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.
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.
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.]
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