Getting aboard the Cluetrain at SXSW

If there is one word to describe SXSW, it’s social. This is, afterall, the most social of events, as there are so many people from so many disciplines within the web world. There is no other conference like it. It’s hard to take a step without saying “Wow…there’s another person who I know online that […]

If there is one word to describe SXSW, it’s social. This is, afterall, the most social of events, as there are so many people from so many disciplines within the web world. There is no other conference like it. It’s hard to take a step without saying “Wow…there’s another person who I know online that I would love to meet”.

But this year the content of SXSW was all about “social” as well. Social media, social marketing, social design. While I’m excited by this development, as it’s right up my alley, I’m also troubled by a remarkable trend: we’re still having relatively early discussions about what it means to listen to your customers/audience/passionate people.

In the wave of social panels and talks at SXSW, the term social media kept coming up again and again. Social media, it seems, is about talking to your customers. While this doesn’t seem to be a revelation, it almost assuredly is for a large number of companies and organizations out there, as that’s what almost all of the conversation is about. The takeaway from many panels was, over and over, “Listen to your customers”!!!

This became clear to me as I walked into a party with Freshbooks CEO Mike McDerment. Mike and I have communicated online for a while, and we both have very similar thoughts about engaging with the people who use your software and having conversations with them. Mike has done this amazingly well through the Freshbooks blog, as well as the feedback mechanisms of the Freshbooks application.

Mike and I were asked to interview for a podcast put on by MZinga. One of the questions I received was about what companies can do if they want to start a conversation with their customers. I replied that they’re already having a conversation with their customers, even if it’s a broken one and even if it’s offline.

Jim Storer, whom I was glad to meet after reading his work for a while, paraphrased my answer by saying something like: “So, social media is just another channel”.

Now, while I understand that Jim knows what he’s talking about and is deeply immersed in social media, the term “channel” brought a flood of thoughts back into my head about the central argument of the Cluetrain Manifesto. I immediately recognized my overall frustration I was experiencing with the panels at SXSW. The problem, I think, is that while everyone recognizes the need to talk to their customers (the people who make them successful), they (we) continue to use terminology that, in my mind, degrades the relationship.

Part of the central argument of The Cluetrain Manifesto, whose theme is that markets are conversations, is that we need to use the right terminology while framing any discussion that involves talking with people. This means that we don’t use terms like “consumers”, “prospects”, “leads”, or “channel”. Instead, we use the term “people” as much as possible.

But what we see over and over, especially from the “social media” crowd, is a continuation of archaic corporate verbiage that sets up a distance between the two parties that need to have a conversation. While Jim and I would certainly agree on lots of things, probably most things, and while I understand that he’s talking in the language of the people he does business with, I can’t help but think that the long term effect of using “channel”, etc. is distancing, not attracting.

So there were lots of panels that were directed at, as my friend Christina says, “those who have yet to board the Cluetrain”. Unfortunately, I think she’s right.

And, by the way, the Cluetrain is now approximately a decade old…

I’m proud to say that the panel which I was a part of, the Social Design Strategies panel, assumed people were on the Cluetrain and we avoided getting into the same discussion that many panels ended up with. Our focus was on designing interfaces and social systems that support that important communication, not about arguing the beginning point.

That said, if there is a continued need to revisit the Cluetrain, I’m certainly all for it. We need to break down any and all barriers between people in the marketplace, and if those barriers still exist, the least we can do is start to weed out the language that serves to perpetuate them.

A couple of years ago I would not have written this blog post, this is somewhat of a subtle argument…I’m really only arguing about words, right? How can the terminology affect the practice?

Well, if there is anything that can subvert the activity of people without them knowing, it’s the exactness of the words we use to have conversations. So I urge everyone who has not read it (or not read it recently) to go out and read the Cluetrain. Each time I read it there is a new revelation…it’s certainly one of the defining books of the current generation.

Needless to say, I’m thinking long and hard about panels and discussions for next year’s SXSW. I would love to hear your input and thoughts on that matter, as I fear we have a long way to go before we can claim that everyone is aboard the Cluetrain.

Published: March 11th, 2008

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