Although it was published two decades ago, the Cluetrain Manifesto still has a great deal to teach businesses – particularly those reaching out to new markets. The book argues that it was always conversation rather than a transaction that defined early businesses. “The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence,” as the authors summarise the relationship.
Up until the era of mass manufacturing, transactions took place between individuals and the businesses were not faceless but fronted by a person or family in a known location. Conversations were small-scale and human. More recently, factories and broadcast product marketing came in and stopped that two-way conversation.
No longer were individuals communicating peer-to-peer on a small scale but instead, businesses were meeting customers in different ways via adverts and slogans where the communication was all one-sided. And the conversation was now fronted by a business brand rather than an individual or family.
Broadcast marketing like this is described by the authors as the anti-conversation. No longer are consumers participating in the conversation, they’re being interrupted and annoyed by unwanted messages. Bombarding new markets with messages in order to penetrate them is an aggressive strategy that consumers see through very quickly.
An enduring message
At the time the book was launched, the Y2K bug was at the forefront of most peoples’ minds and the digital economy had barely got going. But bringing the philosophy of the conversation into business practice remains as relevant now as it was then. Two decades on, we’re also still wrestling with the changed power balance between brand and customer.
The Cluetrain Manifesto recognised early on in the internet era that a whole new conversation was opening up. It identified that one of the most significant aspects of the shift was that consumers were being empowered to have their own conversations.
It described how people were sharing information very quickly, with the result that markets were getting smarter. Crucially, the authors see this happening more quickly than businesses are able to respond.
One of the key tenements of the Cluetrain philosophy for the digital era is that internet hyperlinks can subvert existing power hierarchies. The availability of information outside formal business structures undermines brand attempts to control messages.
Nimble consumers will easily escape any attempts to control information, so brands are best advised to enter the conversational flow rather than attempt to control the message.
Whilst the early signs of this effect may have been visible in 1999, we’ve seen this effect magnified since.
From customer reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor having a serious impact on businesses and persistent complaints on social media taking down brands that are seen, to have misbehaved to price comparison sites helping customers get the best deal for them, the internet really has given power to customers by enabling conversations about businesses.
The Cluetrain’s analysis certainly helps explain why so many foreign businesses are really struggling to penetrate fast-moving emerging markets, such as China, effectively. Consumers are seeing right through the one-sided conversations brands are trying to have with them as they broadcast annoying marketing messages to try and penetrate new markets.
What’s even more damaging is the fact that consumers are having their own conversations and sharing information about markets, products, and prices.
China’s a particularly good example of how the market has evolved into a lively conversation about brands outside the brand’s own space. Consumers in China are particularly likely to turn to their peers for advice on product choice.
These conversations are happening on social media and they’re continuing on review sites. These conversations are fast-moving and merciless; brands and their products are assessed very quickly and this information shared between consumers.
Brands, particularly non-Chinese ones, are really struggling to keep up with the pace of change in China. Consumers are progressing in understanding and expectation. Novice consumers have become highly sophisticated ones very quickly and growing household incomes mean desires are evolving very quickly.
Digital consumers are highly proficient at discussing what they’re consuming and consumption trends move very quickly. Brands really struggle to keep ahead of things.
Returning to the conversation as a market fundamental is perhaps the clue to surviving these tumultuous times. Brands can only keep abreast of things if they participate in and become a part of the conversations as they are happening. In fact, it’s their own hope of remaining relevant.
Making conversations count
The message that persists even now from the Cluetrain Manifesto is that conversations are a two-way thing. It’s important to listen, as well as to speak, and to approach your audience on their terms. It’s not just a case of speaking their language but of understanding their worldview, what their concerns are and personalising your approach.
The original Cluetrain Manifesto described 95 ‘theses’ that act as pointers for the conversational approach brands should be taking in the digital era.
Some of these have been repeated time and again but still haven’t been fully adopted. Speak like a human, not incorporate soundbites. Don’t hide things, because they’ll be found out eventually. Brand loyalty is dead.
It’s telling that these theses appear freshly written. The fact is these tenements have been repeated time and again over the last 20 years but brands are still trying the same tired old tricks. It’s now true more than ever that the conversation about brands has moved outside a brands’ own remit. Understanding this is key to thriving in the digital market of today.