This is the mother of all conversations, to borrow from a title to a post Doc Searls wrote, which I link to down below. He's among my personal heroes for thinking about the buyer's side - and doing something about it. Something hopefully radical and, if you're paying attention, really important.
He writes about independence, and about providing tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. Personal tools for people to collect their own data, control it, share it selectively, assert their own terms of service (TOS), and give them means to express their own demand in the open market.
In the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto he writes about these points and says: base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces), and open code. It's what he calls the Intention Economy.
His project, Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), is about improving how buyers and sellers relate. With all that he's working on, I'm beyond thrilled that he'd find the time to have a conversation with us here.
You've been a hero of mine as co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. I own the souvenir, the actual book. Stories and the facts that anchor them were my daily diet for my degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Bologna. I loved Dante Alighieri's version of things. Probably primed by this context, the image you conjured with your friend's story: "the cluetrain stopped there four times a day for ten years and no one ever took delivery" stuck with me over the years.
Ten years after the fact, what would you change if you were writing the Cluetrain Manifesto today?
It's important to remember that Cluetrain in the first place was an expression of rebellion against marketing, and a declaration of liberation from it. Note the voice in "We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it." We were not speaking there as marketers, or as "the audience," or as "consumers," but as ordinary people.
Cluetrain was a commentary on the Net, more than one on marketing. We just happened to be pissed more at marketing than at other professions that were just as deserving of rebuke (if not more -- such as venture capitalists). We were telling companies -- and marketers especially -- to wake up and recognize that the Net was a place where buyers were at least as important as sellers, and not just as "targets" for "messages."
Most of the opportunities opened by the Net are still overlooked, because nearly everybody in business still thinks only about improving what they're already doing on the sell side. Better sales, marketing, data collection and so on. They can't stop pushing long enough to recognize that there's room for improvement on the buy side too. They don't yet see how equipping demand to drive supply changes and improves the whole game.
In the CM you famously described markets as conversations, which is the cornerstone of what I write about at Conversation Agent. Many companies have started talking, but are the people in them actually listening?
But the problem isn't with call centers, or even with companies. It's with the absence of relationship tools on the customers' side. These tools should provide customers with ways that make it easy for customers to deal with multiple sellers in consistent ways, and on the customers' own terms. In the absence of those, every company says "we have ways of making you talk." And those ways are all different.
What sparked this interview was my notice that you've placed me on a Twitter list called Postcluetrainians. What does this term mean?
Doc: I was just goofing around with names for lists not long after Twitter came out with them. I chose to use "ian" at the end of each list name (not sure why), and I didn't want to say "Cluetrainians," because that looked like the name of a religion. (Or so I recall.) As it turns out, you can't change the names of lists once you've made them. Not as far as I know anyway.
Part of my job is public relations, and I smile as I write this as I read your good rant about PR. You put your finger on the real role of PR... yet it's not the only culprit in the "check the box" category. Or is it? Many company Web sites work very hard at maximizing lack of conversation. It looks like the automation people are still bringing in more business conversions than the conversation people - or else we would have more dynamic, people-centric tools by now. Forrester's projection for Internet advertising was also off - it grew only to $8.75 billion in 2004. Which goes to show that things move more slowly than we think.
What's your take on all this?
Perspective... The Industrial Age is nearly two centuries old, and isn't ending. Over that time we have become very good at selling. The flywheels in the selling machine are huge. So far the Net has offered to sellers countless ways to improve what they're already doing. That's why "the automation people" appear to be more successful than "the conversation people." They've been at it longer, and the Net gives them more ways to get better at what they already do.
The "conversation people" also have two problems. One is that they work for the sell side. This subordinates their work to sell-side systems, imperatives and defaults. The other is that their tools are inadequate. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and pretty much everything we call "social" are good, but don't cut it for everybody. Most ordinary citizens don't read blogs, much less write them. They also don't have a Facebook account or use Twitter. Even if they did, those tools aren't built for any of the things we need, that I list in my "Markets are Relationships" chapter in the 10th Anniversary edition of Cluetrain.
This piece should also be helpful: Where Markets are Not Conversations
If you were to share one word of advice with us, what would it be?
I'm a highly spontaneous person, it's probably crazy I ended up in marketing communications. It's my hope that I've learned some of your lessons and those of my mentors and continue to focus on my craft to help businesses listen and relearn how to talk.
Doc: I don't think any learning is required. There's a music teacher I know who says nobody who knows how to walk lacks a sense of rhythm.
Unfortunately, what we need are tools that do not yet exist. I'm working on some, and so are a few others in the larger VRM community. But it's going to take awhile.
Thank you so much for your time.
Doc: Yours too!
Do take the time to read both of his posts linked above. Do you see the issues as clearly as I do? In a response to a comment in the second post, Doc writes:
The problem in the meantime is that we keep looking to the big companies to fix these problems for us. They’re not going to do it. In fact, they can’t — any more than AOL could fix email, or Yahoo could fix instant messaging. All these companies tend to do is make what they already do for themselves work better. Thus a free market becomes “your choice of silo.”
From the first one, I learned that Doc is working on a book titled The Intention Economy: What Happens When Customers Get Real Power. And he's looking for helpful scholarship, research and stories for the book. So if you have any, send them his way.
Spend time with these ideas and think about how they'd work in your business. We won't have a two-way conversation until we both - customers and service providers - hold the tools to develop those relationships in terms we both want, not just we can live with.
As Doc says, the money - and demand - is with the buyer.