, it is far easier to learn the truth about the products being pumped, about the promises being made, and about the people making those promises. Networked markets are not only smart markets, but they’re also equipped to get much smarter, much faster, than business-as-usual.

Business-as-usual doesn’t realize this because it continues to conceptualize markets as distant abstractions -- battlefields, targets, demographics -- and the Net as simply another conduit down which companies can broadcast messages. But the Net isn’t a conduit, a pipeline, or another television channel. The Net invites your customers in to talk, to laugh with each other, and to learn from each other. Connected, they reclaim their voice in the market, but this time with more reach and wider influence than ever.

When Push Comes to Suck

The reluctance of business-as-usual to break out of its set way of thinking was perhaps epitomized best by the Web’s own infatuation with "push technology." This reached its zenith in May, 1997, when Wired, the computer industry’s utopian fashion monthly, boldly declared its wish to supplant the Web with media more suited to advertising. In its customary overstatement and retinal-torture colors, the magazine devoted its cover and following eleven pages to "PUSH! Kiss your browser Goodbye: The radical future of media beyond the Web." According to the article, the Web was already too demanding for the average spud, so Wired wanted your inner couch potato to enjoy "a more full-bodied experience that combines many of the traits of networks with those of broadcast. Seinfeld viewers know what we’re talking about," the authors wrote.

Ever since the Web showed up, business-as-usual has desperately tried to pipe-weld it onto the back end of TV’s history. The money at stake is huge. McCann-Erickson reports more than $45.5 billion spent on TV advertising in the United States alone in 1998. In the same year, total worldwide advertising expenses passed $400 billion. That’ll keep a lot of axes in a lot of heads.

But it won’t work on the Web, because networked markets aren’t passive spectators waiting to receive the next marketing message. The Web isn’t home to advertising-as-usual. The "push" movement of 1997 became the pushover of 1998.

The Market That Talk Built

The power of conversation goes well beyond its ability to affect consumers, business, and products. Market conversations can make -- and unmake and remake -- entire industries. We’re seeing it happen now. In fact, the Internet itself is an example of an industry built by pure conversation.

The process of building the Internet was a little like building a bridge: start with a thin wire spanning a chasm, then spin that single wire into a thick cable capable of supporting heavy girders and the rest of the structure. Incredibly, no one directed this effort. No one controlled it. The people who incrementally built the Internet -- literally, one bit at a time -- participated solely out of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm driven by a shared and growing vision of what this strange thing they were building might ultimately become.

What if the task of building the Internet had been jobbed out to the leaders of the communications business: to online services like AOL and Compuserve, to network companies like Novell and 3Com, to telecom companies like AT&T and Northern Telecom, to software companies like Microsoft and Lotus?

It never would have happened. It certainly never would have been imagined as it now exists. Every one of those companies would have looked for a way to control it, to make it theirs. More than a few would have turned down the job. Microsoft was famously late to the Internet game in part because Bill Gates thought there was no money to be made.

What it took was behind-the-scenes work by what amounts to a loosely organized, Internet-mediated software craft guild. The results include Apache, a Web server developed by Brian Behlendorf and a bunch of other hackers, simply because they needed it. Today more than half of all the Web’s pages are served by Apache.

In fact, nearly a third of the world’s Web servers are powered by Linux, the dark-horse challenger to Microsoft’s previously unquestioned software hegemony. Linux was initiated by a young, unknown software developer, Linus Torvalds. He needed it, so he crafted it -- and then he made it available to the rest of the world through the Internet. He published not just the finished product but, far more important, its source code. Anyone with software engineering tools and the technical chops could add to it, modify it, craft it into precisely the tool they needed. As a result, Linux has rapidly become one of the most sophisticated, powerful, and configurable software products in history -- all without anyone managing or controlling it.

Eric Raymond, in his seminal work on hacker culture, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describes the dynamics of this distributed and self-motivated community of independent programmers. How was it possible that a seemingly disorganized, seemingly undirected band of renegade hackers could rise to such prominence and threaten the world’s largest, most powerful high-tech corporation with the only credible alternative not only to Windows NT, but even to Windows itself?

By conversation. Both the Internet and Linux are powerful demonstrations of a pure market conversation at work. They show what can happen when people are able to communicate without either the constraints of command-and-control management, or the straightjacket of one-message-fits-all. As Raymond writes:

The thing about the Internet is you can’t coerce people over a T-1 line, so power relationships don’t work... So the only game left to play is pure craftsmanship and reputation among peers. If you can offer people the chance to do good work and be seen doing good work by their peers, that’s a really powerful motivator.

The most important lesson Linux hackers teach is that whole markets can rapidly arise out of conversations that are independent not only of business, but also of government, education, and other powerful but hidebound institutions, thanks in large measure to something hackers helped invent precisely for that purpose: the Internet.

Conversation may be a distraction in factories that produce replaceable products for replaceable consumers, but it’s intimately tied to the world of craft, where the work of hands expresses the voice of the maker. Conversation is how the work of craft groups proceeds. And conversation is the sound of the market where creators and customers are close enough to feel each other’s heat.

What’s more, these new conversations needn’t just happen at random. They can be created on purpose. "We hackers were actively aiming to create new kinds of conversations outside of traditional institutions," Raymond says. "This wasn’t an accidental byproduct of doing neat techie stuff; it was an explicit goal for many of us as far back as the 1970s. We intended this revolution."

Nice job.

New Messages for Marketing

So, if markets are conversations (they are) and there’s no market for messages (there isn’t), what’s marketing-as-usual to do? Own the conversations? Keep the conversations on message? Turn up the volume until it drowns out the market? Compete with the new conversations?

But how could it? People are talking in the new market because they want to, because they’re interested, because it’s fun. Conversations are the "products" the new markets are "marketing" to one another constantly online. Hey! Come look at my Web site. Subscribe to my e-zine. Check the whacked-out rant I just posted to alt.transylvanian.polarbears. Get a load of this stupid banner ad I just found at boy-are-we-clueless.com!

By comparison, corporate messaging is pathetic. It’s not funny. It’s not interesting. It doesn’t know who we are, or care. It only wants us to buy. If we wanted more of that, we’d turn on the tube. But we don’t and we won’t. We’re too busy. We’re too wrapped up in some fascinating conversation.

Engagement in these open free-wheeling marketplace exchanges isn’t optional. It’s a prerequisite to having a future. Silence is fatal.

So what becomes of marketing? How do companies enter into the global conversation? How do they find their own voice? Can they? How do they wean themselves from messaging? What happens to

  • PR
  • advertising
  • marketing communications
  • pricing
  • positioning

... and the rest of the marketing arsenal?

Excellent questions.

Private Relations

Ironically, public relations has a huge PR problem: people use it as a synonym for BS. The call of the flack has never been an especially honorable one. There is no Pulitzer Prize for public relations. No Peabody, Heismann, Oscar, Emmy, Eddy, or Flacky. Like all besieged professions, PR has its official bodies, which do indeed grant various awards, degrees, and titles. But do you know what they are? Neither do most PR people. Say that you’re an award-winning PR person and most people will want to change their seats.

Everyone -- including many PR people -- senses that something is deeply phony about the profession. And it’s not hard to see what it is. Take the standard computer-industry press release. With few exceptions, it describes an "announcement" that was not made, for a product that was not available, quoting people who never said anything, for distribution to a list of people who mostly consider it trash.

Dishonesty in PR is pro forma. A press release is written as a plainly fake news story, with headline, dateline, quotes, and all the dramatic tension of a phone number. The idea, of course, is to make the story easy for editors to "insert" in their publications.

But an editor would rather insert a crab in his butt than a press release in their publication. The disconnect between supply and demand could hardly be more extreme. No self-respecting editor would let a source -- least of all a biased one -- write a story. And no editor is in the market for a thinly disguised advertisement, which is the actual content of a press release.

Editors hate having to deconstruct press releases to find just the facts, ma’am. To most editors, press releases are just pretend clothing for emperors best seen naked -- because naked emperors make much better stories than dressed-up ones.

PR folks are paid to hate stories, even though stories are precisely what the press -- PR’s "consumers" -- most wants. The fundamental appeal of stories is conflict, struggle, and complexity. Stories never begin with "happily ever after," but press releases always do, because that’s the kind of story PR’s real market -- the companies who pay for public relations -- demands. The PR version of the Titanic story would be headlined 705 Delighted Passengers Arrive after the Titanic’s Maiden Voyage. Page two might mention some "shakedown glitches inevitable whenever a magnificent new ship is launched." Releases have no room for the very elements that might actually interest a journalist.

Public relations not only fails to comprehend the nature of stories, but imagines that "positive" stories can be "created" with press conferences and other staged events. John C. Dvorak, PR scourge of long standing, says, "So why would you want to sit in a large room full of reporters and publicly ask a question that can then be quoted by every guy in the place? It’s not the kind of material a columnist wants -- something everybody is reporting. I’m always amazed when PR types are disappointed when I tell them I won’t be attending a press conference."

"PR types." We all know what that means: they’re the used car salesmen of the corporate world. You can’t listen to PR Types without putting on your highest-grade, activated-carbon bullshit filter. If you’re a journalist, you are seen by PR Types as prey. They hunt you down at work, at social events -- hell, if you’re donating a kidney and a PR Type is on the next table, she’ll chat you up about the new product announcement until her anesthetic kicks in and then a little bit longer. Damn PR Types.

But, of course, the best of the people in PR are not PR Types at all. They understand that they aren’t censors, they’re the company’s best conversationalists. Their job -- their craft -- is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear, to help journalists write stories that tell the truth, to bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it. Indeed, already some companies are building sites that give journalists comprehensive, unfiltered information about the industry, including unedited material from their competitors. In the age of the Web where hype blows up in your face and spin gets taken as an insult, the real work of PR will be more important than ever.

Advertising vs. Word of Web

Fairfax Cone, one of the great men of advertising, said his craft was nothing more than "what you do when you can’t go see somebody." This simple distinction draws a perfect line between TV and the Web. TV is the best medium ever created for advertising. The Web is the best medium ever created for sales. The Web, like the telephone, is a way you can go see somebody, a way to talk with them, show your wares, answer their questions, offer referrals, and make it easy for them to buy whatever they want. Why get someone to look at an ad on the Web when, with exactly the same amount of wrist power, you can get them into your electronic storefront itself?

Sure, you can advertise on the Web, and many Internet companies say advertising is how they are going to make their money. And the sum of advertising on the Web keeps going up. Why not? Just liquidate a few percent of those moon-high stock valuations and buy a few billion dollars more Web advertising. Forrester Research reports that "despite cries that online ads don’t work, spending for Internet advertising will continue to grow at a furious pace." They say spending will explode from $2.8 billion in 1999 to $33 billion in 2004.

But Web advertising is already an inside joke. Most of the banner ads you see at the tops of pages are trades and sponsorships, not paid advertising. And everybody knows that having your page turn up in the top ten results when someone goes hunting at a major search site is far more effective than buying ads on Web sites. (This, predictably, has sparked the buying of ads on search sites.)

There’s no denying that a saturation ad campaign that puts your company’s name in tens of millions of banner ads will buy you some name recognition. But that recognition counts for little against the tidal wave of word-of-Web. Look at how this already works in today’s Web conversation. You want to buy a new camera. You go to the sites of the three camera makers you’re considering. You hastily click through the brochureware the vendors paid thousands to have designed, and you finally find a page that actually gives straightforward factual information. Now you go to a Usenet discussion group, or you find an e-mail list on the topic. You read what real customers have to say. You see what questions are being asked and you’re impressed with how well other buyers -- strangers from around the world -- have answered them. You learn that the model you’re interested in doesn’t really work as well in low light as the manufacturer’s page says. You make a decision. A year later, some stranger in a discussion group asks how reliable the model you bought is. You answer. You tell the truth.

Compare that to the feeble sputtering of an ad. "SuperDooper Glue -- Holds Anything!" says your ad. "Unless you flick it sideways -- as I found out with the handle of my favorite cup," says a little voice in the market. "BigDisk Hard Drives -- Lifetime Guarantee!" says the ad. "As long as you can prove you oiled it three times a week," says another little voice in the market. What these little voices used to say to a single friend is now accessible to the world. No number of ads will undo the words of the market. How long does it take until the market conversation punctures the exaggerations made in an ad? An hour? A day? The speed of word of mouth is now limited only by how fast people can type. Word of Web will trump word of hype, every time.

Ads may still have hypnotic, subliminal effects, like those tunes we can’t get out of our heads (a legacy of the old advertising industry adage "if you have nothing to say, sing it"), but we now have the world’s largest support group encouraging us to take that first step: we acknowledge that there is a power greater than ourselves, and it’s not some freaking banner ad or a cola company whacking our head with a jingle. It’s the conversation that is the Web.

Sites of Salt

You might think Marketing Communications departments talk about communications. Not really. They actually spend most of their days thinking about how to hide what’s really going on in the organization. That’s what crafting "messages" is mostly about. For every "message," there are dozens or hundreds of facts -- interesting, useful facts -- that never get said. Numbers that change. Divisions that move. Features added and subtracted. And that’s not counting all the outright negative stuff: the merger that failed, the layoffs, the departed leaders, the stopgap products.

In the Industrial Age -- the age of scarce and mostly nonconversational media -- there were legitimate reasons for being "on message." The biggest was the need to say one positive thing to everybody at once, in a form that worked equally well in a thirty-second ad and a thirty-page white paper to reach the broadest common denominator.

Even at their most complete -- in the form of brochures and other stiff-necked paper goods -- marketing communications painted a glossy picture no one believed. We all have been trained by a lifetime of experience to turn down the volume when confronted with a beautiful full-color artifact explaining why the products are perfect, the company loves its customers, and every customer is delighted. Like editors skimming a press release, customers root through brochures to find a few motes of useful information. We took all of "marcom’s" goods with more than a grain of salt. We needed a whole salt mine to keep up with the tide of BS.

Predictably, most corporate Web sites look like brochures. Visitors have to click through screen after screen of fatuous self-praise to find the few bits of useful information they really want. At least printed brochures don’t take as long to download.

If you want to take your first baby step towards entering the market conversation, torch any brochureware on your site. At best your networked market views it as a speed bump, at worst as an insult.

That doesn’t mean that you should put up a site that consists of nothing but the facts expressed in Times Roman text (although useful facts are a great place to start). Your site needs to have a voice, to express a point of view, and to give access to helpful people inside your corporation. Replace the brochures with ways to ignite dialogues. Not only do your customers want to talk with real people inside your organization, but your employees are desperate to talk with real customers. They want to tell them the truth.

They will in any event, because your wall of brochures is as solid as a line in the sand.

Fair Market Price

Traditionally, Marketing departments engage in pricing exercises to discover a market’s ceiling. This makes obvious sense when the supply side controls the means of both production and distribution. But after the revolution, comrade, the old regime’s pricing strategies are the first to be led to the gibbet. After decades of replaceable products, replaceable workers, and replaceable consumers, we now have replaceable merchants. Think of this as the mass market’s revenge.

The first effect of this shift in power has been tremendous downward price pressure. After being trained so assiduously in the economics of mass-ness, the first impulse on the Web is to shop on price alone. Shopping "bots" can find the lowest price among all merchants doing business on the Web. I can go to www.InvoiceDealers.com and see a head-to-head comparison of how little over the invoice price my local car dealers are willing to sell me a new Honda. Or if I decide to buy an Epson Stylus 900 color printer (I have already listened in on the consumer conversations on the Web), I can go to a site like www.computeresp.com and get a list of forty-four merchants, sorted by price, that will sell me one for prices ranging from $330.95 to $404.37. Some of the merchant names may be familiar -- Egghead ($346.39) and Gateway ($364.95) -- but how much is name recognition worth given that whatever service I may need is going to require the same trip to the post office anyway?

Driving margins towards zero isn’t a good thing. Businesses have to make money, after all. And in a war of margin slicing, the Big Boys are often able to stand the heat longer (although A&P managed to burn itself to the ground in the 1970s by initiating a competition with smaller grocery stores to see who could price the furthest under cost for the longest). But it’s early yet. And merchants are smart. They offer new services that will distract the market from its insistence on extracting vengeance by shaving margins with a guillotine. And what are those emerging services, hmm? Conversations.

For example, the merchant may enable you to talk with its own experts. Or it may put you in touch with the rest of the market directly, using the means the Web has served up to us. Amazon.com famously presents readers’ reviews and rankings. For technical support, Microsoft directs you to Usenet-style discussion groups, which it’s smart enough not to try to control.

In short, although there is no demand for messages, there is a tremendous demand for good conversation. That’s one way merchants fight commoditization. But both no-margin pricing and higher-margin pricing with the added value of conversation are still examples of pricing driven from on high as if suppliers were still in charge. Increasingly, they’re not. In fact, in the most exciting new markets developing on the Web, the demand side -- the market -- tells the suppliers just what they’re willing to pay. This is quite literally true at www.priceline.com, where you can let hotels, airlines, mortgage companies, and car dealerships know exactly what your best offer is. They can take your business or leave it. That’s up to them. But the pricing is up to you.

The most dramatic move away from top-down pricing is evident at auction sites such as www.ebay.com, which enable the market to sell to itself. Yes, eBay is a virtual flea market, albeit it with millions of items on sale at any one moment. But it is also much more. Soon after eBay took off, some merchants realized that they don’t need a Web storefront of their own; they can just offer their wares at the auction site. They lose some control over pricing -- in a complete role reversal, the market sets the price and the merchant has the power to say no -- but they get into the thick of the fray with almost no startup or marketing costs. And it’s not just consumers who are engaged in auctions. PNC Bank Corp. in Pittsburgh accepts bids on interest rates for certificates of deposit. Deere & Co. auctions used farm equipment. Ford Motor has auctioned automotive components.

Now the Web is reaching even further up the chain, fundamentally changing the value and cost equations that rationalize pricing. With the music encoding standard called MP3, any digital recording -- such as tracks from a CD -- can be posted on a Web site, downloaded, listened to, and even recorded back onto a CD. Everyone who knows how to point and click can gather tracks from their favorite musicians and assemble their own albums. Production and distribution are so cheap and easy that the market can do it for itself. That leaves the recording industry with almost nothing but the role of marketing, a task they generally haven’t grasped very well when it comes to the Web because they’re too busy trying to squelch what they rightly see as a threat to their hegemony. Recording companies thought they were originators but instead found they were intermediaries. And the most efficient markets tend to have the fewest intermediaries.

Which brings us to the top of the chain: in this case, the musicians themselves.

Why would musicians allow their music to be downloaded for free rather than sold for fifteen to twenty dollars by a recording company? Maybe because it’s a good marketing technique for selling CDs and concert tickets. Maybe because they hope that fans will eventually be willing to pay them something -- much less than the price of a typical CD -- for the download privilege, just as shareware has proved a successful business model for many software developers. Maybe musicians will allow their music to be priced low enough to encourage the widest possible distribution because they are craftspeople who care more deeply about the value of their work than its price. And maybe it’s because they define that value in terms other than what they charge for one form of finished goods.

And that is marketing’s final pricing challenge. Pricing interchangeable products for a mass market is just a matter of testing how high you can raise the bait out of the water and still have the fish bite. Set the price, maybe tweak it, and you’re done: all the fish are going to have to pay the same price. But when it comes to prices, the Web acts like a craft world in which prices aren’t uniform across all the products. Each hotel room, each Beanie Baby, and each hand-assembled CD can now be priced according to different rules, granting the customer new advantages. The mechanical transactions in which the price declared by the supplier was paid by the consumer now becomes more of a dance, sometimes a courtship, and always a conversation.

Assume the Position

Every morning when I wake up, I try to remember
who I am and where I come from.

- Harry S. Truman

Public relations, advertising, and marcom all reflect the company’s "position." Positioning is darned important, then. Strategic, even. And if you’re a marketing consultant, positioning is where the big bucks are. You’re right there at the top of the marketing totem pole.

Positioning is not only lucrative for its practitioners, it’s also fun, since it’s usually done on a blank piece of paper. "Who do we want to be?" asks the positioning expert. "Are we the maker of the world’s finest timepieces? No, maybe we’re the people who keep business on time. Ooh, maybe we’re the company that’s making punctuality into a fashion accessory!" Undoubtedly, someone will trump these suggestions by saying, "We’re not really about watches at all," and then, in a solemn voice: "We’re the Time Company."

Often, "positioning exercises" become expensive sojourns into corporate psychology. The consultant gets to spend time with one group leader after another, performing the role of corporate shrink. The resulting data is impossible to connect, but that doesn’t matter, because the goal is only to come up with a "statement." And all that statement has to be is marginally different from every other company’s faked-up statement. Never mind that nobody in the marketplace gives a damn about any company’s positioning statement. It only matters that this statement will "drive the strategy," which will be yet another advertising and PR bombing campaign.

Can it get more arrogant? Well, actually, yes.

Positioning wasn’t even an issue until 1972, when Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a series of articles for Advertising Age and then authored one of the top-selling business books of all time, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. The goal of positioning, Trout says, is to own one word in your customer’s mind. For evidence, you don’t even need to leave your own skull. Take a look: you’ll find Fedex in the "overnight" position, Crest in the "cavities" position, and Volvo in the "safety" position, even if you never buy those products. In the battlefield of your mind, those companies are entrenched in those positions.

Why one word? Because to Trout and Ries, the human mind is as closed as a clam and just as roomy. Witness Jack Trout’s "five basic principles of the mind," from The New Positioning:

  1. Minds are limited.
  2. Minds hate confusion.
  3. Minds are insecure.
  4. Minds don’t change.
  5. Minds lose focus.

In short, minds are so pathetic that they desperately need help, even if it comes in the form of an axe. That’s what positioning is for.

Too bad, because positioning actually is about something much more important, something that gets trivialized by those who reduce it to generating a catchy tagline. Positioning is about discovering who you, as a business, are -- discovering your identity, not inventing a new one willy-nilly. Positioning should help a company become what it is, not something it’s not (no matter how cool it would be).

A company can certainly try to be what it’s not. But the market conversation will expose the fakery. One clue is any attempt by a company to deny its history, because history is one of those things that just can’t be changed. GM will always be the product of Alfred Sloan’s preference for implementation over innovation, Apple will always come from Steve Jobs’s artistic temperament, Hewlett-Packard will always come from its founders’ obsession with quality products for niche technical markets, Nordstrom will always come from the family’s original shoe business.

Of course companies and products can change their identities (and even their natures) over time. Volkswagen no longer bears (for most of us) the history stated in its very name: Hitler’s car for the proud German people. Kellogg’s Razzle Dazzle Rice Krispies no longer bear much connection to the obsessive health concerns of the company’s founder. But such changes generally are gradual and often painful. In fact, if they are too rapid and too easy, the market conversation will be merciless in exposing the phoniness it sniffs.

There are other clues that a company is having an identity crisis:

  1. Is there a spark of life in its marketing materials? Do they smack of focus groups and the safety of the lowest common denominator, or do they take the risk of being as interesting as its best customers?
  2. Do its marketing programs keep people out or invite them in? Do they help customers and prospects make connections to the relevant employees?
  3. Is the company able to admit a mistake? Can employees admit they disagree with management decisions or the latest marketing mantra? Or must they always explain why everything is perfect in this, the best of all possible companies?
  4. Is the company so jealous of its "image" that it has surgically implanted a lawyer where its sense of humor used to be?
  5. Does it drill its employees on the corporate catechism, or can the workers tell stories that for them capture the essence of what the company is about?
  6. Do the employees routinely sign their e-mail "Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the management"?

These indicators have a common theme. Each points to a gap between who your company is and what it says it is. The gap is where inauthenticity lives, and the exposure of the gap constitutes corporate embarrassment. Much of marketing is devoted to papering over that gap. Deming gave the deathless advice: "Drive out fear." We might add: and drive out shame.

But how can a business be authentic? Authenticity describes whether someone truly owns up to what she or he actually is. Since corporations and businesses aren’t individuals, ultimately their authenticity is rooted in the employees. If the company is posing, then the people who are the company will have to pose as well. If, on the other hand, the company is comfortable living up to what it is, then an enormous cramp in the corporate body language goes away. The marketing people won’t create throwaway lines that are clever but false. The sales folk will walk away from the "sales opportunities" that the company is better off losing than having to support. The product developers won’t propose features that look good on paper but do their customers no real good.

None of this has to do with one-word positioning statements, press release boilerplate, or pledging allegiance to corporate goals before every company meeting. It has to be learned in the heart, not by rote. What we learn through memorization affords us no spontaneity. We can recite the right words, but they’re not our own -- we can’t riff on them. The market conversation can spot marketing recitatives within two syllables because the Web thrives on spontaneity. We are all so tuned to the sound of the real human voice that, given a chance to interact, we can’t be fooled... at least not for long.

And if a company is genuinely confused about what it is, there’s an easy way to find out: listen to what your market says you are. If it’s not to your liking, think long and hard before assuming that the market is wrong, composed of a lot of people who just are too dumb or blind to understand the Inner You. If you’ve been claiming to be the Time Company for two years but the market still thinks of you as the Overpriced Executive Trophy Watchmaker, then, sorry, but that’s your position. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, the marketing task is not to change the market’s idea of who you are but actually to change who you are. And that can take a generation: look at Volkswagen.

Entering the Conversation

The chapters on PR, ads, marcom, pricing, positioning -- hell, all of them -- in The Marketing-as-Usual Manual of Strategy and Tactics need to be redone. It’s not because the war has shifted from the air to the ground, or because now we’re fighting guerrillas instead of massed troops. No, marketing-as-usual thinks it’s fighting a war when in fact the "enemy" is having a party: "Hey, dude, put on this Hawaiian shirt, grab some chips and dip, and join in. But first you gotta loosen your grip on that assault weapon."

Here’s some advice on entering the conversation: Loosen up. Lighten up. And shut up for a while. Listen for a change. Marketing-as-usual used to be able to insert its messages into the mind of the masses with one swing of its mighty axe. Now messages get exploded within minutes. "Spin" gets noticed and scorned. Parodies spread ad campaigns faster than any multimillion-dollar advertising blitz. In short: the Internet routes around a-holes.

So, enter the conversation and do it right. But how?

Corporate Voice

Here’s a syllogism. Your company needs to engage in the new market conversations. Conversations occur in human voices. Your voice is the public expression of your authentic identity, of who you really are, of where you really come from. So let’s draw the logical conclusion: on the Net at least, your company can’t engage in the market conversation without its authentic voice.

Sounds simple. But what does it mean when applied to a corporation? Corporations don’t have voices. They don’t have mouths to speak with, or hands to type with, or body language to betray their real intentions, or eyebrows to punctuate a joke. Corporations are legal fictions.

But businesses aren’t fictions. Businesses are as real as families and nations. As with all social entities, they speak as the sum of the parts, as the individuals who are the parts, and everything in between.

A business has a voice. You can usually hear it -- authentic or unauthentic -- most obviously and transparently, on its Web site. Even before the last graphic finishes downloading, you can usually tell if the company speaks with passion, if it’s lost or uninterested, or if it’s online just because some consultant said it has to be. You can tell if the business has some perspective on itself or whether it’s all wrapped up in being the Number One Provider of Something, Anything, Please! You can tell if it wants to talk with you or just to pick your pocket. You can tell if the people who work there really care or if they always carry their résumé with them, just in case. You can tell if the company is basically lying or basically telling the truth.

Ah, but can you really tell? All the customer has to go by are bits on a screen. Couldn’t a clever marketing person pony up a page that looks hip and happy, successfully masking the cries of anguish coming from the corporate cube farm?

Yes, for a while. Marketing has been training its practitioners for decades in the art of impersonating sincerity and warmth. But marketing can no longer keep up appearances. People talk. They get on the Web and they let the world know that the happy site with the smiling puppy masks a company with coins where its heart is supposed to be. They tell the world that the company that promises to make you feel like royalty doesn’t reply to e-mail messages and makes you pay the shipping charges when you return their crappy merchandise. The market will find out who and what you are. Count on it.

That’s why you poison your own well when you lie. You break trust with your own people as well as your customers. You may be able to win back the trust you’ve blown, but only by speaking in a real voice, and by engaging people rather than delivering messages to them.

The good news is that almost all of us already know how to talk like real people. It’s just a matter of pulling that fat axe from our skulls.

The Wrong Kind of Buzz

English is the perfect language for preachers because it
allows you to talk until you think of what to say.

- Garrison Keillor

It’s easier to locate and disarm the marketing messages buzzing in our heads than to disable the vocabulary that’s been slipped in. At the word level, we all at times slip into the old marketing-speak. Nowhere is this more true than in the technology industries. For example, Bob Epstein, back when he ran Sybase, once gave an otherwise good speech in which he used the expression "extended enterprise client server." Afterwards a number of attendees were asked if they could recall this phrase. Most could remember that the phrase was a bunch of buzzwords, but none could remember the phrase itself.

This is because "extended enterprise client server" is composed entirely of TechnoLatin, a vocabulary of vague but precise-sounding words that work like the blank tiles in Scrabble: you can use them anywhere, but they have no value. TechnoLatin takes perfectly meaningful words and empties them. If language is a living organism, TechnoLatin words are like those pod people in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They look real, but they are not. And like the pod people, TechnoLatin has become the norm. Clarity is the exception when it should be the rule. Today we no longer make chips, circuit boards, computers, monitors, or printers. We don’t even make products. Instead we make solutions, a fatuous noun further bloated by empty modifiers such as total, full, seamless, industry standard, and state-of-the-art.

Equally vague and common are platform, open, environment, and support when used as a verb. A veterinarian using TechnoLatin might say that a dog serves as a platform for sniffing, is an open environment for fleas, and that it supports barking.

This isn’t language. It’s camouflage.

A perfect example of TechnoLatin’s mindless power is a press release that heralded the pointless name change of the semifamiliar Xymos to the anonymous Appian Technology:

Over the past two years, Xymos has been repositioning itself. No longer a typical semiconductor supplier, the company has focused on its ability to integrate advanced technologies that use innovative system architecture and software into high performance system solutions for PCs and workstations.

If communication had taken place here, we would probably know what Appian Technology now does for a living. But because the release is written in TechnoLatin, it offers no such clues. While Xymos was at least "a typical semiconductor supplier," Appian Technology isn’t even a noun. Instead it is "focused" on an "ability" to "integrate" a pod salad of "advanced technologies," "innovative system architecture," "high performance system solutions," and so forth.

Since "Appian" was first a famous Roman highway, you’d think this might be a clue to Xymos’s new identity. But the release says:

Appian was chosen for the name because it represents the ability to use leading edge technology and innovation, integrated into solutions that provide differentiation and competitive advantage.

Just what the Romans had in mind.

The obligatory quote from Appian’s president and CEO really hits the nail on the board: "What we have done at Appian Technology is couple leading-edge technology with innovation, and integrated it into high performance system solutions which provide customers with differentiation and competitive advantage." This took two years?

Amazingly, Appian Technology did not kill itself. Instead it quietly yawned into a coma. Today its stock maintains a newsless flat line at 1/128th above zero.

It’s obvious why we fall into TechnoLatin even if we know better. We sound so smart when we use words no one quite understands. We sound so precise. And we sound like we belong: "distributed platform environment" does for technology marketers what "you know, like, whatever... " does for teenagers.

And, of course, it’s not just the technology industry that’s in love with pod words. Brochureware at www.ford.com talks about the Lincoln’s "advanced performance characteristics," "leading-edge safety systems," and "AdvanceTrac™ yaw control." Not to be outdone, Honda says its Odyssey (the car Odysseus would have chosen to drive to Troy, no doubt) has a "rear crush zone," an "advanced Traction Control System," and "Grade Logic programming." And,of course, restaurants have their own cant (call it GastroFrench, followed by Nouveau GastroFrench), as do interior decorators, sportscasters, Boy Scout leaders, and just about everyone else -- loose-limbed phrases that are trotted out as if the real words of the craft were somehow too humble.

So our advice: speak real words. The new Web conversations are remarkably sensitive to the empty pomposity that has served marketing so well. Until now.

Who Speaks?

But who gets to speak?

Companies feel a tremendous urge to control communications; it seems as bred-in-the-bone as wanting to sell products. They create org charts to define who gets to do the talking. They issue policy statements: only PR can talk to the press. Only Investor Relations can talk to financial folk. Only the CEO can talk to The Journal. We can’t afford to muddy our message or dislocate our positioning. God knows what some disgruntled worker might tell valuable customers! So, let’s set up a command hierarchy and station it in a hardened communications bunker.

You might as well try to sew closed a fishing net. The simple fact is that your employees are already joining the market conversation. And in most cases it’s because they find conversations about what they are working on to be really interesting. They like talking with customers. They like to help. And, sorry to point this out, but they also like complaining if the business is flawed at heart.

The one thing they don’t want to do, would never do on their own, is deliver a message. And if you make that their role, they will be exposed immediately as company tools. We’re all superb at sniffing out the shills: they lack spontaneity, their language is stilted and they are just a little too happy. In fact, in Usenet newsgroups, it’s not uncommon to find participants being warned about postings from particular people who’ve blown their credibility by sounding like corporate mouthpieces.

So, what’s a business to do? People aren’t going to simply repeat messages. You can’t shut them up -- at least not for long -- and you can’t make them mouth words they don’t believe any more than you could get your teenaged children, your spouse, your friends, or anyone to. Save your discipline for the few renegades who, through malice or ignorance, spill beans that need to be kept in the can. Expend your efforts instead on building a company that stands for something worthwhile, so that you can’t wait to unleash every single one of your voices into the wilds of the new global conversation.

The Web of Voices

But what about the risk? Suppose a "lowly clerk" speaks for the company in public and says something wrong? Something actionable? Something confidential, or sensitive? Lordy, what would become of us then?

Let’s put this differently: shall we agree to let the sun rise tomorrow? It’s going to happen. It already is happening. And it’s always happened. The mail clerk describes the corporate strategy to the stranger next to him on the bus, and then provides a critique. The technical-documentation writer tells her cousin how to circumvent the cover-your-ass "safety" lid. And the telephone support rep tells a customer -- on company time! -- that one of the features touted on the box doesn’t really work exactly as described.

Each of these people is speaking for the company. But, through a game of selective attention, businesses claim their unauthorized personnel aren’t really speaking for the company. Not officially. Officially there are communication channels that generally correspond to the corporate hierarchy. Officially the entire corporation speaks through a single orifice. Anything that issues from it is sanctioned, true, and legally actionable. Anything that does not come through "approved channels" is just the random lip-flapping of employees for which the corporation is not legally liable.

Of course, all of the excitement, all of the heat, all of the jazz comes from these flapping lips who are speaking for the corporation in everything but the legal sense. They’re improvising, not staying "on message." They’re pursuing the interests they share with the customers, not corporate interests that are at war with customers. Businesses that try to get their people to say exactly the same thing in exactly the same words ("No, Jenkins, for the hundredth time, you’ve left ‘enhanced’ out of ‘The world’s leading manufacturer of enhanced software solutions for maximizing supply chain advantage’!") are losing their greatest marketing resource. Now those lips have the global megaphone of the Web. In a Webbed world, loose lips float ships.

The people to whom employees are talking and have always talked are sophisticated enough to know that there’s a big difference between a Saturn technician answering a customer question in a discussion on the Web and an official reply from Saturn technical support. They know the contents of a press release are not the same as the pep talk that Saturn’s president gives at the company picnic. Part of listening to a voice is assessing the role of the words and the speaker. The Web is giving us lots of training in that.

There is, of course, the legal question. While the people engaged in a conversation almost always know precisely the degree of official-ness with which someone is talking, lawyers worry that someone could unintentionally or maliciously take a casual remark as official policy. And of course that could happen. But businesses take legal risks just by shipping products.

For that reason, it’d be good for employees to make every effort to clarify the status of their remarks. No, this does not mean that they should sign their e-mail with the phrase "Does not necessarily represent the views of Management, etc.," -- a common sign of worker alienation. The real aim is to communicate the status, not to introduce still more legalisms. Or a business could forbid its employees from talking on the Web during business hours and from identifying themselves as employees after hours. They could build a firewall that -- to use the more apt metaphor -- turns their company into a black hole on the Web. Of course, the Web conversation would go on without a hiccup. When the company’s silence becomes noticeable in some discussion -- "Hey, why doesn’t someone from ABC Corp. explain how to keep its product from catching on fire if you put the key in upside down?" -- the void will be filled by expert (but exasperated) customers, and then by competitors. If the company truly succeeds in turning itself into a black hole, it may indeed not be talked about on the Web. Or anywhere.

There’s your risk for you.

On the positive side, by acknowledging that, inevitably, many people speak for a particular company in many different ways, the company can address one of the most important and difficult questions: How can a large company have conversations with hundreds of millions of real people?

First, the conversations don’t all have to be truly interactive. Few people insist on personal service immediately from every Web site. We’re delighted to look through the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and ReadMe files to find our answers -- answers culled from the real interactions between the company and its market.

When a conversation is required, or even just desired, being able to count upon a rich range of corporate spokespeople is crucial. That’s the only way a growing business can satisfy the market’s demand for conversation. For example, at Western Digital’s Web site (http://www.wdc.com), users can post technical questions about the company’s hard disk drives. Most of those questions are, naturally, about drives that don’t work. A Western Digital support person will post an answer, often within hours, and the entire exchange is open to public view, unfiltered. As a result, customers with problems can usually find a previous exchange that answers their questions. Sure, visitors to the site find out that not all Western Digital drives work flawlessly forever, but this is hardly a news flash. More important, they learn that Western Digital has enough confidence in its products to let customers air their gripes, and that if a drive breaks, it’ll get diagnosed and fixed at the speed of the Web. And, perhaps most important, they see that the company’s customers and enthusiasts care enough to dive in. Could a company ask for better living testimonials? Could customers ask for a livelier, more reality-based source of information?

If you want to hear the sound of the new marketing, listen to these conversations coming from inside, outside, over, and above even the hardest-shelled companies that still think marketing means lobbing messages into crowds. Here is the same sound our ancestors heard in those ancient marketplaces, where people spoke for themselves about what mattered to them.

How to Talk

We’re all learning to talk anew. We’re all going to get it right and get it wrong. Two events in the fall of 1994 still serve as good cases in point for crisis management. In one case, resolute Ivory Tower isolation caused a major disaster. In the other, real conversation among concerned individuals saved the day.

First, an anatomy of a disaster. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Compuserve hosted many of the best online forums. One of these professional salons was the EETimes Forum, hosted by Electronic Engineering Times, the top magazine for the people who design and work with computer chips. It’s a safe bet that most of the participants used Intel-based computers, and engineered computers with "Intel Inside." Yet when news of a bug in an early Pentium chip was first found and posted on the forum, nobody seemed to take it too seriously. They joked about it a bit, but took it in stride. After all, bugs in chips are nothing new. But all of them clearly were looking for Intel to jump in and talk about it.

However, there was radio silence from Intel until Alex Wolfe, an EETimes reporter, wrote about the bug in his magazine. Soon the major media picked up the story and all hell broke loose.

To deal with this crisis, Intel CEO Andy Grove posted something on the forum that read like a papal encyclical on how Intel works. This included a description of a caste system that drew a line between those who should be concerned about such a bug and those who should not, and offered to replace the defective chips for the first group. This didn’t sit well with anybody, but the forum members were tolerant at first. They wanted to get to the bottom of this thing, so they attempted to engage Grove on the matter. After all, he had showed up. He must have been willing to talk. But it quickly became obvious that Grove was just posting a notice -- the big guy was not going to take part in a conversation.

So, when Intel got shellacked in the press, little help came from what should have been company friends in the engineering community. After all, these were Intel’s real customers. They understood how bugs happen. They were articulate and authoritative. But they were just as silent for Grove as Grove had been for them. Intel was publicly embarrassed into recalling every one of the defective chips, and estimates for reputation damage ran into many millions.

Meanwhile, over in Compuserve’s Travel Forum, another bad PR event was taking shape. This one involved United Airlines, which was experiencing a bumpy take-off with its new Shuttle By United service. Like the EETimes Forum, the Travel Forum had serious participants: high-mileage fliers, pilots, air traffic controllers, travel agents, and airline personnel from every level.

If you could hook up a meter to the forum and measure good will, the needle reading for Shuttle By United at take-off was way over on the negative side. Luggage was being lost (three times for one passenger). Passenger loading was chaotic. Customers were unhappy.

Then one United worker (one of those "owners" United’s ads talked about so much at the time) jumped in and simply started to help out. The response was remarkable. Here are a few examples:

"Good to see someone at United interested!"

"Nice to have a UAL person to chat with... thanks."

"As a 100k flier, I’m glad to see one of you online here."

"I am a pilot for United and I thank you for taking the time to answer all of these questions about the Shuttle."

"Nice to see a UA employee on and participating instead of just lurking."

"As a UA 1K FF [top-grade frequent flyer] and a PassPlus holder I appreciate your time and interest in the forum."

"Don’t leave United. You’re important to us. Your comments are helpful. You make a difference."

This kind of conversation moved the meter all the way over to the positive side, just because one company guy took on the burden of talking with customers and trying to solve their problems. One guy.

Then one day the same UA employee posted a notice that said, "Due to a conflict with corporate communication policies at United Airlines of employees responding to issues of any nature without the explicit direction of the Communications Division, I will not be participating any longer. I hope this situation changes in the future. Until then, direct any concerns to the Consumer Affairs department at United’s World Headquarters."

You can imagine what followed. United got flamed royally by their employee’s new friends on the forum.

But, unlike Intel, United stayed in the conversation. A United higher-up jumped in and quickly communicated United’s willingness to learn this new form of market relations. The original United correspondent and the higher-up both stayed in the conversation and started to work things out. The needle went back over to the positive side. And nobody ever heard bad news about the Shuttle by United bug.

Lessons learned? The party’s already started. You can join or not. If you don’t, your silence will be taken as arrogance, stupidity, meanness, or all three. If you’re going to join, don’t do it as a legal entity or wearing your cloak of officialdom. Join it as a person with a name, a point of view, a sense of humor, and passion.

Marketing Craft

The market started out as a place where people talked about what they cared about, in voices as individual as the craft goods on the table between them. As the distance between producer and consumer lengthened, so grew the gap between our business voice and our authentic voice. Marketing became a profession, an applied science, the engineering of desirable responses through the application of calibrated stimuli -- including the occasional axe in the head.

Marketing isn’t going to go away. Nor should it. But it needs to evolve, rapidly and thoroughly, for markets have become networked and now know more than business, learn faster than business, are more honest than business, and are a hell of a lot more fun than business. The voices are back, and voice brings craft: work by unique individuals motivated by passion.

What’s happening to the market is precisely what should -- and will -- happen to marketing. Marketing needs to become a craft. Recall that craftworkers listen to the material they’re forming, shaping the pot to the feel of the clay, designing the house to fit with and even reveal the landscape. The stuff of marketing is the market itself. Marketing can’t become a craft until it can hear the new -- the old -- sound of its markets.

By listening, marketing will re-learn how to talk.



The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.

NEXT: Chapter 5: Hyperlinked organizations
back to Table of Contents