Truths in 'Cluetrain Manifesto' coexist with wishful thinking

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If you are in advertising, I urge you to Barnes & Noble it immediately and acquire yourself a copy of "The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual." This compact book says some important and true things about the discipline of marketing communications. It also says some naive and false things. Both are equally significant.

"Cluetrain" has all the earmarks of a phenomenon, even a fad. It may even be near the "tipping point," the moment, as The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell defines it in another enjoyable and ingenuous new book about marketing, when an idea, like a virus, spreads geometrically until it engulfs a population. More on that later.

I first caught the "Cluetrain" virus just three weeks ago. I was at a marketing offsite -- yes, me, who never thought he'd use the word "offsite" in polite company -- and no fewer than three people (a graphic designer, a Web designer and a technology geek) started extolling the authors' "theses" about marketing. There were 95 of them, ostentatiously nailed up on the World Wide Web ( in a rebellion against the marketing church self-consciously modeled on Martin Luther's challenge to Rome. It was the Web site that grew into the Perseus Books publication that grew (with some help from Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Petzinger Jr. and Fast Company magazine) into the phenomenon.

It's not hard to see why. In refreshingly irreverent prose, the four authors -- technology writers and consultants -- take on a marketing culture they believe is founded on the outmoded and counterproductive tenets of subterfuge, conquest and obfuscation.

The Internet, they say, with its ability to network one to one and one to many simultaneously, has rendered this culture and these tactics moot. Hence their first thesis: "Markets are conversations," in which people "have figured out" (thesis #11) "that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors."

Like conversations, the "Cluetrain" conductors say, marketing should speak the language of human beings, not "demographic sectors" (thesis #2). Indeed, much of their work is a latter-day copywriter's handbook. "In just a few more years," they write in thesis #15, "the current homogenized `voice' of business -- the sound of mission statements and brochures -- will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court."

This is thrilling stuff. It translates for the marketing world the research of Columbia University communications professor James W. Carey, who has located a "ritual theory of communication" that values community sustenance over the conquest-based "transmission theory" previously favored by scholars. Unfortunately, for marketers, "Cluetrain" is also based on a false premise.

Markets are not really conversations but places where buyers and sellers meet for the express purpose of consummating a transaction. The very reason for their engagement is to exchange things of material value. Conversation is part of the process but it is not the function of the rendezvous. Rather, conversation serves the purpose of selling.

Confusing markets with conversations is what you'd expect from cubicle-bound techies who believe they've not only invented a wondrous new technology but reinvented the human enterprise. True, the "power of personal recommendation," as ICQ founder Yossi Vardi put it in this space recently, is undeniable. So is the fact that nearly all the entrepreneurs who used it on the Web have made their money solely through their stock holdings or by selling their companies to others. Actual revenues from "viral marketing" have been scarce. Meanwhile, the world is awash with corporations whose vast earnings belie the horrible, negative conversation about them and their products -- with Microsoft and its Windows serving as example No. 1.

Which is why real marketing is rarely viral, but episodic. And why markets generally grow not geometrically, but arithmetically. Any why companies almost never experience the joy of the tipping point, but instead endure the toil of fraction-of-a-share-point combat. People, as it turns out, are happy to listen to conversation, then accept and try out products offered to them for free. But consumers -- which is what people become when they have to spend money -- are often more maddeningly discerning.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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