In 1999, a group of writers declared that “markets are conversations” and, in the style of Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517, published their own 95 Theses, as a response to what they considered outmoded and archaic business thinking. More than a decade on, they are still enormously relevant and important.
Markets are conversations. Barter economies were based around individuals trading with each other to exchange goods. Information spread through word of mouth. Wise men kept their ‘ear to the ground’, and those with the best networks could command the best prices and biggest markets.
In the 20th century these inter-personal conversations were drowned out as new communications media enabled those with money and resources (companies and their brands) to shout louder and for longer. Advertising campaigns became monologues; broadcasting messages that sought to control and direct conversations towards their own products, on their terms and their agenda.
But now technology has given those abilities back to individuals. Review sites and social media enable strangers to recommend or condemn brands. They demand and expect immediate and personal responses, and they know they can command a global audience in a way they could scarcely have imagined even 10 years ago.
Some recent high profile examples of this have been
- Tirades directed at O2 after they suffered network problems (warning: this article contains some expressive language!). The O2 social media team battled bravely and with no little humour…
- In the US, United Airlines responded less effectively to a bandwagon of outrage when an unaccompanied schoolgirl slipped through their customer care net…
- Matt Pledger didn’t enjoy his trip to Odeon Cinemas, and his complaint on Facebook has now attracted virtually 300,000 Likes and 25,000 comments, and at the very least has activated the Odeon teams to consider a public response, which would never have happened if Mr Pledger had simply taken his complaints to the cinema manager.
Mobile and social media technology enables us all to express ourselves publicly and immediately, and it can be truly difficult for companies to transform their businesses to adapt. Spending money on online advertising can seem much simpler than training staff or building systems to engage customers directly. But it also misses the fundamental human need for conversation, to be listened to.
You could do a lot worse than spend a few minutes reading through The Cluetrain Manifesto.