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After reading Markets Are Conversations, please answer the following questions:The Cluetrain Manifesto was written early in the history of mass adoption of online communication. What has changed between the promise of communication online to the reality of where we are currently with online communication?Do you feel there is a middle ground for marketers that lies between pure, unsolicited communication and marketing messaging? If so, what does that middle ground look like? And if no, articulate why not.How do you think marketers can utilize the teachings in this chapter, from owned and paid media standpoints?

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the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
chapter four
the following is the complete fourth chapter of
The Cluetrain Manifesto:
The End of Business as Usual
Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.
back to table of contents
NEXT: Chapter 5: Hyperlinked organizations
Markets Are Conversations
Doc Searls and David Weinberger
When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack
trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships,
whizzing by countless billboards.
Think of a table for two.
– @man
It was April in Paris, several weeks before a big press conference where my client, a
large but rapidly shrinking French computer company, would roll out a wonderful new
computer, the first of its kind. The whole project had been veiled in secrecy for years.
Security was intense. Code names were used. Deep alliances with Big Players were
mentioned only in hushed tones. The company had hired me to develop a strategy for the
rollout. In particular, they wanted a “message,” one that would serve as a tagline for the
event and for all the advertising to follow. A meeting of the company’s marketing
communications people was convened for my analysis of the market and a briefing on a
strategy that would make the press conference great.
The assignment was painfully hopeless. Oh, the new computer was nice and the usual
customers would buy it, but the larger market — the one this company needed to
penetrate — could care less. The company had been too silent too long. With nothing to
lose, I told them the truth.
“We have three problems,” I began. “First, there is no market for your message, least of
all among journalists, who want facts and stories. Second, there is no market for your
secrecy. You have long ignored the market, now they will choose to ignore you. Third,
there really is no market for your press conference. Journalists want to be briefed
the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
They stared at me. I continued:
“Markets are nothing more than conversations. See these magazines? They’re a form of
market conversation. We should already be in their stories. We are key to the subject, but
we’re missing in action after working in secret for years. Our only hope is to talk.
Starting now.”
I outlined a strategy for igniting as much conversation as possible in a very short time,
suggesting some fun, creative, and ultimately pointless ideas. Later, a dozen people came
up and thanked me for telling the truth and giving them new hope (although presumably
for their next jobs).
Then the project manager took me aside and said, “That was brilliant. Now, what’s the
First Things Last
The first markets were markets. Not bulls, bears, or invisible hands. Not battlefields,
targets, or arenas. Not demographics, eyeballs, or seats. Most of all, not consumers.
The first markets were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they
were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and sellers
looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first markets were places for
exchange, where people came to buy what others had to sell — and to talk.
The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some
of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged
someone. There were often conversations about the work of hands: “Feel this knife. See
how it fits your palm.” “The cotton in this shirt, where did it come from?” “Taste this
apple. We won’t have them next week. If you like it you should take some today.” Some
of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely
the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.
Market leaders were men and women whose hands were worn by the work they did.
Their work was their life, and their brands were the names they were known by: Miller,
Weaver, Hunter, Skinner, Farmer, Brewer, Fisher, Shoemaker, Smith.
For thousands of years, we knew exactly what markets were: conversations between
people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say
as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, the artifice of
positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations.
These were the kinds of conversations people have been having since they started to talk.
Social. Based on intersecting interests. Open to many resolutions. Essentially
unpredictable. Spoken from the center of the self. “Markets were conversations” doesn’t
mean “markets were noisy.” It means markets were places where people met to see and
talk about each other’s work.
Conversation is a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.
The Industrial Interruption
The advent of the Industrial Age did more than just enable industry to produce products
much more efficiently. Management’s approach to production and its workers was
the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
quickly echoed in its approach to the market and its customers. The economies of scale
they were gaining in the factory demanded economies of scale in the market. By the time
it was over we had forgotten the one true meaning of the market, and replaced it with
industrial substitutes.
In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote that the rise of industry drove an “invisible
wedge” between production and consumption, a fact Friedrich Engels had noticed over
one hundred years earlier. As production was ramped up to unheard-of rates, the clay pot
of craftwork was broken into shards of repetitive tasks that maximized efficiency by
minimizing difference: interchangeable workers creating interchangeable products.
In the market, consumption also needed to be ramped up — not just to absorb the
increased production of goods, but also to promote people’s willingness to buy the onesize-fits-all products that rolled off mass-production lines. And management wasted little
time noticing the parallels in efficiencies they could achieve all along the productionconsumption chain. If products and workers were interchangeable, then interchangeable
consumers began to look pretty good too.
The goal was simple. Customers had to be convinced to desire the same thing, the same
Model-T in any color, so long as it’s black. And if workers could be better organized
through the repetitive nature of their tasks, so customers were more easily defined by the
collective nature of their tastes. Just as management developed a new organizational
model to enhance economies of scale in production, it developed the techniques of mass
marketing to do the same for consumption.
So the customers who once looked you in the eye while hefting your wares in the market
were transformed into consumers. In the words of industry analyst Jerry Michalski, a
consumer was no more than “a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and
crap cash.” Power swung so decisively to the supply side that “market” became a verb:
something you do to customers.
In the twentieth century, the rise of mass communications media enhanced industry’s
ability to address even larger markets with no loss of shoe leather, and mass marketing
truly came into its own. With larger markets came larger rewards, and larger rewards had
to be protected. More bureaucracy, more hierarchy, and more command and control
meant the customer who looked you in the eye was promptly escorted out of the building
by security.
The product of mass marketing was the message, delivered in as many forms as there
were media and in as many guises as there were marketers to invent them. Delivered
locally, shipped globally, repeated inescapably, the business of marketing devoted itself
to delivering the message. Unfortunately, the customer never wanted to take delivery.
The Shipping View
During the Industrial Age, the movement of materials from production to consumption -from flax to linen and from ore to musket — was a long and complicated process.
Potentially vast markets had potentially vast distribution needs. The development of new
transportation systems eased the burden, and global systems flourished. Even huge
distances could be spanned so that products could be delivered efficiently. Inexorably,
business began to understand itself through a peculiar new metaphor: Business is
shipping. In this shipping metaphor — still the heart and soul of business-as-usual -producers package content and move it through a channel, addressed for delivery down a
distribution system.
the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
The metaphor was effectively applied not just to the movement of physical goods, but
also quickly applied to the packaging and delivery of marketing content. It’s no surprise
that business came to think of marketing as simply the delivery of a different type of
content to consumers. It was efficient to manage, one size could fit many, and the
distribution channel — the new world of broadcast media — was more than ready to
deliver. The symmetry was perfect. The production side of business ships
interchangeable products and the marketing side ships interchangeable messages, both to
the same market, the bigger and more homogeneous, the better.
One problem: there is no demand for messages. The customer doesn’t want to hear from
business, thank you very much. The message that gets broadcast to you, me, and the rest
of the earth’s population has nothing to do with me in particular. It’s worse than noise.
It’s an interruption. It’s the Anti-Conversation.
That’s the awful truth about marketing. It broadcasts messages to people who don’t want
to listen. Every advertisement, press release, publicity stunt, and giveaway engineered by
a Marketing department is colored by the fact that it’s going to a public that doesn’t ask
to hear it.
Marketers felt this truth in their bones, and learned to cloak their messages, to disguise
them as entertainment, to repackage the content as regularly as business learned to vary
this year’s product line. Today, we all know and have come to expect this. We are even
disappointed if it’s not well done. Commercials disguise themselves as one-act plays,
press releases play the part of important stories, and advertising masquerades as
education. Marketing became an elaborate game between business and the consumer, but
the outcome remained fixed. As sophisticated as marketing became, it has never
overcome the ability of people to smell the BS behind all the marketing perfume.
It is not hard to understand, then, that “business is shipping” at times felt more like
“business is war,” another pervasive metaphor. We launch marketing campaigns based on
strategies that target markets; we bombard people with messages in order to penetrate
markets (and the sexual overtones here shouldn’t be dismissed either). Business-as-usual
is in a constant state of war with the market, with the Marketing department manning the
front lines.
Consider the distance we’ve come. Markets once were places where producers and
customers met face-to-face and engaged in conversations based on shared interests. Now
business-as-usual is engaged in a grinding war of attrition with its markets.
No wonder marketing fails.
The Axe in Our Heads
Every one of us knows that marketers are out to get us, and we all struggle to escape their
snares. We channel-surf through commercials; we open our mail over the recycling bin,
struggling to discern the junk mail without having to open the envelope; we resent the
adhesion of commercial messages to everything from sports uniforms to escalator risers.
We know that the real purpose of marketing is to insinuate the message into our
consciousness, to put an axe in our heads without our noticing. Like it or not, they will
teach us to sing the jingle and recite the slogan. If the axe finds its mark we toe the line,
buy the message, buy the product, and don’t talk back. For the axe of marketing is also
meant to silence us, to make conversation in the market as unnecessary as the ox cart.
the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
Ironically, many of us spend our days wielding axes ourselves. In our private lives we
defend ourselves from the marketing messages out to get us, our defenses made stronger
for having spent the day at work trying to drive axes into our customers’ heads. We do
both because the axe is already there, the metaphorical embodiment of that wedge Toffler
wrote about — the one that divides our jobs from our lives. On the supply side is the
producer; on the demand side is the consumer. In the caste system of industry, it is bad
form for the two to exchange more than pleasantries.
Thus the system is quietly maintained, and our silence goes unnoticed beneath the noise
of marketing-as-usual. No exchange between seller and buyer, no banter, no
conversation. And hold the handshakes.
When you have the combined weight of two hundred years of history and a trillion-dollar
tide of marketing pressing down on the axe in your head, you can bet it’s wedged in there
pretty good. What’s remarkable is that now there’s a force potent enough to actually start
loosening it.
Here’s the voice of a spokesperson from the world of TV itself, Howard Beale, the
anchorman in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network who announced that he would commit suicide
because “I just ran out of bullshit.” Of course, he had to go insane before he could at last
utter this truth and pull the axe from his own head.
Networked Markets
The long silence — the industrial interruption of the human conversation — is coming to
an end. On the Internet, markets are getting more connected and more powerfully vocal
every day. These markets want to talk, just as they did for the thousands of years that
passed before market became a verb with us as its object.
The Internet is a place. We buy books and tickets on the Web. Not over, through, or
beside it. To call it a “platform” belies its hospitality. What happens on the Net is more
than commerce, more than content, more than push and pull and clicks and traffic and eanything. The Net is a real place where people can go to learn, to talk to each other, and
to do business together. It is a bazaar where customers look for wares, vendors spread
goods for display, and people gather around topics that interest them. It is a conversation.
At last and again.
In this new place, every product you can name, from fashion to office supplies, can be
discussed, argued over, researched, and bought as part of a vast conversation among the
people interested in it. “I’m in the market for a new computer,” someone says, and she’s
off to the Dell site. But she probably won’t buy that cool new laptop right away. She’ll
ask around first — on Web pages, on newsgroups, via e-mail: “What do you think? Is this
a good one? Has anybody checked it out? What’s the real battery life? How’s their
customer support? Recommendations? Horror stories?”
“I’m in the market for a good desk dictionary,” says someone else, and he’s off to where he’ll find a large number of opinions already expressed:
I love the look of this book, and the publisher did a great job; but I made the
mistake of buying it without realizing that it was first published over 7 years
I’ve had this book for two days and I keep going back to it. I may not be
typical since I collect dictionaries and wanted this when I heard about it last
year, but….
the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
Ugh, they don’t have “aegritudo” but they have the “modern” definition of
These conversations are most often about value: the value of products and of the
businesses that sell them. Not just prices, but the market currencies of reputation,
location, position, and every other quality that is subject to rising or falling opinion.
It’s nothing new, in one sense. The only advertising that was ever truly effective was
word of mouth, which is nothing more than conversation. Now word of mouth has gone
global. The one-to-many scope that technology brought to mass production and then
mass marketing, which producers have enjoyed for two hundred years, is now available
to customers. And they’re eager to make up for lost time.
More ominous for marketing-as-usual is this: finding themselves connected to one
another in the market doesn’t enable customers just to learn the truth behind product
claims. The very sound of the Web conversation throws into stark relief the monotonous,
lifeless, self-centered drone emanating from Marketing departments around the world.
Word of Web offers people the pure sound of the human voice, not the elevated, empty
speech of the corporate hierarchy. Further, these voices are telling one another the truth
based on their real experiences, unlike the corporate messages that aim at presenting
what we can generously call a best-case scenario. Not only can the market discover the
truth in the time it takes to do a search at a discussion archive, but the tinny, selfabsorbed voices of business-as-usual sound especially empty in contrast to the rich
conversations emanating from the Web.
What’s more, networked markets get smart fast. Metcalfe’s Law*, a famous axiom of the
computer industry, states that the value of a network increases as the square of the
number of users connected to it — connections multiply value exponentially. This is also
true for conversations on networked markets. In fact, as the network gets larger it also
gets smarter. The Cluetrain Corollary: the level of knowledge on a network increases as
the square of the number of users times the volume of conversation. So, in market
conversations, it is far easier to learn the truth about the products being pumped, about
the promises being made, and about the people making those promises. Networked
markets are not only smart markets, but they’re also equipped to get much smarter, much
faster, than business-as-usual.
Business-as-usual doesn’t realize this because it continues to conceptualize markets as
distant abstractions — battlefields, targets, demographics — and the Net as simply another
conduit down which companies can broadcast messages. But the Net isn’t a conduit, a
pipeline, or another television channel. The Net invites your customers in to talk, to
laugh with each other, and to learn from each other. Connected, they reclaim their voice
in the market, but this time with more reach and wider influence than ever.
When Push Comes to Suck
The reluctance of business-as-usual to break out of its set way of thinking was perhaps
epitomized best by the Web’s own infatuation with “push technology.” This reached its
zenith in May, 1997, when Wired, the computer industry’s utopian fashion monthly,
boldly declared its wish to supplant the Web with media more suited to advertising. In its
customary overstatement and retinal-torture colors, the magazine devoted its cover and
following eleven pages to “PUSH! Kiss your browser Goodbye: The radical future of
media beyond the Web.” According to the article, the Web was already too demanding
for the average spud, so Wired wanted your inner couch potato to enjoy “a more full
the cluetrain manifesto – chapter four
bodied experience that combines many of the traits of networks with those of broadcast.
Seinfeld viewers know what we’re talking about,” the authors wrote.
Ever since the Web showed up, business-as-usual has desperately tried to pipe-weld it
onto the back end of TV’s history. The money …
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