• May 11, 2010
  • By Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal, The 56 Group

Boarding the Cluetrain

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Remember the “new” marketing? [See February 2010’s “The Shotgun Marriage of Sales and Marketing.”] This shift in approach makes marketing more than just the company’s way of pushing messages at the customer; it instead becomes the first line of conversation between the customer and the company.

The premise for this was established back in 1999 with The Cluetrain Manifesto, a joint effort by authors Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger—and one of the drivers behind the understanding of the social customer’s identity. I’ve converted some of its central principles to a table below that includes my take on them. These precepts are fundamental to how marketers should be thinking about the social customer.

Authenticity Trumps Consistency

The Cluetrain model—marketing for the social customer—is built on the overall experience of the company and how that experience is transmitted to the customer (and other interested parties). Transparency and authenticity are the cornerstones.

From marketing’s standpoint, that means that the human side of the company and its individuals has to be obvious and that multichannel honesty is the actual best policy when it comes to things ranging from service issues to product availability to messaging. To be authentic, what a marketing or public relations maven has to provide is something that is not scripted and not necessarily perfect.

Authenticity doesn’t eliminate the potential for fakery. The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, a blog written by “Fake Steve Jobs,” got a ton of national attention spoofing Apple’s chief executive officer—and it was intentionally hilarious. For a long time, no one knew who the real writer was. It turned out to be Dan Lyons, a columnist then writing for Forbes. No one attacked him for his “inauthenticity” because his intent was clear. He was an authentic fake.

But being authentic isn’t as easy as it sounds, and often involves a culture that’s accustomed to micromanaging messages. Marketers are targeting what has for years been seen as industry nirvana—consistency of messages across all channels—but they’re missing what customers are now looking for: an actual conversation about the company with the representatives of the company.

One large technology company, for example, has managed its messages so tightly that every executive uses the exact same phrasing and even on occasion presents the same slides from speech to speech. While the messages are absolutely consistent and well aligned, they sound so identical that it rings untrue—scripted and fake.

Consistent messaging doesn’t mean identical messaging. It means establishing the content of the message and then letting those who are presenting that message do it in the way that reflects who they are, in their own voices.

Authenticity trumps consistency every time. If you establish that authenticity and make sure it’s reflected in the culture of the company and the way that you sell and market, you’ll have a company trusted by its customers—even if it makes a mistake. Because the model is built on trust, the reputation of the company, not the message, becomes the brand. Make that the initial intent of the branding and marketing, and authenticity becomes an embedded part of the company culture and all of its activities. 

To get to that state, use tools that validate your corporate honesty:

First, have your marketing practices certified through credible third parties such as TRUSTe. That way, your product or other marketing claims seem validated as well.

Second, do what SAP did with its release of sustainability tools in 2009: guarantee that a product is environmentally the best of its class, developing tools that measure the claim based on government standards for sustainability.

Use the tools to support a culture of authenticity. They, in effect, prove the point—verification of authenticity across all channels and in all conversations. But to be able to use the tools effectively, you have to have some idea of the conversation that’s going on—what it’s about and who’s saying what to whom.

The Cluetrain Manifesto Principles

  1. Markets are conversations. Human interactions drive business activities.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors. Individuals are self-interested with personal agendas, regardless of whether they’re in the same customer segment or microsegment.
  3. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge. The emergence of the Web—and tools to communicate via the Web and cell phones—has given rise to new kinds of institutions.
  4. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone. This reflects what is now prevalent with review sites where customers provide better, honest reviews for all to see. They are the users of the products, where the company doesn’t necessarily eat its own dog food. (Especially if the company makes dog food.)
  5. Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch…are no longer speaking to anyone. The “pitch” is like marketing collateral aimed at pushing a product. It’s in the metaphor of the company, not the customer.
  6. Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what’s really going on in the company. Transparency is the new norm, but opacity remains an ingrained tradition. Spinning something—public relations—is the perfect example of this: Companies mask a problem by the way they speak of it.
  7. Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate wall. Customers are interested in conversations that are honest and revealing with real people—whether in person or online.
  8. We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the four-color brochure, for Web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance. Let customers know what’s actually happening. Be transparent in ways that provide to customers knowledge that they can use. They’re immune to collateral because they know it just pushes product—not value.
  9. We’ve got some ideas for you, too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we’d be willing to pay for. Got a minute? Customers are willing to pay a premium for something they want. (Think Starbucks, extended warranties on expensive items, Amazon.com’s Amazon Prime.) Ask them what they want and they will pay the premiums if you provide it for them.
  10. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.  While traditional media is still and will continue to be important, there is something to be said for the “wisdom of the crowd” and its purchasing power.

Paul Greenberg (@pgreenbe on Twitter) is president of consultancy The 56 Group (the56group.typepad.com); a CRM magazine columnist; and chair of the magazine’s CRM Evolution conference (Aug. 2–4, 2010, in New York; www.destinationCRM.com/evolution). The fourth edition of his book CRM at the Speed of Light (McGraw-Hill)—from which this column is adapted—is now available in bookstores and online.

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