10 years later – do they have a clue?

The Cluetrain Manifesto is ten years old today — and the message is just as compelling as it was when I first stumbled upon it on the internet a decade ago.  I still remember looking at it in awe, saying to myself — yes!  That’s it exactly!   I still remember how energized I was reading it.  Kindred souls.  Smart people.

Yes, they were arrogant.  Yes they were out there.  Okay, maybe they were a little over the top.   But damn, they were a breath of fresh air.   They still are.  Check out the interview that we did with Doc Searls at http://tobtr.com/s/752388 I have to get hold of David Weinberger and ask if I can post the interview I did with him as well.  We talked about his new book Everything is Miscellaneous.  Check back her and I’ll see if he’s okay with posting the link.

The message in Cluetrain is as fresh today as it was 10 years ago. ” We are not clicks or eyeballs, we are people ….deal with it.”

For those of you who missed it, the book started as a website, with 95 Theses splashed on a web page, in tribute, homage or just a scandalous rip off of Martin Luther’s famous set of 95 Theses.  If you don’t know about the original, shame on you.  Martin Luther was the renegade priest who started the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 Theses to the door of a church.  Equally important but often ignored, he translated the bible from latin to the language of the people (in his case, German) and opened it up for all to read.  He also got married — remember he was a priest.  To some he was a heretic.  To others, he was a reformer who democratized an autocratic organization.

Whatever you think of him, he changed history.  Not on his own.  He didn’t invent the movable type that made it possible to print those bibles and distribute them widely.  He wasn’t the only figure questioning the institution — there was, at the time, a growing movement that were dissatisfied with what they felt was corruption and a lack of integrity in the church at the time.  It related to practices like the selling of indulgences — the ability to buy your way out of sin.  A number of people saw the church as a decaying, archaic and for some, even a corrupt institution.  They’d lost faith in it — literally.

Luther had the courage to say what he did.  In a world where the Catholic church was all powerful, this took a lot of guts.  But that doesn’t explain the power of what he accomplished.  No, he hit the zeitgeist of his era, he was a man of courage at the right place in history.  His ideas took off like a brush fire and the world was never the same.

It’s important to note, however, that this is the view from 500 years later.  It’s all compressed now and we can look back and see Luther’s document as a turning point.

So this week, when I had the privilege of interviewing not one but two of the original authors of Cluetrain I was not at all surprised to find them being very understated about the importance of the book.   Yet it too, caught the zeitgeist of the time.  It certainly took off and became a best seller.  A decade later, I’m still using it in my class on marketing.  I tell my students, and I truly believe that it is a demarcation point between what I term “pre-reformation” and “post-reformation” marketing.

For Mad Men fans, you know what pre-reformation marketing was — and still is.  It was smart people who knew how to push – to push your buttons.  They made you look, made you want to buy.  It was a top down world where marketers could take a product to the masses, appealing to that mixture of rational and sub-rational behaviour that makes us buy.  This period was a period of conformity.  If you could be come one of the 2 or 3 brands that dominated a space there was money to be made.  Even in the 60’s with the baby boomers finding themselves, we were all out to declare our individuality — yet we all wore the same uniform.  We listened to top 40 radio.   We all read Rolling Stone.  And on and on.  Nope, as much as boomers like me like to be full of themselves, we didn’t change marketing.   That happened 35 years later.

But the land of marketing was the land of the few.  To make a mark with a brand took money.  Big money.  You bought ads.  A lot of ads.  There were limited venues –only a few channels on TV, even the local markets had only a few stations or papers.  To get your message across took bucks.   With great budgets, came great reach and rewards.

Big brands dominated.  As I point out to my class, there are three English words in any world language.  Okay.  Bye.  Coca-cola.  We blow our nose in a Kleenex.  We all know what the Nike “swoosh” is.   Yes, it helped to be clever, but it was the rich and not the meek who inherited the brand awareness.

There’s some debate about what it is that did happen.  But here’s what I know.  Somehow, all of those years of being manipulated must have taken their toll.  A backlash began.  Cluetrain didn’t cause it, but it channeled that energy.  It spotted the train leaving the station and remarked on it.

You can see it today.  Where once we were likely to accept an expert opinion, or you could have some movie star dictate your taste to you (there’s a reason why Pepsi paid MJ the money they did)  it’s generally accepted that now people look for the opinions of their peers.    We don’t trust ads, or what companies say.  We trust other people just like us.

Not only don’t we trust, we’re a little bit more cranky than we used to be.  Some of us are actually PO’d.  The web gives us the place to shout.  Marketing became democratized.  Now you don’t need a big budget to reach millions, you need a creative message.  That message needs to capture people’s interest and when it does, it can go viral.  Going viral is bigger than getting an ad at the Superbowl or for the last episode of Seinfeld — or whatever.  It can reach millions and millions.  And now, it’s not only about what product you should buy — it’s what product you shouldn’t buy.  For years there has been, for those who know about it, a dark side to the web where putting in the phrase “xxxx  sucks” or something like that would take you to a dark world where you could see some amazing stuff.  It’s still there.  Walmart sucks still generates a ticket to a world where you can see the anger of the customer seething from the HTML.

That’s bad enough.  But now, with the the advent of social media and facilities like YouTube its possible for a negative message to go viral and hit with the same power as a Superbowl ad – maybe more.  I don’t know how many people listened to United Breaks Guitars.  That came from a quite little band called the Sons of Maxwell out of Canada.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know that video – it’s been viewed millions of times.  Someone told me that United saw a real dip in bookings.  And for everyone who’s had it jammed to them by some anonymous staffer, we can now track the last person to say No to the Sons of Maxwell (have a nice day, Ms. Irlweg).

I predict more of this is going to happen.  When it does, many companies will be like United – like a deer in the headlights.   It can’t have cost more to have looked at those guitars and just said, “dammit, you are right.  We’ll fix them and we’ll fix the process that broke them.”  If you really care about your customers, you’d do that, wouldn’t you?

And United cares.  I know.  I saw it on their website.

For us, connection means more than providing safe, convenient, reliable air travel with courteous service. It also means forging strong relationships with the people and communities we serve and using our resources to make a difference.”

This little bit was under a title – Every Action Counts.  Boy, does it ever.

There was a movie made years ago called Network which had a tag-line, “we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  It was ahead of its time.  That time, however, might be now.

Smart people know this.  Smart company’s know this.  In fact, I keep saying that the real reason the Apple ads are so successful is because Vista was the worst piece of crap ever unleashed upon the computer world.  Without that, the thing that makes these ads so powerful wouldn’t have been there.

It’s not just creativity.  As my favourite marketing guru, Terry O’Reilly points out in his CBC radio show “The Age of Pursuasion” (cbc.ca) the 1980’s Apple ad “Think Different” was a masterpiece of creativity.   O’Reilly rates it as one of the best ads of all time and this guy knows his stuff.  Yet it didn’t change a thing in terms of sales or market share.  Today, I’m not sure how many people have shifted from PC to Mac, but the biggest store in Toronto is packed every day.

Apple gets it, btw.  At least so far.  I can’t believe that I phoned up for support and they not only had enough people on their phone lines on a Saturday morning, but they even offered to call me back when it was convenient to me.  Blew me away.  And when they passed the call to the senior person, she called me by name and didn’t ask me for the info again.  If my pathetic cell phone provider is listening, you might want to take notice.  Just like Microsoft, you may wake up and find that I have an alternative.   Because I’m convinced that my cell phone provider thinks so much of its customers that it’s outsourced client service to some overseas call centre, ridding itself of this annoying customer.  It’s not just them, there are more….

So 10 years after Cluetrain, we’ve all changed.  We’re mad as hell, not going to take it, and we have a pulpit of our own.   And for many big companies, something big has happened.  We’ll look back years from now and if I’m right, people will say, that’s when it happened.  Yet for company after company,  the train is leaving the station, and they still  haven’t got a clue.

You can’t just put a clip on your website.  You actually have to stop breaking guitars.   You have to realize, if you are my local MacDonald’s that your coffee is better, but its not the reason I go to your drive through.  I go because I really like the lady who has a big smile and a really sincere and warm good morning.    But I’ll bet that they don’t have a clue about her either.

Sigh…..

Pick up the 10th anniversary edition of Cluetrain.  Let me know what you think.

And to Doc and David, who have been so great — thanks for the conversations that you have started.

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