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Getting Back On Track With The Cluetrain

Getting Back On Track With The Cluetrain Robert Rose

"I think a train of change... Is comin' down the track.  Comin' right this way, it ain't turning back" - Freedom Train - Roger Taylor.

So, it's the brand new year and the brand new decade.  What's coming?  What are you going to do with it?

This is the time of year when all the prognostications of the year emerge - and we use these to either congratulate ourselves for being in agreement, debate them while in line at Starbucks, or aggregate them as a to-do list. 

This year, so many of them sounded familiar to me, and what I realized was that 2009 was really a culminating year.   It was a year that the idea of "marketing is conversation" really took hold.  And now so many of the predictions for the coming year and decade forecast either the backlash, an impending chaos, or the ultimate bloom of the transformation of marketing.

So, I took a bit of a different slant on this - and instead went back in time - and I found an old friend.

The Cluetrain Manifesto

Ten years ago four guys launched a Web site, and a subsequent book that helped to reshape the way that marketing would take place.  Ironically, The Cluetrain Manifesto was never meant as a marketing book.  In fact one of the authors, Doc Searles, has noted the irony in labeling it as such.  In fact, he said; the authors "were not speaking as marketers. [They] were speaking as human beings, out in the marketplace."  He also agreed with Jakob Nielsen who commented to Searles saying the authors had "defected from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing."

This month marks the ten year anniversary of The Cluetrain Manifesto book.  The Web site was launched and became popular throughout the better part of 1999 - and the book was launched in January of 2000 - right at the tippy top peak of the hype of Web 1.0.   As a quick side note, there is a ten year anniversary edition out - which has some updated information (and it's a must-have addition to your marketing library).

So, as the new year begins, and last decade's second recession begins to wane; and just as the hype for "social media" and "conversational marketing" reaches its own tippy top peak - I found it invaluable to revisit the lessons of the Cluetrain - and what we might take into our new decade:  

A Ticket With No Return.....

Of course, in today's day and age, one of the most obvious things that seems missing from the Cluetrain is any talk of Return On Investment.  This is a critical piece of any marketing strategy of course, but speaks directly to the point that the authors weren't writing a "business book".  They were writing a rant.  They were writing from the point of view of the people to whom marketing was being marketed.

Sound familiar?   We're all striving these days to put our best marketing copy in the voice of our customer.  This is what "content marketing" is built upon.

But back to ROI.   There's certainly been no lack of content discussing the importance around ROI - and certainly as we build a marketing strategy this is a critical part of our thinking.  Louis Gray actually says it really well in his predictions for 2010 when he says: "a good number of [social media consultants] will find that the world of business relies a lot more on revenue than it does on retweets and @replies, and may walk away disappointed."

Having said that, however, it's important to remember (as I've said before) that Marketing is NOT the new finance.  Developing both a qualitative AND a quantitative process for gaining insight into the relevance of your marketing is something that we all need to pay attention to in 2010.

Beyond The Buzz And Into Belief

So, according to MarketingProfs, almost 60% of businesses said they planned to increase budgets for social media marketing this year.  We've definitely reached a tipping point here - but the question is tipping into what.  Is 2010 the year that Twitter and Facebook lose their lustrous glow - and we actually expect real results from them?    Interestingly, in last year's predictions on the content marketing blog Junta42, David Meerman Scott predicted that "there will be a backlash" - and "Twitter will need to self police or the good people who run Twitter will need to make rules."   I think he could have simply copied and pasted this prediction for 2010 - as I actually think his prediction was just a year early.  But he's usually ahead of his time anyway.

One of the lesser quoted theses from the ClueTrain is this one - "In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court."

This is critical learning for us as marketers entering a new decade. As Doc Searles so aptly puts, the Cluetrain "was, and remains, a call to get real. It urges everybody, and companies especially, to recognize the Net as a new space that belongs to nobody and supports everybody — not just sellers." 

This is the year that we must bring the unique "us" to our marketing and our content.  It is time for our organizations to develop distinct points of view and to participate in the conversation.  This isn't how marketing is transforming - it is how marketing has transformed.  

Utopia... Next Stop.... Utopia...

But okay, it's not all chocolate cake and unicorns.

As marketers we need to fundamentally understand that the Internet is not our market (well for most of us anyway).  As Cluetrain author Chris Locke said so appropriately, the fact that "markets are conversations", does not mean that "conversations are markets".    The internet is merely a mechanism that allows us to deliver a message and communicate with less friction than before.  That means that ideas spread much more rapidly - be they good, bad, evil, right, wrong or indifferent.

In that market - in that conversation - both selling and buying cycles are becoming shorter - as illustrated so wonderfully by Rob Katz - the CEO of Vail Resorts when he recently said:

"Last year, people went from deciding 4 or 6 months in advance to take a ski vacation.... to 2 weeks".  This real-time decision making is not going to go away... One of the most important aspects of social media is that it has changed the way you can get a message to your customers"

But as Clay Shirky also reminded us in his wonderful Ted Talk in 2005 - as frictionless as collections of people on the internet can assemble, they are value neutral.   What has happened, he explains is that due to how easy the Internet makes collaboration - collections of people are no longer driven by institutions that would normally be responsible for their values.  He said "the normative goals of the support groups that we're used to, came from the institutions that were framing them - and not from the [collaborative] infrastructure.   Once the infrastructure becomes generically available, the logic of the support group has been revealed to be accessible to anyone - including people pursuing these types of [negative, unsavory, or even evil] goals.  So there are significant downsides as well."

We've got to pay attention in 2010.  We must experiment often, fail quickly, adapt rapidly and - most of all - listen and be aware. Just because it's easy and cost-effective to put our marketing conversation out on a content advertising network - doesn't mean we should.

What Train Are You On?

In a comment to a blog post, Doc Searles summed it up nicely. "Markets are different now that the Net runs beneath them.  There are fewer secrets, and both good ideas and bad can spread with alarming speed."

This aligns well with this year's predictions from Seth Godin on the trends of Frustration and Change in the coming decade.  As we dive into 2010, and we get beyond prognostications and trend articles and into the meat of the year, and our need to really get something done, I think we'll do well to remember the Cluetrain Manifesto.     

As Christopher Locke said so well, "what if the real attraction of the Internet is not its cutting-edge bells and whistles, its jazzy interface or any of the advanced technology that underlies its pipes and wires? What if, instead, the attraction is an atavistic throwback to the prehistoric human fascination with telling tales?" 

So, what do you want to be in 2010?  What tale will you tell?

The Chief Troublemaker at Big Blue Moose. I'm responsible for innovating creative and technical content marketing strategies for my clients.I have more than 15 years of experience, and a track record of helping brands and businesses develop...

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