New Clues for the Post-Cluetrain Era

What would be different if a Cluetrain Manifesto-like list of observations, explanations and beliefs were created today? How would 15 years of reality override these prophecies?

“Markets are conversations.”

If you are an internet-marketing trivia master, you may recognize that quotation as Doc Searls’ prophetic observation that appeared 15 years ago as part of the Cluetrain Manifesto. Cluetrain began as a list of 95 theses posted on the website Cluetrain.com that captured the sentiments of Searls and three other tech-industry marketing veterans.

The Cluetrain Manifesto quickly evolved into a best-selling book that provided many early online marketers with a foundation for understanding and predicting how buying and selling would change when buyers have access to the same, or greater, data and insights previously controlled by sellers.

What would be different if a Cluetrain Manifesto-like list of observations, explanations and beliefs were created today? How would 15 years of reality override these prophecies?

We can now find out…

(Continue reading on the Hammock Blog.)

VRM: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours

While I’ve mentioned the wonkish topic before on this blog, I’ve held off (for years) writing about Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). When I say wonkish, I mean it is still in a phase that is conceptual and academic, more than commercial and mainstream.

However, the idea represented by the term “VRM” has been around a long time and is now moving into real products and services. Moreover, it’s a good time to bring it up because the idea that “consumers” (an un-VRMish term) need to have the ability to access data collected about them, and use such data as currency in the marketplace, was demonstrated dramatically last week when iPhone users learned what seems obvious: that the location services they enjoy are enabled by Apple collecting location data — but something not so obvious: A consumer can, with a simple hack, access that data themselves.

The term VRM is a play on acronyms (if there is such a thing as a “play on acronyms,” it should be called a POA), as CRM is the acronym for Customer Relationship Management, an innocent sounding term that represents a massive technology-industrial complex designed to collect, store, organize and apply in ever-varying ways, all the data possible about “we, the customer.”

CRM can range from your contact management software to Salesforce.com to the way we’re going to one day get eyeball transplants so billboards won’t recognize us (okay, that last part was a joke, a reference to the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report).

I’m not going to attempt to explain VRM in this post other than to say, everything smart I know about the internet, I can trace to Doc Searls — and “Project VRM” is something he has been working on for several years as a fellow at the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a fellow alumnus of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Here’s a paragraph from Doc Searls’ Project VRM wiki that captures the idea of VRM:

VRM is the reciprocal — the customer side — of CRM. VRM tools provide customers with the means to bear their side of the relationship burden. They relieve CRM of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. With VRM operating on the customer’s side, CRM systems will no longer be alone in trying to improve the ways companies relate to customers. Customers will be also be involved, as fully empowered participants, rather than as captive followers.

So, why would I choose today to post this item?

This morning, there’s a NY Times op-ed piece with the headline, “Show Us the Data. (It’s Ours)”. The piece is definitely focused on the right principles: “If a business collects data on consumers electronically, it should provide them with a version of that data that is easy to download and export to another Web site. Think of it this way: you have lent the company your data, and you’d like a copy for your own use.”

However, the examples of initiatives the writer points to may lead the reader to believe that government-led initiatives are the best route to take. That may be the best route one day, if companies don’t, themselves, join in the types of initiatives Project VRM is trying to foster.

However, it is important to recognize there are lots of startups, non-profits, academic and open source / grassroots (note: where I’ll place my bets) and even big-company initiatives in this arena, as well. It is also important to note that this issue is not something that sprang forth last week: For as long as I can remember, there have been those who embrace the internet, but who believe relationships (and identity) should belong to the users and buyers, not just hosts and sellers.

I will be writing more on this topic in the future. I just wanted to post this to alert people that the next big thing is not going to be about what others are doing to collect your data and lock you into their data-protectorates. The next big thing is going to be about you having better ways to access and use the relationships and data that belong to you, in ways that recognize that markets are conversations — not plantations.

Links:

Stop trying to limit the Internet to a metaphor

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Today, I spent several hours in a conference with 300 marketers who fit into one of two categories:

1. They work at companies that are trying hard to figure out how to use something currently called “social media” to help their companies succeed (i.e., sell more stuff).

2. They work at companies that are trying to sell services to help group #1 succeed (i.e., sell more stuff). (Disclosure: I and content marketing and custom media company, Hammock Inc., fall into this second category).

First off, I have to get something clear about where I stand on the term “social media.” First, I think it’s a quickly-falling-from-relevance-term when applied to media and marketing — right up there with the term Web 2.0, which meant about the same thing as “social media” until people got tired of that term and started calling it “social media.”

In my opinion, at best, “social” is a feature, it’s not a medium. When all media is social, there is no such thing as social media. It’s like HD TV. When only some shows are in High Definition, then maybe there’s something unique and special about saying, “this program is broadcast in High Definition.” But when everything is in High Definition, it’s sorta silly to announce “we’re the High Definition channel” — just like all the other channels.

In other words, when every page on the Internet has five different ways to forward, share, comment and embed, isn’t that enough to say, “everything is social.” When every anchorman and musician and corner cafe is on Twitter, is it really a unique “thing” called “social media.”

That, aside. I’ll agree, the technology and the capabilities and the way people use the Internet in our daily lives are way, way ahead of where marketers and media people are. Marketing people were way, way late to the table and it shows. I like that they’re trying to catch up, but I have some squeamishness when I hear them discuss with one another what social media marketing is all about.

Frankly, I think it’s the metaphors that alarm me. Marketers, for the most part, view “the web” as a tool set. Even those who, like me, want to focus on the way the Internet can solve specific business objectives, often fall into the pattern of seeing Twitter, et al, as a hammer and every problem as a nail.

For the past ten years, I have tried my best to explain to media and marketing people what many still don’t seem to understand. The web is best understood (metaphorically speaking) as “a place,” not as “a medium.” To my friends in the business-to-business media and marketing world, I have said that the best metaphor for the web is not a publication (you can thank whoever came up with the term “web page” for that metaphor) but a trade show. I’ve tried to explain (metaphorically speaking) that social media is like the conversation that takes place in the hallways and aisles of a trade show — not in the keynotes or panel sessions. It’s in those hallways that commerce takes place, where the marketplace of industries exist.

But still, marketers and media people seem to want the new stuff to fit into metaphors of the old stuff — like advertising and promotions and direct mail.

Today, I heard a speaker spend 30 minutes suggesting that some imaginary group of “tree huggers” and “hippies” exist who don’t want anything about social media to be commercialized or used in marketing. I’ve been to blogger events, South by Southwests and countless social media and geek events for over a decade, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. People have been trying to monetize and marketize social media since the day the first cavemen drew a picture on a wall.

Frankly, one of the seminal events of the movement that led to what we think of today as “social media” — at least in comprehending what a networked community of customers means to the marketplace — was the publication of the book, The Cluetrain Manifesto. And yes, there was some hippie influence in book (love you, Doc), it was not, however, anti-business or anti-marketing or anti-anything — except anti-cluelessness.

People were then, and are still now, tired of being beat over the head and spammed with crappy advertising and sub-par customer service. That’s not hippie-talk. That’s common sense. And, more importantly, customers know more about products than marketers do. So get over it.

People who pioneered this place we now call “social media” have sought to create a better way of marketing than sending out coupons, but I don’t know of any “tree huggers” who preach against it — unless, someone thinks doing something better than couponing via Twitter is preaching against coupons.

Here’s the deal: This Internet thing is way bigger than social media. It’s way bigger than marketing. It’s a place. It’s a world. It’s where we are spending a larger and larger portion of our lives. And a portion of that time we spend is focused on, yes, buying and selling stuff. But that’s just a part of that world.

Marketers can learn to live in that world, or they can spend time trying to figure out ways to spam that world. And if I’m a hippie when I say it, so be it: there are better ways to help companies succeed than teaching them new ways to distribute spam.

If you spend all of your time thinking the Internet is a tool set to replicate what you’ve done in the past — except faster — you’re not necessarily wrong, you’re just less than right.

Bottomline: Don’t be fooled by thinking the Internet can be contained in a metaphor, even mine.

Markets are people, not just conversations

I just read (via @davewiner) what Doc Searls labels “beer notes.” Read it. It’s filled with wisdom including this sentence:

Talking may be social, but listening is personal.

No surprise to those who read this blog regularly: I belong to the Cult of Doc. More than anyone, he has helped me to articulate my beliefs regarding the way a world in which people have the ability to connect and communicate online radically alters the relationships we have with one-another and with the institutions and causes and products and ideas and passions and music and hobbies and beliefs we all choose to embrace as individuals.

Big media companies and politicians and traditional marketers and everyone I know want to do the “social media” thing. And I believe many, if they knew how, want to do it the right way. But they start by going to conferences and hiring consultants. And unfortunately, the way many “experts” explain what’s taking place ends up sounding to the people running big media and big marketing programs like they are being asked to convert their building’s lighting from electricity to lightening-bugs collected in a jar. I used to get frustrated with the people who run these companies, but now I’m more understanding. I appreciate the challenge they face in transitioning from that which was into that which will be.

And I appreciate that many are at least trying to listen.

I’ve been listening to Doc for at least ten years — as this month is the 10th anniversary of “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” (The website was created in April, 1999, and the book was published early in 2000. Doc wrote a detailed blog post in January that reflected on the past decade and Cluetrain.)

For me and many others who have spent much of past 15 years pondering the role of online communities, Cluetrain is a bit like Woodstock. The authors didn’t create or discover anything new: however, they synthesized and simplified what was taking place into a list of proclamations they wittily called their “95 Theses” (witty for those who enjoy references to historic protests calling for reform). Together, these 95 theses were the Cluetrain Manifesto. (The “Cluetrain” is what left the station, leaving behind those who “have no clue.”)

They started out by merely nailing 95 theses to the door of a website.

The first thesis was this: “Markets are conversations.”

For me, those three words were a lightbulb — or, at least, a jar filled with lightening bugs.

Markets are conversations.

But as Doc Searls reminds us in his “beer notes” post, conversations are among people.

Not pitches and creative and media buys and transactions — conversations. Not targets, battles and strategies — conversations. Not copy-writing, institutional-speak or buzzwords — conversations.

Conversatons among people.

Online advertising sucks. But you knew that the first time you ever saw an online ad

There are many insightful points in Matt Creamer’s essay in Advertising Age, “Think Different: Maybe the Web’s Not a Place to Stick Your Ads. As the title suggests, he uses Apple as an example of a company that, relative to its overall advertising spending, devotes only a small fraction of its marketing budget to “advertising” online. (As I’ve pointed out, when they do advertise online, they do it well.) Notes, Creamer, Apple doesn’t suffer from a lack of exposure online, however. Indeed, in many cases, the sites on which it would advertise have far less traffic than Apple web properties attract.

The article can be summed up with this quote from Jakob Nielsen: “”The basic point about the web is that it is not an advertising medium. The web is not a selling medium; it is a buying medium. It is user-controlled, so the user controls, the user experiences.” (Presumably, Matt’s essay is focused on non-search advertising as that is online advertising that is controlled by users.)

Quote:

This…is a call to give some thought to a question that’s not asked enough about the Internet: Should it even be viewed as an ad medium? After all, in some quarters of the broader marketing world, the habit of looking at advertising as the most important tool in the marketers’ toolbox is undergoing intense interrogation. Consider the growth of the word-of-mouth marketing business, premised on the notion that people not corporations who help other people make consumer decisions. Or look at the growing importance put on public relations and customer-relationship management both in marketing circles and even in the c-suite. The same conversation should be going on around the Internet. Trends like those listed suggest the possibility of a post-advertising age, a not-too-distant future where consumers will no longer be treated as subjects to be brainwashed with endless repetitions of whatever messaging some focus group liked. That world isn’t about hidden persuasion, but about transparency and dialogue and at its center is that supreme force of consumer empowerment, the Internet.

That I liked Matt’s essay should come as no surprise: It echoes what The Cluetrain Manifesto clearly articulated and foresaw nearly ten years ago. Maybe after another decade or so of hearing this repeated, the men and women who are responsible for marketing (and advertising) budgets will finally figure out that what the web enables is more powerful than advertising. Indeed, it will likely prove to be the most powerful marketing platform ever conceived — as long as you realize that it’s not a place to merely stick advertising. It’s a buying medium, not a selling medium.