‘Markets are conversations’ revisited

7 Oct

Ten years ago, The Cluetrain Manifesto was published on the web, declaring that 'markets are conversations' and proclaiming 'the end of business as usual'. What happened next?

The dot com bubble burst in early 2000 (the book was the authors' attempt to prick this bubble, or specifically the millions being spent advertising risky startup businesses). Google, Amazon and eBay are notable survivors from this era.

Then so-called Web 2.0 emerged from the wreckage, and the optimism returned. The social media landscape seemed to prove the central thesis that 'markets are conversations' as blogging, social networks and Twitter emerged and gained critical mass.We the people appeared to take over the web and The Cluetrain Manifesto achieved iconic status.

In the tenth anniversary edition, the authors revisit their text in four new essays, supported by three contributions by some notable friends of Cluetrain. (We also get the explanation of the cluetrain word, which didn't make it into the first print edition).

The original authors are considered and humane in their reflections; they've grown wiser and some have moved on to other things, giving them a broader perspective. The most cogent critique we have of Cluetrain comes from the original authors themselves.

Rick Levine (who now makes chocolate truffles for a living) tackles the central concept. Markets may be conversations, but that's not all they are. 'Everything that happens in a market falls into just three categories', he writes: 'transaction, conversation and relationship.'

'In our First World business culture, transaction matters most, conversation less, and relationship least… By looking at markets through the prism of transaction, or even conversation, we miss the importance of relationship. We also don't see how relationship has a value all its own: one that transcends, even as it improves, the other two.'

So the next challenge is to study another thesis: markets are relationships.

Levine and Doc Searls, another of the authors, do this by reviewing the state of CRM – customer relationship management. Public relations – another industry with the relationships concept embedded in its name – doesn't feature, so there's more work to be done here (following David Phillips's lead).

Levine notes that they may have been too quick to dismiss advertising (thesis 74: 'We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.'). Ten years on, there's more advertising than ever (but it's spread across many more media channels).

'Trust me. It's still a bubble', he writes. 'So is the rest of the "attention economy" that includes promotion, public relations, direct marketing, and other ways of pushing messages through media.' Levine argues that this attention economy will still crash.

In his broad-ranging essay, David Weinberger asks whether we can still be optimistic about the internet. He divides us into three categories: utopians, dystopians and realists. 'Utopians and dystopians think the Web has uncanny power because they are closet McLuhanites who think media transform institutions and even consciousness. Realists feel the inertial weight of existing institutions and social structures, and thus tend to think any changes the Internet brings will be slow and minimal.'

With Shel Israel's Twitterville, we're onto more conventional business publishing territory. Based on the post-Cluetrain premise that we're no longer in the era of broadcasting but in the era of conversations, the book provides some fresh and well-written case studies of how businesses of all shapes and sizes are using Twitter to get closer to customers.

It's unchallenging stuff; only towards the end is the darker side of Twitter explored (scams, spam, trolls and identify theft).

The book will satisfy two groups: business executives needing examples of 'markets are conversations' and individuals needing some advice on getting started.

But it's light on analysis. Does Twitter work so well alongside other social media spaces (blogs, photo sharing etc) because it's a push channel? We're not told, though the author quotes one of his interviewees saying this in contrasting Twitter with blogging: 'One is very fast but constrained to shallow content. The other is longer and deeper but does not draw traffic as easily.'

There's a good section on institutions speaking with a human voice (a Cluetrain concept): 'Because messages must be so short, Twitter filters out adjectives and conditional phrases, leaving posts that are unusually succinct, candid and clear.' Yet it would be just as easy to show that Twitter exchanges are gnomic and exclusive.

Israel is a cheerleader for Twitter and this publishing genre doesn't allow for critique. He's keen to disown his past as a publicist, yet this book reads like a one-sided PR account.

What became of blogging, a previous Next Big Thing? Wasn't Israel's last book, Naked Conversations written with Robert Scoble, an equally optimistic account of how blogging was transforming the way businesses talk to customers? They even criticised Google and Apple for being less than encouraging of employee blogs: remind me, how have those two businesses done since 2006?

The problem with relentless optimism is that it requires you to have no memory. But then, in Weinberger's analysis I'm a realist – and always tried to be even when I worked in public relations.

One Response to “‘Markets are conversations’ revisited”

  1. David Phillips 18/10/2009 at 11:06 am #

    Levine and Searls have been sucked in to hype marketing theory. Customer Relationship Management is tautology. No relationship = no customer = nothing to manage. Another example is ‘Corporate Relationship Management’: No relationship = No corporation = nothing to manage. There is one other which is Corporate Social Responsibility: no responsibility for social groups = no relationships = no responsibility = no corporation ( a firm called Enron).
    Cluetrain Mkll seems to me about old men who sold out to the establishment. Which is a bad thing for the academics among them.
    Rick Levine seems to be the only one who has continued to think – not well but at least with some idea of what is now becomming clear because we can reserach discourse more effectively using online conversations.
    I think that markets have a fundamental that is critical. You can ‘see’ the product – a transparency (If you are RBS and do not have products with transparent values – you destroy the market).
    What you are ‘seeing’ are the values attached to the products/services/tokens. These are measured as a bunch of values. Values are the building blocks of relationships which spring from conversations in which people seek common (and commonly held) values to create relationships, which may, in turn, lead to a transaction.
    Levine, is getting there – slowly.

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