Amazon.com Widgets Mad Men vs. The Cluetrain

Mad Men vs. The Cluetrain

By Nick at August 19, 2010 12:05
Filed Under: TechBiz

You know, I think this Interwebs thing might actually take off.

Well, of course it will. Actually, of course it has. Well, actually, one could argue that not only has it taken off, it has utterly transformed the way that people communicate. I know I spend a lot more time in front of this laptop than I do the TV, and I used to spend a lot of time in front of the TV. I also spend a lot more time writing emails, IM'ing, and on Facebook than I do on the phone. And I used to spend a lot of time on the phone, too. Talking to girls. Running up huge long distance phone bills talking to girls. Of course, this was before I had the good sense to marry my awesome, super-hot wife.  Now I don't talk to girls on the phone very much or at all.  (Actually, I don’t talk on the phone very much at all anymore, but that is another blog post).

Anyway, it is safe to say that the Interwebz has changed communication methods. But it has done more than that. It has changed the tone and timbre of the communication that goes on. You guys probably all know what I'm talking about. The vast majority of the time we seem to spend on the Internet is in conversations. We are answering emails. We are commenting on blogs. We are chatting back and forth on Instant Messenger. We are commenting on each other's Facebook pages. We are tweeting and re-tweeting and lord knows what else. These are conversations. It's me saying something and you saying something back. It's arguing with people that we've never met. Heck, half the time we don't even know their names. (You haven't lived until you've had an online discussion about the intricacies of anonymous methods with some guy(gal?) named Lord Vacuous.....)

So much of what goes on on the Internet are conversations. And as a result, the way that companies communicate with their customers has changed as well (or it should have).  Many companies realize this.  Many companies don’t.

One thing you find out really quickly is that everyone on the Internet has a ‘voice”.  It’s the way you ‘sound’ online.  Some people sound happy.  Some people sound grumpy.  Some people sound silly.  But everyone sounds like something.  For instance, I’m pretty sure that I “sound” different to people online than I do in my head when I type.  I’ve grown more aware of that over the years of hanging around in the Delphi forums.

Companies sound a certain way, too.  They have a “voice” just like people do.  They communicate with customers, and customers “hear” them.  They get a certain impression about the company based on these communications.  Obviously, how people “hear” a company is pretty important to that company’s success.

Now, folks who watch the terrific AMC show “Mad Men” know that back before the Interpipes, companies spent millions of dollars getting smart advertising guys to help them “sound” like something that they wanted to sound like.  Companies could control how they sounded because there were few avenues for companies to communicate – TV, magazines, newspapers.  You couldn’t actually “talk” to a company.  They talked to you, and you decided whether you liked their message and bought their products.  They had complete control over the message, and short of sending a letter with a stamp on it (if you could find the address), then you had very little way to talk back to the company.  It wasn’t a conversation, it was a lecture.

Well, things are different now, a whole lot different.  Now, a company -- despite their best efforts  -- can’t control their message.  The internet – with its blogs, newsgroups, forums, message boards, email, web sites, Facebook fan sites, twitter feeds and goodness knows what else – means that companies no longer have control over what customers hear.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  The “voice” of a company is made up of what people are saying about it as much as what a company says itself.

Many companies haven’t figured this out yet.  Sadly, many technical companies haven’t figured this out yet, and one could argue that they are the ones that should have figured it out from the beginning.

Now, of course, this isn’t a new idea. In fact, I’m pretty much saying the exact same thing that the Cluetrain guys were saying over ten years ago.  I strongly suggest you read their book (you can actually read the whole thing online) as they explain this notion better than I do.

But here’s my point (finally, I know):  I think there is a strong correlation between companies that were around before the Internet and companies that haven’t jumped on the Cluetrain.

Company cultures are a persistent thing, and can actually persist long after the original people who formed the culture are gone.  (There is a famous experiment involving gorillas, bananas, and a high-pressure water hose that illustrates this phenomenon.) A company whose culture and way of communicating were built on the Mad Men model can often have a difficult time making the transition. 

And what can even be worse is when they think they have made the transition when they really haven’t.  Companies that try to somehow straddle the old-school way and the ClueTrain way can end up kidding themselves.  They think that they are having a conversation with their customers, but they really sound “tinny” and artificial.  If a company is constantly worried about “messaging” things properly instead of communicating in a simple, straight-forward way – like two people conversing -- or if they are so hopelessly secretive that no one knows what they are up to, then it might be a company that hasn’t quite gotten the Clue yet.

Companies that have risen up in the age of the Intertubes are much less likely to have failed to understand the conversation going on or to have ended up straddling the gap.  These are companies with cultures steeped in the open conversation. They usually have already caught the Clue.  They started out having conversations, and they have a voice that sounds conversational.

So, what do you think?  Is your company having conversations with people? Are you caught in the middle?  Do you have to deal with companies that are seemingly in constant spin mode? 

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The views I express here are entirely my own and not necessarily those of any other rational person or organization.  However, I strongly recommend that you agree with pretty much everything I say because, well, I'm right.  Most of the time. Except when I'm not, in which case, you shouldn't agree with me.