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The Market that Talk built

18 Jun

13AUG

It should be so easy…just to have a conversation about what’s on your mind, what you think and how you feel…instinctively, intuitively or even with the best of objective deduction and reasoning…phew.

But it’s not.

We do have those “ideal conversations” in our our heads and minds (usually during a meeting about the time when it’s all turning to custard!!). So why is it so difficult to have those same simple, easy-to-understand conversations when we market to consumers and potential customers…Read extracts from “CLUE TRAIN”. The entire book is readable and FREE on their .org website.

Below is a taste…it’s like a…well…enjoyable conversation…for a change!!

The Market That Talk Built

The power of conversation goes well beyond its ability to affect consumers, business, and products. Market conversations can make — and unmake and remake — entire industries. We’re seeing it happen now. In fact, the Internet itself is an example of an industry built by pure conversation.

The process of building the Internet was a little like building a bridge: start with a thin wire spanning a chasm, then spin that single wire into a thick cable capable of supporting heavy girders and the rest of the structure. Incredibly, no one directed this effort. No one controlled it. The people who incrementally built the Internet — literally, one bit at a time — participated solely out of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm driven by a shared and growing vision of what this strange thing they were building might ultimately become.

What if the task of building the Internet had been jobbed out to the leaders of the communications business: to online services like AOL and Compuserve, to network companies like Novell and 3Com, to telecom companies like AT&T and Northern Telecom, to software companies like Microsoft and Lotus?

It never would have happened. It certainly never would have been imagined as it now exists. Every one of those companies would have looked for a way to control it, to make it theirs. More than a few would have turned down the job. Microsoft was famously late to the Internet game in part because Bill Gates thought there was no money to be made.

What it took was behind-the-scenes work by what amounts to a loosely organized, Internet-mediated software craft guild. The results include Apache, a Web server developed by Brian Behlendorf and a bunch of other hackers, simply because they needed it. Today more than half of all the Web’s pages are served by Apache.

In fact, nearly a third of the world’s Web servers are powered by Linux, the dark-horse challenger to Microsoft’s previously unquestioned software hegemony. Linux was initiated by a young, unknown software developer, Linus Torvalds. He needed it, so he crafted it — and then he made it available to the rest of the world through the Internet. He published not just the finished product but, far more important, its source code. Anyone with software engineering tools and the technical chops could add to it, modify it, craft it into precisely the tool they needed. As a result, Linux has rapidly become one of the most sophisticated, powerful, and configurable software products in history — all without anyone managing or controlling it.

Eric Raymond, in his seminal work on hacker culture, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describes the dynamics of this distributed and self-motivated community of independent programmers. How was it possible that a seemingly disorganized, seemingly undirected band of renegade hackers could rise to such prominence and threaten the world’s largest, most powerful high-tech corporation with the only credible alternative not only to Windows NT, but even to Windows itself?

By conversation. Both the Internet and Linux are powerful demonstrations of a pure market conversation at work. They show what can happen when people are able to communicate without either the constraints of command-and-control management, or the straightjacket of one-message-fits-all. As Raymond writes:

The thing about the Internet is you can’t coerce people over a T-1 line, so power relationships don’t work… So the only game left to play is pure craftsmanship and reputation among peers. If you can offer people the chance to do good work and be seen doing good work by their peers, that’s a really powerful motivator.

The most important lesson Linux hackers teach is that whole markets can rapidly arise out of conversations that are independent not only of business, but also of government, education, and other powerful but hidebound institutions, thanks in large measure to something hackers helped invent precisely for that purpose: the Internet.

Conversation may be a distraction in factories that produce replaceable products for replaceable consumers, but it’s intimately tied to the world of craft, where the work of hands expresses the voice of the maker. Conversation is how the work of craft groups proceeds. And conversation is the sound of the market where creators and customers are close enough to feel each other’s heat.

What’s more, these new conversations needn’t just happen at random. They can be created on purpose. “We hackers were actively aiming to create new kinds of conversations outside of traditional institutions,” Raymond says. “This wasn’t an accidental byproduct of doing neat techie stuff; it was an explicit goal for many of us as far back as the 1970s. We intended this revolution.”

Nice job.

New Messages for Marketing

So, if markets are conversations (they are) and there’s no market for messages (there isn’t), what’s marketing-as-usual to do? Own the conversations? Keep the conversations on message? Turn up the volume until it drowns out the market? Compete with the new conversations?

But how could it? People are talking in the new market because they want to, because they’re interested, because it’s fun. Conversations are the “products” the new markets are “marketing” to one another constantly online. Hey! Come look at my Web site. Subscribe to my e-zine. Check the whacked-out rant I just posted to alt.transylvanian.polarbears. Get a load of this stupid banner ad I just found at boy-are-we-clueless.com!

By comparison, corporate messaging is pathetic. It’s not funny. It’s not interesting. It doesn’t know who we are, or care. It only wants us to buy. If we wanted more of that, we’d turn on the tube. But we don’t and we won’t. We’re too busy. We’re too wrapped up in some fascinating conversation.

Engagement in these open free-wheeling marketplace exchanges isn’t optional. It’s a prerequisite to having a future. Silence is fatal.

So what becomes of marketing? How do companies enter into the global conversation? How do they find their own voice? Can they? How do they wean themselves from messaging? What happens to

  • PR
  • advertising
  • marketing communications
  • pricing
  • positioning

… and the rest of the marketing arsenal?

Excellent questions.

Private Relations

Ironically, public relations has a huge PR problem: people use it as a synonym for BS. The call of the flack has never been an especially honorable one. There is no Pulitzer Prize for public relations. No Peabody, Heismann, Oscar, Emmy, Eddy, or Flacky. Like all besieged professions, PR has its official bodies, which do indeed grant various awards, degrees, and titles. But do you know what they are? Neither do most PR people. Say that you’re an award-winning PR person and most people will want to change their seats.

Everyone — including many PR people — senses that something is deeply phony about the profession. And it’s not hard to see what it is. Take the standard computer-industry press release. With few exceptions, it describes an “announcement” that was not made, for a product that was not available, quoting people who never said anything, for distribution to a list of people who mostly consider it trash.

Dishonesty in PR is pro forma. A press release is written as a plainly fake news story, with headline, dateline, quotes, and all the dramatic tension of a phone number. The idea, of course, is to make the story easy for editors to “insert” in their publications.

But an editor would rather insert a crab in his butt than a press release in their publication. The disconnect between supply and demand could hardly be more extreme. No self-respecting editor would let a source — least of all a biased one — write a story. And no editor is in the market for a thinly disguised advertisement, which is the actual content of a press release.

Editors hate having to deconstruct press releases to find just the facts, ma’am. To most editors, press releases are just pretend clothing for emperors best seen naked — because naked emperors make much better stories than dressed-up ones.

PR folks are paid to hate stories, even though stories are precisely what the press — PR’s “consumers” — most wants. The fundamental appeal of stories is conflict, struggle, and complexity. Stories never begin with “happily ever after,” but press releases always do, because that’s the kind of story PR’s real market — the companies who pay for public relations — demands. The PR version of the Titanic story would be headlined 705 Delighted Passengers Arrive after the Titanic’s Maiden Voyage. Page two might mention some “shakedown glitches inevitable whenever a magnificent new ship is launched.” Releases have no room for the very elements that might actually interest a journalist.

Public relations not only fails to comprehend the nature of stories, but imagines that “positive” stories can be “created” with press conferences and other staged events. John C. Dvorak, PR scourge of long standing, says, “So why would you want to sit in a large room full of reporters and publicly ask a question that can then be quoted by every guy in the place? It’s not the kind of material a columnist wants — something everybody is reporting. I’m always amazed when PR types are disappointed when I tell them I won’t be attending a press conference.”

“PR types.” We all know what that means: they’re the used car salesmen of the corporate world. You can’t listen to PR Types without putting on your highest-grade, activated-carbon bullshit filter. If you’re a journalist, you are seen by PR Types as prey. They hunt you down at work, at social events — hell, if you’re donating a kidney and a PR Type is on the next table, she’ll chat you up about the new product announcement until her anesthetic kicks in and then a little bit longer. Damn PR Types.

But, of course, the best of the people in PR are not PR Types at all. They understand that they aren’t censors, they’re the company’s best conversationalists. Their job — their craft — is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear, to help journalists write stories that tell the truth, to bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it. Indeed, already some companies are building sites that give journalists comprehensive, unfiltered information about the industry, including unedited material from their competitors. In the age of the Web where hype blows up in your face and spin gets taken as an insult, the real work of PR will be more important than ever.

Advertising vs. Word of Web

Fairfax Cone, one of the great men of advertising, said his craft was nothing more than “what you do when you can’t go see somebody.” This simple distinction draws a perfect line between TV and the Web. TV is the best medium ever created for advertising. The Web is the best medium ever created for sales. The Web, like the telephone, is a way you can go see somebody, a way to talk with them, show your wares, answer their questions, offer referrals, and make it easy for them to buy whatever they want. Why get someone to look at an ad on the Web when, with exactly the same amount of wrist power, you can get them into your electronic storefront itself?

Sure, you can advertise on the Web, and many Internet companies say advertising is how they are going to make their money. And the sum of advertising on the Web keeps going up. Why not? Just liquidate a few percent of those moon-high stock valuations and buy a few billion dollars more Web advertising. Forrester Research reports that “despite cries that online ads don’t work, spending for Internet advertising will continue to grow at a furious pace.” They say spending will explode from $2.8 billion in 1999 to $33 billion in 2004.

But Web advertising is already an inside joke. Most of the banner ads you see at the tops of pages are trades and sponsorships, not paid advertising. And everybody knows that having your page turn up in the top ten results when someone goes hunting at a major search site is far more effective than buying ads on Web sites. (This, predictably, has sparked the buying of ads on search sites.)

There’s no denying that a saturation ad campaign that puts your company’s name in tens of millions of banner ads will buy you some name recognition. But that recognition counts for little against the tidal wave of word-of-Web. Look at how this already works in today’s Web conversation. You want to buy a new camera. You go to the sites of the three camera makers you’re considering. You hastily click through the brochureware the vendors paid thousands to have designed, and you finally find a page that actually gives straightforward factual information. Now you go to a Usenet discussion group, or you find an e-mail list on the topic. You read what real customers have to say. You see what questions are being asked and you’re impressed with how well other buyers — strangers from around the world — have answered them. You learn that the model you’re interested in doesn’t really work as well in low light as the manufacturer’s page says. You make a decision. A year later, some stranger in a discussion group asks how reliable the model you bought is. You answer. You tell the truth.

Compare that to the feeble sputtering of an ad. “SuperDooper Glue — Holds Anything!” says your ad. “Unless you flick it sideways — as I found out with the handle of my favorite cup,” says a little voice in the market. “BigDisk Hard Drives — Lifetime Guarantee!” says the ad. “As long as you can prove you oiled it three times a week,” says another little voice in the market. What these little voices used to say to a single friend is now accessible to the world. No number of ads will undo the words of the market. How long does it take until the market conversation punctures the exaggerations made in an ad? An hour? A day? The speed of word of mouth is now limited only by how fast people can type. Word of Web will trump word of hype, every time.

Ads may still have hypnotic, subliminal effects, like those tunes we can’t get out of our heads (a legacy of the old advertising industry adage “if you have nothing to say, sing it”), but we now have the world’s largest support group encouraging us to take that first step: we acknowledge that there is a power greater than ourselves, and it’s not some freaking banner ad or a cola company whacking our head with a jingle. It’s the conversation that is the Web.

Sites of Salt

You might think Marketing Communications departments talk about communications. Not really. They actually spend most of their days thinking about how to hide what’s really going on in the organization. That’s what crafting “messages” is mostly about. For every “message,” there are dozens or hundreds of facts — interesting, useful facts — that never get said. Numbers that change. Divisions that move. Features added and subtracted. And that’s not counting all the outright negative stuff: the merger that failed, the layoffs, the departed leaders, the stopgap products.

In the Industrial Age — the age of scarce and mostly nonconversational media — there were legitimate reasons for being “on message.” The biggest was the need to say one positive thing to everybody at once, in a form that worked equally well in a thirty-second ad and a thirty-page white paper to reach the broadest common denominator.

Even at their most complete — in the form of brochures and other stiff-necked paper goods — marketing communications painted a glossy picture no one believed. We all have been trained by a lifetime of experience to turn down the volume when confronted with a beautiful full-color artifact explaining why the products are perfect, the company loves its customers, and every customer is delighted. Like editors skimming a press release, customers root through brochures to find a few motes of useful information. We took all of “marcom’s” goods with more than a grain of salt. We needed a whole salt mine to keep up with the tide of BS.

Predictably, most corporate Web sites look like brochures. Visitors have to click through screen after screen of fatuous self-praise to find the few bits of useful information they really want. At least printed brochures don’t take as long to download.

If you want to take your first baby step towards entering the market conversation, torch any brochureware on your site. At best your networked market views it as a speed bump, at worst as an insult.

That doesn’t mean that you should put up a site that consists of nothing but the facts expressed in Times Roman text (although useful facts are a great place to start). Your site needs to have a voice, to express a point of view, and to give access to helpful people inside your corporation. Replace the brochures with ways to ignite dialogues. Not only do your customers want to talk with real people inside your organization, but your employees are desperate to talk with real customers. They want to tell them the truth.

They will in any event, because your wall of brochures is as solid as a line in the sand.

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