Seven years ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger posted an online document called the Cluetrain Manifesto. It laid out 95 principles for communicating with customers online. The Manifesto created big stir, was signed by a lot of people working in the tech industry, and turned into a book that sold well at the height of the Internet bubble. But since then it has been largely forgotten.
Seven years later, the Manifesto is a mixed bag. Some of its maxims are seriously out of date, and a few are just plain wrong. There are also some things missing. Because the document is long, and parts of it are badly off target, we’re reluctant to refer any of our clients to it today.
However, parts of the Manifesto are just plain brilliant, and deserve to be spray-painted on the walls of corporations around the world.
So here’s our take on the most important rules for people who communicate with customers online, combining our own thinking with the best of the Cluetrain. Think of it as Eau de Cluetrain, or perhaps…
1. Engage, don’t sell. Traditional marketing is a lecture. Whether it’s TV ads, magazine spreads, product placement in movies, skywriting, whatever…communication flows one way, from advertiser to consumer. The Internet changes that. Online, almost all communication can be two-way. You create a banner ad and people click on it, you post a blog and people ask questions.
This creates a profound change in marketing. When there wasn’t any alternative to one-way marketing, people put up with it. But now that there’s an opportunity to communicate two-way, it’s incredibly rude to stay one-way.
A lot of companies have trouble understanding why this issue is so important, so an analogy is in order. Say you go to a hardware store, and the clerk meets you at the door and starts lecturing you. He doesn’t ask what you want, he just starts blathering on about the patio furniture special and how great his store is. You interrupt and try to ask a question, but he just looks at you blankly and says, “I’m not set up to respond to questions. Call the questions department.” You ask for the number, but he just smiles and turns away.
Would you buy from that store? Would you ever go near it again?
Yet this is what most companies do when they communicate online. They set up a corporate blog that doesn’t permit comments, or they send out an e-mail without any way for people to reply. They think they’re marketing their products, but the real message they’re sending is that they’re not interested in what their customers have to say.
Can you imagine anything more rude? Can you imagine how bad that company looks online when it’s up against a competitor that does listen and respond? Whenever you plan an online communication program, ask yourself, “how do I make this two way?”
2. Be yourself. Weblogs and discussion boards have set the standard for how you communicate online – you write like you talk. That means short sentences, informal phrasing, and absolutely no posturing. This is a very hard thing for most companies to do, because the standard behavior in most marketing is to avoid casual conversation at all costs. In press releases and annual reports, companies are usually formal, refined, and legalistic. In brochures and other marketing material, companies have to shout to be heard, so they usually fall into a marketing dialect of hyperbole and bluster.
Either voice comes across as phony when a company goes online; they sound either pompous or like a used car salesman. What they need to do is sound like human beings. This doesn’t mean a company should go out and hire another layer of writers who can put on a “real-person” act online. The online conversations are too varied, and there are too many of them, for any act to hold up online. It’s far better for a company to just let go and behave like it really is. Try to write the way you talk at a lunch meeting. That means if a company is in reality a little stiff and process-driven, it’s okay to be a bit formal in online communication. If a company is passionate and informal, it’s okay to let that show. You’ll never please everyone, but at least people will see you as honest and sincere.
Think about it – you don’t have to love someone in order to do business with them. But you do have to trust them.
3. Speak as individuals. In a conversation, people introduce themselves by name. You should apply the same standard online. E-mails, weblog posts, and other online communications should always be signed by the person who wrote them. That means no unsigned messages, and no group signatures like “The Support Team.”
This has two benefits for a corporation. The first is that it encourages your employees to be genuine online. People are much less likely to lapse into legalese or bluster when they know their own name is going on a communication.
The second benefit is that it disarms critics. People feel no obligations to be polite online to a faceless corporate bureaucracy. In fact, it’s entertaining to be as rude as possible. But when dealing with a real human being, people are automatically much more considerate and patient. That doesn’t mean they’ll always love you, but they’re much more likely to listen and to give you the benefit of the doubt when you approach them as a company of individuals rather than as a monolith.
4. Never lie. Bloggers are like the immune system of the Internet. They love to show off by exposing a fraud. If your employees use false identities or post misinformation online, or encourage others to do so, the chances are extremely high that they’ll eventually be caught. Word spreads quickly online, and once you get a bad reputation it’ll take a long time and a lot of effort to get rid of it. Whatever short-term benefits you get by misleading people online, the damage you risk is far greater.
5. Don’t be afraid of passion. It’s a funny thing — people who write online like to claim that they’re logical and immune to emotion, but they proclaim that with the passionate intensity of true believers. The reality is that the Internet’s driven by emotion. Most of the people who write blogs or participate in discussion forums are motivated not by money (because they don’t make any online), but by a love of the subjects they’re discussing and a hunger to influence others.
This is one of the reasons why falseness is so easy to spot online – the true believers know the difference between an act and the real thing. They’re looking for other passionate believers.
You can best connect with people online if you show some passion of your own. This is a big part of being yourself online. In almost any company, there are true believers who love the business they’re in and the products or services they sell. They’re the best people to put online, because their enthusiasm will create emotional bonds with your most devoted customers. Let them speak for you.
On the other hand, in any company there are also inevitably some managers and executives who are in it for the money rather than any love of the business. Keep them as far away as possible from your website.
6. Set your employees free. This is one of the most difficult changes for an established company. Controlling the message is at the center of traditional marketing. In that world, it’s terribly expensive to communicate to customers – you don’t get many opportunities for speeches and press coverage, trade shows are a huge resource drain, and advertising is very expensive. You can’t risk wasting any of those opportunities. So the number of company spokespeople needs to be tightly restricted, and every message is carefully coordinated.
The Internet turns that wisdom completely on its head. Online communication with customers is free. You can do it any time, as much as you want to. But that communication has to be two-way; someone has to stick around to answer questions and maintain the conversation. The scarce resource is people, not opportunities to communicate. Therefore, the more spokespeople a company has online, the better off it will be. You should encourage all of your employees to discuss the company online.
This will terrify many traditional business executives, because they’re worried that employees will say the wrong things or create legal liability for the company. You can eliminate most of the risk by giving the employees some common sense training, and requiring them to use a disclaimer (“This is my opinion, not the official policy of…”). That won’t eliminate all risk, but nothing is without any risk at all. The important thing to understand is that a company faces a very large competitive risk if it fails to communicate well online, because some competitor will probably do it better. Openness isn’t perfect, but the benefits of openness far outweigh the risks.
7. The Internet strengthens great brands – and destroys false ones. The popular belief among web advocates is that the Internet destroys branding. The Cluetrain Manifesto says:
Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.
We think that’s a complete misreading of both branding and the Internet. A real brand isn’t just a slogan or a business relationship; it’s a promise, an emotional bond that a company establishes between itself and its customers. Because the Internet is driven by passion, you can use tools like online affinity programs and online user groups to strengthen those emotional ties. Do you think the Internet is weakening the strength of Apple’s brand? Or Disney’s?
To overstress a metaphor, companies and customers can now get married instead of going steady.
What the web does do to brands is collapse hollow ones rapidly. If a company’s branding isn’t tied to its genuine values and business practices, that will become obvious as soon as customers compare notes and employees start talking online.
In the Internet era, you must base your branding in values shared by your executives and taught to your employees. If you haven’t done this, you must fix the situation before you go online, or you’ll probably make a fool of yourself.
8. Forget about mass markets. Mass markets are a convenient fiction created by mass media. Television and major magazines can reach only very vague demographic segments like “women of child-bearing age” and “business executives,” so those are the segments marketers are accustomed to targeting. But real markets are much more precise. If you’re making exercise equipment, your real market is fitness enthusiasts, not males under age 35. You might pay for infomercials on Spike TV http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spike_TV because that’s the most likely place on television to find your real market. But you know most of your advertising money is being wasted on people who don’t care about your product.
The Web is immensely more precise. Search advertising can target only people who are looking for your particular product or service. Online communities are usually very tightly focused around a single product category or hobby.
Mass marketing still makes sense for selling horizontal goods and services like deodorant, or for recruiting a completely new market. But for most vertical products, the whole mass market treadmill of building brand awareness (required in order grab the attention of your tiny segment in a huge market) is no longer necessary. Find out where your particular customers hang out and just talk to them directly. If they don’t have a hangout, all the better – you can start up an online community site for them.
9. Remember that the Internet is still evolving. The Web isn’t a single medium. It’s a tool that enables the creation of new media types. Each has its own rules and its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, search advertising is great for promoting product offers, because people are often looking for products when they search. Website advertising is much better for relationship building; people who visit community sites are there to hang out, not to purchase immediately. Written blogs tend to attract technophiles, while audio podcasts often attract a more creative crowd focused on social issues, entertainment, and religion.
Each new medium is unique, and each needs to be approached individually. Plan your campaigns to use the right online media for the right tasks. If you lump them all together as “internet marketing,” which most companies do, you’ll probably end up with marketing that looks as strange as placing a classified ad on a bulletin board.
10. Don’t mistake the Web for the real world. This is not a message that the Internet advocates like to hear, but enthusiasts on the Web are not a great proxy for all of your customers. The most visible people online are enthusiasts. They care much more deeply about the minutiae of your products, they’re usually willing to pay more than the average customer, and they will favor more features at the expense of ease of use. Companies that turn over their product planning to the online crowd typically produce a product that pleases ten percent of the customers and bewilders the other ninety percent.
If you need examples, just check the history of the Sony Clie handheld (beloved online but a massive failure in the market) and the movie Snakes on a Plane.
Companies need to understand that the online enthusiasts are great for some things, but not for others.
Don’t use the online enthusiasts for:
Designing products. Great product design is as much an art as a skill. A really good product designer is skilled at sorting out which features will be truly useful to a large number of customers, and which are nice but expendable. Online enthusiasts, because of their own enthusiasm, are often not capable of making those fine distinctions. It’s useful (and polite) to get their input, but the final decisions should be made by a very wise product planner inside your own company.
Surveying your customer base. A survey form on your website will attract responses from enthusiastic customers who have a lot of spare time on their hands. The results won’t be representative of anyone other than enthusiasts. It’s far better to survey everyone who registered the product, or better yet to do a random sampling through a research company.
Use online enthusiasts for:
Identifying customer problems. The enthusiasts hang out with regular customers on bulletin boards and in user groups. If there are problems, they’ll know about it before you do. Use them as your eyes and ears.
Spreading the word. Just as enthusiasts can help funnel information into your company, if you keep in touch with them online they’ll help you spread good news and support information out to the customer base. What a concept – a customer base that educates itself.
Brainstorming product ideas. Although enthusiasts are not great at product design, they are a fantastic resource for suggesting new product and feature ideas. Ninety percent of those ideas will be impractical or flaky, but ten percent will be well worth considering. Assign some smart employees to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Keeping yourself true to your brand values. We think this is the most important service the online community can do for you. They care about your brand values as much as you do, and unlike you they’re not caught up in the daily pressures of financial reports and sales targets. If you fail to deliver on your promises, they’ll be the first to tell you. Ask for their comments online, and listen to them. You may not enjoy the critiques, but it’s the sort of tough love that most companies desperately need and can’t give themselves.
(This was co-written with colleagues at Rubicon.)