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'The internet is a conversation': Lessons from the Cluetrain Manifesto 17 years on

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

If you’re one of the 3.2 billion people, or thereabouts, with a connection to the internet you can create content and connect with anyone else that’s part of this beautiful network.

It’s wonderfully democratic. Individuals and organisations have access to exactly the same media and networks to build relationships and find and share information.

You can build gorgeous websites and apps. You can publish lovely looking branded content via Instagram and Facebook. But if your product or service doesn’t meet my expectation and you don’t give me the opportunity to have a proper conversation with you, I’m going to use those channels to call you out.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted exactly what would happen. In 1999 it foretold that markets are conversations and that the internet enables the world’s biggest conversation.

The book was first published in 1999, written by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. It proposes a set of 95 theses organised as a manifesto, or call to action, for organisations operating in internet-connected markets.

Relationships vs. traffic

Marketing and media professionals divide neatly into two groups: those that have read and generally advocate Cluetrain Manifesto; and those that haven’t and don’t.

It’s a test that should apply whenever you meet someone in the digital business. It draws a clear attitudinal line across the business. Advocates view the internet as a network of relationships, non-believers see it as a network of traffic.

I’m a massive fan boy. A friend gave me a first edition signed by all four of the authors for my birthday. It’s reckoned to be one of only three in existence.

The biggest lesson from Cluetrain is that organisational change is slow, really slow. The impact of the internet on society and organisations is going to take generations to work through.

If you haven’t read the book I urge you to buy a copy. It’s a book that I re-read every 12 months or so. It’s as relevant today as the day it was first published.

20 theses for the future of marketing and public relations

Here are my favourite 20 of the 95 Cluetrain theses that I believe will continue to influence organisational communication and marketing in the next 17 years as much as they have in the last 17 years.

  • Markets are conversations.
  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • The internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  • Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
  • People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditised products.
  • 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.
  • Companies need to realise their markets are often laughing. At them.
  • Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humour.
  • Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
  • But first, they must belong to a community.
  • There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market.
  • These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognise each other’s voices.
  • Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
  • We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the four-colour brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.
  • We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.
  • If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
  • We’ve got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we’d be willing to pay for. Got a minute?
  • Your product broke. Why? We’d like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We’d like to have a chat with your chief executive officer. What do you mean she’s not in?
  • We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

Stephen Waddington is chief engagement officer at Ketchum. Follow him on Twitter @wadds

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