THE CLUETRAIN CONSUMERS: To a media-saturated generation of jaded consumers, the Cluetrain philosophy is a new dawn. Deborah Bonello investigates

"Most marketing programmes are based on the fear that the market

might see what's really going on inside the company" (Manifesto number

28). Sound familiar? If it does, then you've already come across The

Cluetrain Manifesto.

It's an anarchic polemic from the US that blows standard corporate speak

and business culture out of the water, and lambasts paranoid companies

for failing to communicate in an honest, two-way exchange with their


If you haven't already come across it, then you should make it your

business to do so. For some it's simply a zealous American rant or

poignant rhetoric, others believe that to ignore it could mean the death

of your company.

The main premise set out by Cluetrain's authors, Rick Levine,

Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, is that people are

markets, and that markets are conversations - conversations between

customers, between customers and employees, and between employees. The

rise of the internet has given vent to trillions of conversations via

the web and companies that refuse to listen to these conversations, as

well as engage in them, will fail. Companies need to speak to people

with human voices, as well as listen to what they want, need and


Commerce has become so clinical that it ignores "the natural

conversation that defines communities as human".

If you think this is idealistic or overblown, consider the scenes made

famous in the anti-capitalist riots in Seattle in 1999 and which have

since been seen in major economic centres around the world. Never before

have people had such a strong voice, never have they been so


Consumers are hitting back at uncaring and insensitive corporate

cultures, and marketers who are worried about the effect on their

brand's image could do worse than look to the Manifesto for some


It's not hard to find examples of how the internet has affected


Compare, United Airline's website, with, a site

dedicated to hosting discussion between disgruntled United customers who

feel that they have been badly treated by the travel operator. Another

great example is the Nike viral "sweatshop" e-mail that did the rounds

earlier this year. The company offers personalised shoes, but refused to

print the word "sweatshop" on a pair of its trainers.

The e-mail outlines the conversation between a customer and one of the

sports company's customer service team, in which the employee explains

the company's right to refuse personal ID requests. All this when at the

time the Nike website advertised that the NIKE iD programme is "about

freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are".

It's the difference between propaganda and information; between one-way

traffic and a two-way conversation; between passive observation and

interaction. There are discussions about nearly every major company on

the message boards of websites such as

Consider, too, Manifesto 64: "We will not settle for the four-colour

brochure, for websites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any

substance." Or number 25: "Companies need to come down from their ivory

towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create


The Manifesto, which originated at in America in 1999 and

was then published as a book, has two key implications for advertisers

and marketers. First, it examines the effects that the discourse enabled

by the web is having on marketing strategy, and, second, it highlights

the importance of the web itself as a communications tool that companies

can and should use to build real relationships with their customers.

Nick Jankel-Elliott, the director of strategy and insight at the

new-media branding consultancy Happy Dog Group, is a dedicated advocate

of the Manifesto. "At the time, it highlighted a growing sensitivity to

the authenticity of brands and the meaninglessness of advertising

products as different to what they really were. The public's ability to

find out what they want about a company is slowly challenging

advertising. If advertising is authentic, it resonates. Consumers can't

be fooled. It's not rocket science but it articulates things people have

been thinking for a while. You can spend as much money as you like, but

if you don't respect consumers and employees, then you'll fail."

Lazar Dzamic, the strategy director at the direct and online advertising

agency ehsreatime, says: "The Manifesto has made businesses realise that

building relationships with customers is the name of the game. Without a

genuine dialogue you're dead."

And it's not just the obvious new-media specialists that have embraced

the Manifesto either. The Cluetrain philosophy has struck a chord or two

with forward-thinking clients, too.

"Marketing to date has been all about the transfer of information in one

direction. Online, corporate websites have used guarded language and

one-way speech, which does nothing good for a company," Julius Ladwig,

the head of consumer sciences at Unilever in the UK, says. "Businesses

have tried to create more access to themselves, but only in a one-way

fashion." And this one-way dialogue rarely uses a language we all

understand. Searls refers to such language as "TechnoLatin", which he

describes as "a vocabulary of vague but precise sounding words that work

like the blank tiles in Scrabble: you can use them anywhere but they

have no value".

The real test of Cluetrain's impact, though, will be its effect on

marketing strategy. And already observers believe we're starting to see

Cluetrain influences in some recent high-profile work. Take Fallon's

advertising for Skoda, which built on the premise that Skoda cars were

perceived as having about as much style and engineering finesse as a

skip. The ads use humour to show that people couldn't recognise the car

as a Skoda because it looked so good, and is a brave and more open and

honest approach to advertising. Likewise, Coca-Cola's TV advertising

campaign depicts a young man having a chat and a giggle with his

grandfather while sipping on a Coke, and seems to bring the brand down

to a more one-to-one level than the "It's the real thing" days of


Although it is unlikely that Skoda and Coke marketers were inspired by

pouring over the Manifesto, such changes in strategy do to a certain

extent reflect its preachings. "In some ways ads are becoming more

frank," Rob Lawrence, the creative director for northern regions at IBM,

concedes. Such frankness, though, is the exception rather than the rule.

"Companies can now communicate with their markets directly.

If they blow it, it could be their last chance" (Manifesto number


The web has become a marketing and customer relationship tool. "The

tools are changing, and people now have the power to fight back,"

Lawrence insists.

Interaction, then, is key. Ladwig agrees: "The technology now actually

gives people the power of interaction and reciprocity, and the challenge

for us is to adapt to this."

With the new-media industry battlefield littered with corpses, those

companies that have most effectively harnessed the power of the web to

service their customers stand out a mile. For example, Ebay, the site

that enables people to track down rare and collectable goods as well as

CDs, books and the like, has relied on the element of community to grow

its user base and establish customer loyalty. Ebay is little more than a

marketplace were buyers and sellers meet to haggle and exchange goods,

mainly because it encourages conversation among its users online and

gives people a free reign.

The online retailer Amazon famously allows its users to post reviews on

the web for the perusal of other customers. Lawrence says: "Amazon uses

the voice of all the people who use it, and that makes it a friendly

place. It has allowed people to create its brand for it by maximising

the potential of lots of people's buying power." Surely that gives the

brand much more credibility and integrity than most million-pound

advertising campaigns ever could?

And, as well as the communication muscle of the corporate website, the

internet now also allows companies to communicate on a one-to-one basis

via e-mail. Whereas before companies generally had to rely on mail and

call centres to manage their customer relationships, they now have the

power of e-mail and real-time chat. But although the use of e-mail as a

marketing and CRM channel has never been greater than it is today, few

brands have used the medium effectively.

The cheapness and ease of distribution of e-mail makes many companies

lazy. Businesses have largely failed to invest the necessary research

and customer profiling into their e-mail marketing to make commercial

e-mail messages relevant to the majority of their recipients. Hence the

current industry concerns over spam (unsolicited e-mail marketing) and

the question of whether consumers should have to opt in or opt out of

such marketing programmes.

Likewise, customers more often than not receive standard "TechnoLatin"

e-mail responses to queries and problems submitted via e-mail. Again,

Searls comments that such responses can be as damaging as silence in

some cases: "People talk ... they tell the world that the company that

promises to treat them like royalty doesn't reply to e-mail messages and

makes you pay the shipping cost when you return their crappy

merchandise. The market will find out who and what you are. Count on

it." Cluetrain thinking suggests that companies drop their professional,

corporate facade and allow their employees to respond to customer

queries on a one-to-one, human level.

It claims that corporations have failed to do this to date because of an

innate paranoia that they will be found out for not being who they claim

to be.

Real-world marketers, though, are often a little more realistic.

Jankel-Elliott says that UK companies are slowly moving towards two-way

conversations with their customers, but rightly points out that to do so

requires time and money. "It's costly to train your workforce into the

'feelings' of your brand. You need decent training, generous wages, open

contracts and management. It's hard to change a whole mindset. You have

to walk the talk."

And as Dzamic points out, the rules - if there are any - are constantly

changing: "The new-business strategies can't be set in concrete - like

the web and its users they are always changing. There are only a small

number of rules that are valid for a long period of time, but a lot that

are valid for a short period."

"Some of the ideas set out in the Manifesto are pipe dreams," Lawrence

admits. "Big brands can't afford to talk to the individual in the way

that they want to be talked to."

The Manifesto is tongue-in-cheek, irreverent and unrealistic in places.

Whereas 18 months ago it might have looked like a light snapping on in a

dark room, its main points now seem rather obvious, especially to those

at the industry coal-face. But despite this - and the dramatic events in

the dotcom world over the past months - most companies seem both

unwilling and unable to side-step protocol and speak in a human voice,

both online and offline.

Until big brands embrace more of the Cluetrain thinking, though, the

anti-capitalist rioters just might have a point.


1 Markets are conversations.

2 Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.

3 Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a

human voice.

4 Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting

arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural

and uncontrived.

5 People recognise each other as such from the sound of this voice.

6 The internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were

simply not possible in the era of mass media.

7 Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

8 In both internet-worked markets and among intranet-worked employees,

people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.

9 These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of

social organisation and knowledge exchange to emerge.

10 Markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organised.

Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

11 People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better

information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for

corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditised products.

12 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.

13 What's happening to markets is also happening among employees. A

metaphysical construct called "The Company" is the only thing standing

between the two.

14 Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked

conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound

hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

15 In just a few more years, 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.

16 Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the

dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.

17 Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used

to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.

18 Companies that don't realise their markets are now networked

person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in

conversation are missing their best opportunity.

19 Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they

blow it, it could be their last chance.

20 Companies need to realise their markets are often laughing. At


21 Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They

need to get a sense of humour.

22 Getting a sense of humour does not mean putting some jokes on the

corporate website. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility,

straight talk and a genuine point of view.

23 Companies attempting to "position" themselves need to take a

position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually

cares about.

24 Bombastic boasts - "We are positioned to become the pre-eminent

provider of XYZ" - do not constitute a position.

25 Companies need to come down from their ivory towers and talk to the

people with whom they hope to create relationships.

26 Public relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply

afraid of their markets.

27 By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they

build walls to keep markets at bay.

28 Most marketing programmes are based on the fear that the market might

see what's really going on inside the company.

29 Elvis said it best: "We can't go on together with suspicious


30 Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the

break-up is inevitable -and coming fast. Because they are networked,

smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding


31 Networked markets can change suppliers overnight. Networked knowledge

workers can change employers over lunch. Your own "downsizing

initiatives" have taught us to ask the question: "Loyalty? What's


32 Smart markets will find suppliers who speak their own language.

33 Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlour trick. It can't

be "picked up" at some Tony conference.

34 To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of

their communities.

35 But first, they must belong to a community.

36 Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.

37 If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no


38 Human communities are based on discourse - on human speech about

human concerns.

39 The community of discourse is the market.

40 Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will


41 Companies make a religion of security, but this is largely a red

herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their

own market and workforce.

42 As with networked markets, people are also talking to each other

directly inside the company - and not just about rules and regulations,

boardroom directives, bottom lines.

43 Such conversations are taking place today on corporate intranets. But

only when the conditions are right.

44 Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR

policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their

best to ignore.

45 Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built

bottom-up by engaged individuals co-operating to construct something far

more valuable: an intranet-worked corporate conversation.

46 A healthy intranet organises workers in many meanings of the word.

Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.

47 While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open

intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist

the urge to "improve" or control these networked conversations.

48 When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic

rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like

the conversation of the networked marketplace.

49 Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully

understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders

could be handed down from on high.

50 Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for

hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.

51 Command and control management styles both derive from and reinforce

bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.

52 Paranoia kills conversation. That's its point. But lack of open

conversation kills companies.

53 There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One

with the market.

54 In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost

invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of

command and control.

55 As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken.

Command and control are met with hostility by intranet-worked knowledge

workers and generate distrust in internet-worked markets.

56 These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking

the same language. They recognise each other's voices.

57 Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to

happen sooner.

58 If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ,

then very few companies have yet wised up.

59 However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now perceive

online companies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are

actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.

60 This is suicidal. Markets want to talk to companies.

61 Sadly, the part of the company a networked market wants to talk to is

usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that

rings false - and often is.

62 Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to

participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate


63 De-cloaking, getting personal: we are those markets. We want to talk

to you.

64 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-colour brochure, for websites chock-a-block with eye

candy but lacking any substance.

65 We're also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to

customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a


66 As markets, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our

information by remote control. Why do we need faceless annual reports

and third-hand market research studies to introduce us to each


67 As markets, as workers, we wonder why you're not listening. You seem

to be speaking a different language.

68 The inflated self-important jargon you sling around - in the press,

at your conferences - what's that got to do with us?

69 Maybe you're impressing your investors. Maybe you're impressing Wall

Street. You're not impressing us.

70 If you don't impress us, your investors are going to take a bath.

Don't they understand this? If they did, they wouldn't let you talk that


71 Your tired notions of "the market" make our eyes glaze over. We don't

recognise ourselves in your projections - perhaps because we know we're

already elsewhere.

72 We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating


73 You're invited, but it's our world. Take your shoes off at the door.

If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!

74 We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

75 If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something

interesting for a change.

76 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?

77 You're too busy "doing business" to answer our e-mail? Oh gosh,

sorry, gee, we'll come back later. Maybe.

78 You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.

79 We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic

self-involvement, join the party.

80 Don't worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it's not

the only thing on your mind.

81 Have you noticed that, in itself, money is kind of one-dimensional

and boring? What else can we talk about?

82 Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your

corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your

CEO. What do you mean she's not in?

83 We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one

reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

84 We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do

you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and


85 When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you

didn't have such a tight rein on "your people" maybe they'd be among the

people we'd turn to.

86 When we're not busy being your "target market", many of us are your

people. We'd rather be talking to friends online than watching the

clock. That would get your name around better than your entire

million-dollar website. But you tell us speaking to the market is

marketing's job.

87 We'd like it if you got what's going on here. That'd be real nice.

But it would be a big mistake to think we're holding our breath.

88 We have better things to do than worry about whether you'll change in

time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems

to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

89 We have real power and we know it. If you don't quite see the light,

some other outfit will come along that's more attentive, more

interesting, more fun to play with.

90 Even at its worst, our new-found conversation is more interesting

than most trade shows, more entertaining than any TV sitcom, and

certainly more true-to-life than the corporate websites we've been


91 Our allegiance is to ourselves - our friends, our new allies and

acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Companies that have no part

in this world, also have no future.

92 Companies are spending billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can't they

hear this timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.

93 We're both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that

separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they're

really just an annoyance. We know they're coming down. We're going to

work from both sides to take them down.

94 To traditional corporations, networked conversations may appear

confused, may sound confusing. But we are organising faster than they

are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.

95 We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we

are not waiting.