Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Corporate Communications: Company Websites As Conversational Marketplace Meeting Grounds

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This is a little rare gem, a flower still to bloom, for all those of you who have yet not made the choice to read the Cluetrain Manifesto, a best-selling book, which has definitely and forever marked our understanding and vision for what the online based marketplaces will rapidly evolve into. Seen by traditional media and corporate management as an excessively radical and utopian writing, the Cluetrain remains to this day (it was first published in 2000!) one of the fundamental references for anyone interested in corporate marketing communications and the role these will play into the online future of many a company.

The article that follows is in fact the introduction of the Italian version of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which I accidentally discovered within the long lost and forgotten archives of Italian online entrepreneur Antonio Tombolini, who I have recently interviewed on the up and coming ebook revolution.

Nonetheless the long time passed since the writing of this book introduction, I find Antonio's summary of the Cluetrain ideas and sensitivity for such a largely misunderstood need to rethink the way we do and communicate business to be a true refresher for my eyes. I have obtained therefore permission from him to re-edit a little his original work, and to republish it in its entirety.


Photo credit: Amazon Cluetrain Manifesto - the cover

How the Internet Changes Everything

The Internet holds revolutionary consequences for:

  1. The relationship between a company and its marketplace
  2. The relationship between a company and its employees
  3. The private and personal lives of all of us

To summarize:

1. The relationship between the company and the marketplace

Photo credit: Vova Pomortzeff

Companies have built up their fortunes using a marketing relationship model with well-defined roles: I produce, you consume. And the greater your consumption in terms of quantity, and the more alike in terms of quality (i.e. homogeneous, mass-market), the more I stand to gain, thanks to the economies of scale that I can attain.

The paradigm of functional communication in this type of company-marketplace relationship is that of broadcasting, of a communication channel from the one to the many, pitched equally at everyone. This model has given birth to mass-media, and most prominently to television.

The contents of television broadcasting are not what the spectator perceives as being "contents". A movie shown on television is not the content itself, as the film appears on television solely as container for advertising. A vehicle to achieve maximum reach of the product name and brand among consumers - considered not as individuals, but as abstract "segments", the fruit of socio-demographic analysis.

With the Internet, individuals who make up the market can respond to and interact directly with any company.

They are no longer passive consumers. They have gained a voice, they can send mail, write inside forums and within newsgroups, recount their misadventures on their own homepages, including, in their capacity as consumers, those they have endured at the hands of companies they have dealt with.

And one thing is certain: more and more consumers are connecting to the Internet, growing knowledgeable about its nature, and making full use of the possibilities that this medium available to them.

Faced with this new relationship challenge, the company can adopt only one of two attitudes.

The first is to behave as if nothing is happening, or, worse, adopt self-protective measures .

Following this approach creates the Megasites of Megacorporations, like barricaded fortresses, heavy on chrome, special effects, and decorative glitz, but lacking even the most basic interaction intelligence. The Internet gets used as if it was television, using the logic of a broadcaster.

What is consumer reaction to such companies?

Quite simply, they turn them into the butt of consumer jokes. And since there is no space allocated to communicate directly with the people supposedly behind each Megasite, they will do so - without the Megacorporation even noticing - wherever there is space: on their homepages, within the sign-off paragraph of all their messages, in newsgroups, in forums...everywhere possible! And so the laugh grows ever louder and will, in the end, ruin all megasite-like companies.

The other possible attitude is to take the opposite standpoint: overcome fear, knock down barriers, and use the company Website as a meeting ground between the company and the marketplace (even if, what this will generate will not always be pleasing to the company top management), and between the company and every customer, each with his own voice.

Of course it will not be enough to simply create a space in which to talk, ask questions, respond, communicate; it will be necessary for any "enlightened" company to behave with integrity and responsibility.

If, in response to a request from a client, the company replies "Thanks, you're quite right!", that company would better take rapid action on the relevant matter, or it will risk that its customer will soon start venting again their annoyance with the company "all talk and no action approach" to everyone.

If, on the other hand, the company reckons that this person is completely wrong, it would be better for the company to say this openly, directly and publicly, as the client himself has done, while being prepared to face a hot debate on the matter online. But it must be well reasoned: if there is one thing the Internet will not tolerate, it's meaningless, artificious posturing.

Do the above, and you're certain to attract an avalanche of "whys?" which your company should answer with the greatest possible speed. And as it's pretty well certain that the company is going to make mistakes, you can bet that people are going to have a good laugh at its expense. But see, in this instance such laughter will not prove destructive: rather it will be shared, liberating - the first to laugh at its mistakes will be the company itself, quickly amending its own errors, while apologizing publicly.

The true communication model of this type of relationship is no longer the unilateral and passive communication of television broadcasts. The new communication model is participatory, the free-for-all of the town square, the public forum, the market place in the sense in which that term was understood in ancient times, as illustrated by the way in which many town squares were called simply "Market Square", a place where exchange, discussion, encounter would take place; in short a true meeting place of humanity in all its diversity.

The relationship between the company and its employees

Photo credit: Tamás Ambrits

Where traditional organizations are concerned, the model of internal company structure (as described for decades by countless tiresome books on management) is one inspired by the twin concepts of command and control.

Each person in the organization has someone else to command and to control, and is in his turn commanded and controlled by someone else. This remains the case even if the boss has attended the very latest courses on "How to achieve the greatest possible democratization of your workforce".

This type of organization is designed to function well in the area of mass production: a great many products, all identical, are processed most efficiently by large groups of workers, each executing the precise task allocated to them, limiting to a minimum any margin for deviation. If within this process there should occur from time to time anything that raises the spirits, this will quickly be termed a "benefit" and it will also disappear as fast as it came.

The working internal communication model relevant to this kind of organization is that of "Allocation of Duties".

Everyone always knows exactly what she is to do. And if she doesn't, it's because someone else has failed to follow Procedure. And so we have meetings on Procedure. (The truth is that the night before, the operative who was due to dispatch The Allocation of Duties broke up from his fiancée, and that morning he had really lost it, but there was no-one to whom he could explain why his allocation of duties demanded that one must nevertheless remain at one's desk for the full eight hours.)

Thus communication follows hierarchical pathways, a sort of internal broadcasting, from one to the many.

The President can communicate with each and every unit on the Organization Chart, because all the other units are under his, a kind of Immobile Driving-force of the entire organization.

The lower ranks can communicate only with those immediately below them. In order to communicate with those above, or with another branch of the hierarchical tree, it is necessary to obtain the permission from the unit above. In this manner, efficiency, control and precision are ensured.

With the arrival of the Internet inside the corporate communications world each employee is able to communicate with any other, at any given instant. And if his company fails to supply him with an email address, he will use his private one. In other words: with the arrival of the Internet, each worker turns out to be one of a kind, and rediscovers that, if on the one hand he is the 'employee' of a company, creating products for the consumer, on the other, she is the consumer himself!

And just as the Internet frees her up in her capacity as a consumer, it liberates her also in her capacity as a worker, an employee of the company.

With the Internet each individual employee can participate in company matters, put in his pennyworth on everything, write to the President or correspond with an angered client, quite independently of her 'position', or the position of his 'cell' within the Company Chart.

And if her company will not create the space and the tools to enable such participation, the employee will find others, and will sneer at the latest, secretive, diktat of his boss, who will never have any idea that this is happening.

She will speak of her company to her friends, and tell stories about the comic and useless meetings she attends, and what a flop the new product due to be launched next summer turns out to be...and she'll have a good laugh about it, and the colleagues with whom she communicates will join in, as will her friends, and the clients who have become her friends.

The laughter will grow at an unstoppable pace, and will destroy each corporate communication policy and customer service procedure and will subvert the structure of every organizational chart left.


Unless the company itself (for what is the company other than the sum of the people who work in it? And, indeed, its suppliers and clients?) makes the decision to throw into the ring its decision-making processes, its uncertainties, its results; and places at the disposal of each employee adequate space (and the appropriate climate!) to allow for a true, participatory, level of communication, with each person investing the best they have to offer.

This is a company in which everyone will laugh at their own mistakes, and tease each other off for having made them - but openly, constructively and together.

But who will be in command in this new type of company? And who will control such a company?

The answer is simple: no-one.

So who will guarantee that this company will function as it should?

Even simpler: no-one.

Worrying? Well, yes, a little - but that's how things really are. And all the bureaucratic machinery composed of Command, Control, Positions, Hierarchy and Procedure used inside traditional organizations serve no purpose other than to conceal this simple truth: there is not, nor can there ever be, any guarantee of success for anyone company out there.

After all, from such a novel viewpoint , the company may start again looking like something we are all intimately familiar with... our own lives!

3. The private and personal lives of all of us

Photo credit: Zsolt Nyulaszi

We live in a civilized country, and within an advanced economy, which guarantees previously unheard of levels of comfort. So what else should we be seeking?

We are looking to find ourselves.

The Great Corporation is a Business system that has filled our lives with gadgets, objects, services, favours and rich rewards. But which has, in exchange, removed something whose absence we become aware, from time to time, via a vague feeling of unease and anxiety: ourselves.

Business as usual has been in fact removing ever larger slices of our own personal existence.

In our work we are merely cells within an Organisation Chart, occupying a certain Position, called on to execute orders, often a matter of sending out further orders to whoever occupies the cell below ours. With this work style, we leave daily our real selves at home, well away from the factory gates, from the door of our offices.

Our enthusiasms, our passions, our knowledge, our ideas and our greater potential remain mostly at home, as they are never called for inside the company, and when we let it surface it is most often categorized as an unwelcome interruption.

Whoever tries to bring in greater passion, enthusiasm and new ideas will either be marginalized, or tolerated as a simple fool.

Such is the world of work we have created.

But the working day comes to an end, thank goodness, and then... Free Time!

And now, having divested ourselves of our Work uniform, we are suddenly required to put on the uniform of the Consumer: to choose a particular scarf (and no other), to buy that particular car (and no other - or not buy one at all!), see that film, eat that snack, watch a TV show, make a certain journey... ah yes, free time!

And so, almost unconsciously, our enthusiasms, interests, passion and knowledge are again left far behind us in the pursuit of such well-earned consumerist rewards. And along with them we gradually lose ourselves... our most authentic part... the pulsating energy which has no true deep interest, engagement, and no more sparks of enthusiasm gradually fades away. Until we become cynical, detached, uncaring.

The Internet does not offer a solution to such angst.

The Internet is, however, a place where, and thanks to which, we can once again see clearly our situation for what it is, and a place that gives us the opportunity of making peace with ourselves again.

Via the Internet - and only if we wish to - we can meet others who share that certain passion for Viennese secessionist design which we have never dared confess to anyone. As we start to talk, our heart leaps, and we feel alive. On the Internet we can, if we wish to do so, talk about that which is close to our hearts. Each of us has a 'listening public', quite different from a passive audience - on the contrary, our listeners are attentive, sincere, authentic.

Because each of us brings our real selves to the Internet, we can truly express and engage with like-minded individuals and find personal and intellectual rewards unlike in most other physical places.


The Internet has the capacity to spell an end to this type of industrial corporate relationship marketing, to completely destroy it, and with it the kind of total claim Business has been making on our lives.

The Internet has the ability also to hand back to us a more authentic and true form of Commerce, one that forms a more integral and natural part of our lives as buyers and sellers.

A type of Commerce that is in itself one of the many means by which human beings can recognize themselves as such, a means of encounter and of dialogue.

I am betting my money on the assumption that a business created on such natural principles will be increasingly supported not only by the enthusiasm of those who work 'inside', but as much or more via the support and involvement of all those who cannot be considered separately: our customers and suppliers.

We're already having a lot of laughs on the way...!

As free men and women, we are demanding something of a backward step in our Business dealings, and the Internet is our ally.

We ask that Business gives up its total invasion of every aspect of our lives, becoming instead, in the wake of the Italian Renaissance, a more integral part of own lives, a means of encountering and sharing with other human beings, and a unique opportunity to learn and conversate with like-minded individuals.

In the old days, when we used to go to village marketplace to buy and to sell, this was the norm. Not only. Such marketplaces actually functioned as a fantastic means of meeting others and facilitating new encounter and dialogue. It was indeed mainly for these reasons that we used to go to the "old style" marketplaces.

Nowadays, the 'most advanced' form of Marketing - to which I heartily wish a thousand deaths - has the sole cynical aim of turning things on their head, suggesting that the big bad wolf should masquerade as the sweet old lady, in order to establish a good relationship (one-to-one, of course, you understand) and present to the innocent Little Red Riding Hood, at the time when she's least expecting it, an offer (custom-made, and highly personalized, naturally) which she cannot refuse.

The news is that our innocent Little Red Riding Hood happens to have opened a broadband Internet-access account, and by using the Internet in many intelligent ways, as a learning and communication place, has become a smartass girl... as more and more of us are becoming too.

Originally written by Antonio Tombolini and first published as: "Things Change With The Internet" - Edited and revised by .

Robin Good - Antonio Tombolini - [ Read more ]
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posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, April 18 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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