Conversations are not markets, people!

Ten years ago The Cluetrain Manifesto claimed, in the first of its 95 Theses, that “markets are conversations”. Unfortunately, this has led marketers to continue to believe that the reverse is also true — that all conversations are markets.

Or, more precisely, marketers believe that all places where humans gather to converse are places where they can and should take their marketing message.

Some marketers, anyway.

The marketers I want to slap.

This isn’t helped by some later theses of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Unless you read these next two very carefully…

38. Human communities are based on discourse — on human speech about human concerns.

39. The community of discourse is the market.

… you could end up believing that all human discourse is nothing but a market! That in turn leads to the “marketing everywhere” idea.

This. Belief. Is. Wrong.

Now the “markets are conversations” meme isn’t bad, as far as it goes.

The Cluetrain Manifesto

There is indeed a continuing conversation about the need for and value of the myriad goods and services on offer. That conversation takes place between businesses and potential customers, and amongst the customers themselves. It can eventually lead to that bit of conversation called “purchasing”. It also continues after purchase too, as people discuss the actual value they’re receiving, compared with their perceptions beforehand.

A core message of The Cluetrain Manifesto is that these conversations take place regardless of whether the business is listening and participating effectively or not.

There are other messages too, and a decade later The Cluetrain Manifesto is still worth a read.


The problem is that the entire focus of The Cluetrain Manifesto is “business” and “markets” — all that buying and selling stuff. Other important conversations in human society are being forgotten.

Now this whole essay was triggered by three things…

First, that presentation at the top of the post, Marta Kagan’s What the F**K is Social Media: One Year Later. At one level it’s a reasonable introduction to social media for marketers, and it does make the point that “it’s supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue”. But that only happens on slide 46 — more than half-way through!

The first half of the presentation is all numbers. Big numbers. 3.6 billion photos on Flickr. 5 million supporters of Barack Obama. 1 billion links shared on Facebook every week. Two-thirds of the global Internet population “visiting” social networks. (I thought you participated in a social network, but never mind.) Lots of big numbers. The kinds of numbers which raise a marketer’s pulse rate and get them going, “I need to be there and sell these people something!”

I wonder whether this presentation, despite eventually making the point about dialogue, is… unhelpful.

Second, my friend Kate Carruthers’ blog post Get lots of followers on Twitter?.

With all the cravings some people have to gather lots of Twitter followers, Kate wonders what it’s all for.

Are [social networks] just a place to aggregate all the consumers to facilitate better focused corporate marketing? That does seem to be the attitude of the many people who exhort me to ‘click here to get lots of followers’ and the like.

The other thing that happens a lot is people challenging me to show ‘the power of my network’ by asking followers to do something (usually sign up for a conference or something).

I hate this approach to social networks. To me they are community gathering places not centres of commerce. Sure asking people to take social or charitable action fits in. But commercial exercises feel very unnatural.

It feels like it is almost time to throw the ‘money changers’ out of our social networks. Is commerce the only truly valuable thing we can do with social networks?

Kate’s thoughts are echoed by Stephen Collins over at Money lenders, temple, door — and some interesting discussion kicked off over there.

Third, I read Jonathan Crossfield’s response to these posts, Social network marketing isn’t evil! — to which I’ll now do complete injustice by quoting just two fragments out of a well-reasoned whole:

Sales advertising is only one aspect of marketing, but it is the aspect most people seize upon as characteristic of the industry. I am a marketer who uses social media as a tool in building relationships that — in turn — can benefit the company financially. Often indirectly. That, to me, is marketing. Putting up promotional link after promotional link is merely advertising…

Kate laments social networks being seen by marketers as a centre of commerce. I would suggest this is unavoidable and is certainly not a negative trend. A centre of commerce is always going to be where the people gather. Google is a centre of commerce — hence SEO was born. Town centres are a centre of commerce which is why shops charge more rent there. Television broadcasters are a centre of commerce for advertisers because they have the audience.

Social networks are no different. Marketers are not wrong for describing networks as a business opportunity. Some are just misguided in how they exploit that opportunity.

Jonathan’s right: we shouldn’t tar all marketers with the same brush. Some folk are “doing it right”. But if he sees those gatherings of people as nothing more than another business opportunity, he’s wrong. Very wrong.

Yes, there are shops in the town centre because that’s where people gather. But there are also council chambers, parks, churches (or mosques or synagogues or temples as you wish), schools and universities, playgrounds, hospitals, law courts, libraries and concert halls.

Where people gather to engage in the dialogues we call family picnic, tutorial, marriage ceremony, criminal trial, prayer, diagnosis or concerto, messages of commerce have no place. Indeed, probably none of those conversations should intrude on the others either.

In the physical world, we separate these conversations into different physical locations, and mark them with signs and symbols so everyone’s clear about the context.

Even without overt signs, we can usually tell whether we’d be welcome to join a particular conversation or not. In a public park, for example, we know we can join the audience of a political speaker stood on his soapbox and, perhaps, argue with him, but we’re not welcome to join the family picnic of complete strangers.

Twitter bird cartoon by Hugh MacLeod

The problem is that we have yet to develop online signs and symbols of demarcation. All these disparate conversations are dumped together in the same “places”.

Twitter, for example, is an undifferentiated stream of conversations. The conversations can be anything from a silly game like twitterfisting to a serious conference-based discussion or even a kind of religious observance. While hashtags are perhaps a beginning, not everyone uses them. And in any event, the conversation can shift and morph so quickly — even with multiple conversations involving the same individuals happening in parallel — that’s it’s difficult to see where the boundaries lie.

I’m wondering, therefore, whether the boundaries of conversation are no longer at the level of the venue, but of the individual, and the individual moment in time.

For me, the fact that I’m “on Twitter” doesn’t of itself indicate whether I’m being serious or having fun, looking for a solution for a work problem (where a commerce-like response might even be welcome!) or being a smart-arse (when it wouldn’t).

Indeed, in my always-on hyperconnected life, being “on Twitter” is almost a meaningless concept. It’s a bit like asking whether I’m “on electricity”, when it’s always on, with various gadgets “doing things with electricity” whether I’m paying attention or not.

Being “on Twitter” as opposed to “on Facebook” or “on email” is also a pointless distinction, since I’m likely to have all of those things open on my computer all at once. However I may or may not be personally paying attention to them at that particular moment.

That’s why I can’t quite agree with Kate’s point that “social networks… are community gathering places not centres of commerce” because, as Jonathan points out, centres of commerce are very much community gathering places. Community gathering places include centres of commerce. But they include many other things besides.

The issue, therefore, is not whether social networks are a suitable venue for marketing messages. They are. The real issues are where and when it’s appropriate, and how it’s done. So where are those boundaries?

[Credit: Cartoon Twitter-bird courtesy of Hugh MacLeod. Like all of Hugh’s cartoons published online, it’s free to use.]

22 Replies to “Conversations are not markets, people!”

  1. I agree that it is dangerous for businesses to look at social media (or ‘gatherings of people’) as nothing more than sales opportunities. That would be akin to a TV channel deciding that the adverts were more important than the programs and sacrificing shows in favour of wall to wall commercials. It is the other aspects of these gatherings that make them gatherings in the first place.

    Marketers should know (I say ‘should’ because — well, you know — idiots abound) that the audience isn’t there for them but for these other alternative reasons.

    Now, I want to take your park and picnic analogy and stretch it. Certainly, if someone came up to a picnicking group of people and tried to leaflet them, they would get a terrible and negative response. But, remember, the central tenet of conversation marketing as put forward by Cluetrain and others, is that you need to get invited to the picnic.

    If I invite friends to a picnic, they all have jobs and work for various companies etc. If, during the course of our sandwiches and lemonade I should mention I’m having trouble with my bank and my friend who I have invited to the picnic works at a competing bank, it would only be natural for him to offer a solution (transfer to me and I’ll sort out your account) and for me to expect that kind of support. That doesn’t feel like a marketing push but a friendly offer of help.

    We’ve all done it — talked shop at a social gathering. To me, this is the least offensive and most influential form of conversation marketing. Someone who is on Twitter says they’re having a problem or asks for advice and I offer a solution.

    1. With you this Jonathan. Mostly.
      Sure, you’re happy for people to offer ‘solutions’, introductions/connections, consultancy when you mention you need help, and you do the same — when the offer is _invited_!

      Naturally, we can end up talking shop at picnics, raves, in the playground picking our kids up from school… though that’s not the purpose of these gatherings.

      Irritatingly, some people manipulate conversations at social gatherings so they can pitch. (I’m no longer friends with the people I’ve known who have tried pushing AMWAY etc at social gatherings).

      It just seems to happen online more often.

      1. @Stuart Ridley: Sometimes I wonder whether that kind of marketer has failed to develop Theory of Mind, that ability most of us get at age 4 which allows us to understand that other people have their own mental states, desires and needs which may not coincide with our own. If that’s the case, then such marketers really are sub-human. There. I’ve said it.

        1. Not just marketers, Stil. I terrifyingly often come across people who demonstrate a complete inability to consider the mental states of others. Some of these people are psycopaths. But most are just ignorant, selfish cnuts playing their awful music too loud on the train or pushing in front of me in queues because, well, they’re in a rush!

  2. @Jonathan Crossfield: I’m with you on the picnic analogy. The key point there is also one that’s in The Cluetrain Manifesto: the bit about conversations being between individuals, some of whom may work for or own a business.

    In your example, we didn’t invite The Bank to the picnic. We invited our friend. Our friend then did a human thing: he offered help. And I agree, there’s nothing to complain about there — provided he then doesn’t whip out a sign-up form, but says something like, “Give me a call on Monday and we’ll sort it out.”

    Shame about the other arseholes, though.

  3. As ever, cogent and to the heart of the issue. So much better argued than the lightweight effort I made. Indeed, the comments on my post to which you link above strongly suggest that even the non-evil marketing folk tend to believe the “all” rather than “some” view of the inverse of Manifesto #1 — that all conversations are also markets.

    It was this belief and the accompanying practices that prompted me, and I think, Kate, to our original posts. It’s also the reason I am making a deliberate point in my work to focus on long term strategic value of conversation if I’m talking to someone about social networks and their business.

    I may even move to simply being a user and educated commentator on social networks rather than offering my advice as a part of my business. I am over the unpleasant intrusion of marketing by some into the communities I am a part of and I want not to be identified with it.

    Having commented now at length, I will away. I’ll return later to pinch this and make it into my own blog post.

  4. What we have is a missing, new manifesto; a new description of where we are today in a Hyperconnected world. @mpesce, I am looking at you. Cluetrain was born in a different time, with different pressures and incidents.

    I attempted to get your sentiments in my The Opera is Dying post… but allegories are difficult methods of communicating.

    Prediction: Ultimately, Social Media Marketing will be seen as a #FAIL as large organisations neglect to alter their culture to a person to person mode. Commerce will not stop. The world will continue. And the trend monkies will migrate to the new black.

  5. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m *on* it. Seriously. You’ll start seeing meaningful output in the next 14 days. Or thereabouts. Roughly. Probably. Mostly. This offer void in TAS and ACT. Do not fold, spindle or mutilate. Parts may digest before opening. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

  6. Stil — Get ready for defensiveness and backlash … The defensiveness takes a predictable form, that corporate intrusion into conversation is okay if “it’s done right”. The backlash will be simpler and more direct: that business has a right to push into conversation, and that, in fact, all conversation really is business.

    The unknowable is the individual’s response to an approach. Perhaps I wanted to hear from the bank just after I twitter about breakfast, perhaps not. If I welcome the approach, then the approach worked. If not, then not only did the approach fail, but it probably made me hostile to future approaches. It’s hard to define a “right” approach, when the rights and wrongs are defined not by the approach, but by the recipient.

    In Twitter, it can be said that at least some kind of consent exists, since I don’t hear from Dell (for example) if I don’t follow Dell.

    But underlying the “you will succeed if you do social media marketing right!” message is an assumption that, in essence, the marketer can claim a right to be heard (which is an inversion, a recasting of the right to speech in the passive voice, so as to imply an obligation on the hearer which does not exist).

    Hostility to marketing messages is, however, not only natural but defensible. I do not owe myself, as an audience, nor my communications channels, to businesses merely to satisfy their desire to market to me. Given that a company is not a “person”, I don’t even owe civility to the business message, any more than I owe readership to catalogues in my letterbox.

    (Wow. That’s circular; it ends up where I started, that the recipient is the sole determinant of the “right” way to do social media (and all) marketing. I will now stop, before I imitate the Foo-Foo bird of legend.)

  7. Thanks for another thought provoking essay. Of course, some will just find it provoking. Marketing intrudes wherever it can — the branding of the picnic coffee mugs, the Tee-shirts participants wear. But it doesn’t stop some of our social interactions being just about connecting with people. Perhaps we could turn this into a measure of people that ‘get it’. Horrifying thought. A bridge too far. However, good socmed environments give us the power to block, follow or unfollow.

    We connect simultaneously to several different subcommunities and part of that includes a seriously Darwinian view on who can join. Intrusive marketers leave the tribe pretty quickly. I worked with one OSS company I liked to try and explain that Socmed marketing was different because of the need to build rapport. Press releases are blatted out without rapport — you are interested or not. Rapport was not in their lexicon, and sadly, eventually, even I unfollowed them. We have the power to ignore those that ignore social rules.

    My concern is that many people are joining these networks without understanding how abrupt we sound in emails and 140 characters. I have email traffic from 20 years ago and it’s just plain embarrassing how aggressive and unsympathetic I sounded. I’ve looked at the responses to Minister Tanner’s first blog and I see behaviour that would never occur (I hope) in a face-to-face meeting. How much time in our early communities did we spend trying to prevent ‘flame wars’. Now we have individuals and hungry marketers unleashed into social communities without the tempering of experience. Can it be true that Twitter usage grew 800% in Australia from Jan to Feb 2009? If so, what does that mean for new arrivals eager for the bounty that they have been promised, and older users like myself, entrenched in my little network?

    The same conflicts arise in the physical world, but one of your points is that we have ways of understanding these. Even so, marketing appears everywhere. One hypermarketer earnestly believes that one should never eat alone — meals are another opportunity to network (business network) that should never, ever be wasted. I accept that person has earned their success. I also choose not to live like that.

    I understand Cluetrain is being updated — but without the marketing hype and focus, could Twitter have ever taken off? The Oprah phenomenon alone created a measurable leap in membership. But what then? How do we manage our conversations? Your answer sums it up — our many simultaneous roles and conversations are now revealed to a wider audience. I talk XR6 (Motor vehicle), photography and EVE Online with one person, Religion with another, and support a gay couple setting up a video broadcasting operation out of NYC. Each conversation is different — each group is independent. All are welcome to participate. The disrespectful or intrusive leave the Tribe with one click.

  8. Very true. I’ve been speaking on this re the microcosm of food bloggers. Just because you’re playing around online doesn’t mean you want a marketer to barge in or start sending press releases. On the blog side I’m up for an opt in list of people who don’t mind recieving PR stuff. The beauty of blogs is that they aren’t led by the PR that hits mainstream media. It’s real. Nice to hear someone who knows how to use “myriad” too.

  9. I can recommend this year’s Reith lectures — Michael Sandel makes a similar point. There is more to life than markets — moral, spiritual and political values have all been monetized in the last 20 years, and now the market society has had it’s comeuppance.

    I have written more on this at

    What surprised me was the degree of hostility to the comments expressed — demonstrates how deeply economic values are embedded and held as the new religion. Check out the depth of feeling in some of the comments on

  10. It’s not just conversations. This opinion piece from Bobbie Jonson from The Guardian UK on the free on-line game Evony ( ) explores another aspect of marketing.


    “Quite possibly. If you’ve been anywhere near the internet in recent weeks, you may well have noticed the vast number of promotions for a game called Evony – campaigns on websites featuring buxom fantasy queens; countless Google ads and (more disturbingly) millions of spam comments left on blogs.

    On the surface, Evony is a pretty standard online strategy game – a simulation in which players take the role of a medieval noble who must build up an empire. But the way the game has been marketed has created a bit of a stir: the games marketer Bruce Everiss has charted the volume of spam being sent by its creators, while Jeff Atwood, a US programmer and blogger, has documented the ads’ increasingly racy nature – from a simple medieval warrior promising the game would be “free forever”, through a string of increasingly racy images … until, finally, it was simply advertising itself by showing a pair of breasts.

    “Thanks for showing us what it means to take advertising on the internet to the absolute rock bottom … then dig a sub-basement under that, and keep on digging until you reach the white-hot molten core of the Earth,” he wrote last week.”


    I attended a recent ACS (Australian Computer Society) event where the use of Twitter as a marketing tool was discussed (by a marketing company). It has also been discussed in Accounting Journals discussing both the benefits and the pitfalls. One of the articles provides an account of how several organisations have got it wrong as the people they entrust with marketing are also social animals. In place of the old model ( a lengthy campaign thought through in detail ) Twitter is a place of instant responses and as the articles stress ‘reputation is everything’ and it can be ruined in an instant on Twitter.

  11. Thank you, everyone, for such thoughtful comments. It’s very much appreciated. I won’t try to respond to every point made. Yet.

    While discussion here has been civilised — thank you! — elsewhere that hasn’t been the case. That’s a fundamental of human nature.

    I’ve been influenced again by James Burke’s 1985 TV series, The Day The Universe Changed. In the first episode he makes the point that we are what we believe. That as a society we are literally defined by our beliefs.

    A challenge to our beliefs is therefore a challenge to us. We therefore defend our beliefs. Sometimes, we’re prepared to defend our beliefs to the death. The Cold War was all about defending Our Way Of Life.

    The marketers who spam Twitter with nothing but endless hyperlinks, or the person who walks into a family picnic and starts handing out flyers for dry cleaning, probably genuinely believes that what they’re doing is acceptable. Those who respond with aggression are just as certain it’s not. Indeed, they respond aggressively because the behaviour is so far from their own social norms that it marks their opponent as something less than civilised, so their response in turn need not be civil.

    This also drives the phenomenon where people don’t merely choose not to follow the spammers on Twitter, they actively block them and, often, loudly complain about them so word of the anti-social behaviour is spread through the tribe.

    Just writing this is triggering even more thoughts, but they’ll have to wait until after breakfast…

  12. That’s the beauty of the online conversation we now have — it is self-regulating. Not perfectly, it has a long way to go, but poor marketing strategies — just like poor content or poor taste — wither on the vine. Those that understand the nature of the space and seamlessly integrate themselves manage to spread organically and incredibly fast, with the users willingly complicit in joining the marketing machine.

    We’re happy to participate with marketing in these spaces when it either speaks directly to an immediate need we have or if it entertains and engages in a way we are comfortable. Most of this marketing is therefore less overt and can potentially fly under the radar. I suspect we are exposed to marketing in social networks far more often than we recall when discussing issues like this — even an individual on Twitter is marketing traffic for his AdSense filled blog when he or she shares content with us and invites debate. It’s just that we have no issue with those that complement our social network activities.

  13. While this essay was not just about the commerical implications, its discussion of them was not dissimilar to the traditional challenge of reaching an audience with a relevant message at a relevant time.

    Reader’s Digest, for example, was doing that through the letterbox very successfully in the second half of the 20th century because the letterbox was the place consumers were ready to engage. Telstra recontracted a lot of customers through telemarketing in the 1990s/early 2000s because its customers were engaging with them through that channel.

    But things change and while channels like the letterbox and telemarketing are still very effective for some messages, there now have other channels to work with. And when we’re talking about online channels, we are dealing with conduits for a message that are very fast and relatively inexpensive. Both these features don’t exactly encourage investment in the quality of those messages.

    Discussions like this one are happening because the novelty of putting words out to lots of people (whether in Twitter, Facebook (where did MySpace go?), blogs etc) is passing. We now look for quality in these words and expressions. And that is leading to questions like those above around how we can most easily assess that quality and relevance.

    We know not to call after 9pm. We know not to leave 5 message in a day. We know not to doorknock before breakfast. Without normed protocols marketing messages in “social media” are like those fundraisers who operate in shopping centres and street corners – ie throw enough lines out and something will bite. (And if you need to, grab the fish and corner it until it jumps on the damn thing.)

    But unless society values this outcome, it will not become the norm. Whether your social media is a face-to-face conversation, phone call, letter or Facebook posting, if you’re not adding something of value to the dialogue the conversation will not last.

  14. @Kimoto and @Steve Price: Yes, this is all part of us all working out the “appropriate” rules for behaviour in the new environments. Except that the environments and their rules change quickly too, so people who just blunder in without staying in touch personally are more likely to commit a faux pas.

    “Whatever happened to MySpace?” It’s still there, with more than 100 million unique visitors every month. But it has stopped growing. As TechCrunch said in January:

    Facebook, still a private company, is the world’s default social network. MySpace is still the king in the US, but trends suggest that 2009 is its last year on top. By January 2010, at current relative growth rates, Facebook will overtake MySpace as the largest US social network as well.

    It’s just that with the news focus on fast-growth Internet start-ups, a company doesn’t get mentioned unless it’s still growing faster than a malignant cancer. Like Twitter is.

  15. re “The problem is that the entire focus of The Cluetrain Manifesto is “business” and “markets” — all that buying and selling stuff,” I think if you had read beyond the theses, like my first chapter, for instance, you would not have made such a statement. And it’s so easy to do!

    I basically agree with you. Conversations are not markets, and such reversals of Doc’s great one-liner are extremely unfortunate, to say the least. While Cluetrain was marketed as a “Business book,” I think it became a bestseller precisely because it lobbed such a big FUCK YOU at business. That was certainly my position ten years ago, and it remains so today. I once thought the net might encourage business to become more humane, but that clearly has not happened in most cases. I am sickened by much of the use Cluetrain has been put to by rapacious idiots in search of ever-increasing profits. My “other blog” – Mystic Bourgeoisie – has sought to uncover much deeper causes of this cultural psychosis. Do have a look.

Comments are closed.