Alan Mitchell : It’s good to talk, but is anyone really listening?

How do you get your message heard by consumers who simply don’t want to listen? Get on board the Cluetrain Manifesto, says Alan Mitchell.

If your marketing communications were a product or service in its own right, would anybody want to buy it? That may seem an odd question, but it’s the way the world is moving.

Relationship marketing, permission marketing, viral marketing: these are all expressions of the same trend. And now we have a new buzz-word to add to the list. Conversations.

“Markets are conversations.” Those are the first three words of the now-famous Cluetrain Manifesto, first posted a few years back on the website, and now available as a best-selling book. Cluetrain has some uncomfortable messages for marketers. Try this for size – from the original manifesto: “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it. If you want to talk to us, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.” Or what about this from the book?: “There is no demand for messages. The customer doesn’t want to hear from business, thank you very much. The message that gets broadcast to you, me and the rest of the earth’s population has nothing to do with me in particular. It’s worse than noise. It’s an interruption. It’s the anti-conversation.

“That’s the awful truth about marketing. It broadcasts messages to people who don’t want to listen. Every advertisement, every press release, every publicity stunt and giveaway engineered by a marketing department is coloured by the fact that it’s going to a public that doesn’t ask to hear it.” Yet, says Doc Searles, who penned these words, the advertising industry “is buying in [to the Cluetrain Manifesto] by the truck load”. Why?

The answer is probably the power of conversation: real conversations engage people far more than any traditional promotion, publicity stunt or commercial. Conversations don’t have to be face to face. In the US, for example, Procter & Gamble is very pleased with its experimental website for its new product, Physique. P&G created the site for people who really care about their hair (in chief executive A G Lafley’s words, “namely 18- to 29-year-olds, young, definitely on the Internet, styling-involved, using styling products five to six times a week, using two or more products each time”). The aim is to involve them in discussions about hair problems, in consultations on hair styles and so on.

Apparently, consumers are spending an average of 11 minutes on the site – which is quite something compared to a typical 30-second TV ad. When the product finally “hit retail”, says Lafley, “we started to get movement immediately.” Which is probably why, to Searles’ own surprise, many of the companies showing the most interest in Cluetrain thinking are not the dot-coms who were supposed to put the old dinosaurs out of business, but rather the old dinosaurs themselves.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “The companies that actually have to make money are asking the really hard questions.” Thus Searles reports that the first big corporation to take a real interest in Cluetrain was P&G. Hot on its heels came Coca-Cola. “You can’t have a conversation about soft drinks without talking about Coca-Cola, so they’re starting off ahead of everybody else,” he notes.

But there’s another side to conversations. People don’t engage in conversations about things that don’t interest them. And, unlike marketing “messages” – where marketers can control exactly what is said, in what tone of voice, when, to whom – most market conversations are outside the marketing department’s control. People talk about the things they want to talk about, say what they want to say, when they want to say it.

This doesn’t fit well with our prevailing notion of brand management which, currently, is an occupation designed for congenital control freaks. So, even as marketers fall in love with the notion of conversations, it raises a range of conversation-related conundrums. Such as the issue that dogs the relationship marketing industry to this day: companies may desperately want to build relationships with consumers, but that doesn’t mean consumers want to build relationships with those companies. Ditto with conversations: marketers may try hard to engage consumers in conversations about their products, but what if the consumer doesn’t want to enter this conversation, and insists on talking only about the things that interests him?

This, in turn, points to three more dilemmas. If the Cluetrain authors are right, marketers will have to unpack marketing from control. Classic stimulus-response marketing – send out the right information stimuli to trigger the right behavioural response – doesn’t fit well with conversations. Conversation is a sense-and-respond activity. Second, start thinking in terms of ROA. No, not return on assets, but return on consumer attention. Why should I pay attention to your messages? I might do if they are amusing (a ploy ad agencies have been wise to for yonks). But in reality, I will only really pay attention if the conversation is about something that really matters to me personally.

This leads to the third implication – it takes two to converse. A real conversation demands that both parties be engaged. Conversations are an exercise in mutual gain, or they are nothing. This is the heart of it. As Doc Searles comments, the reason he invented the phrase “markets are conversations,” was because “I got really tired of having to refer to markets as battlefields or playing fields, or as bulls or bears, or as invisible hands. A battlefield presumes somebody wins and somebody loses. I thought we needed a metaphor that better expressed the positive sum nature of markets.”

When we look around at a lot of marketing activity today, however, this “positive sum” thinking seems to be missing. There’s an awful lot of messages out there: desperate brands saying

“Look at me! Look at how wonderful I am!” And there are an awful lot of people desperately ignoring these messages. That’s not win-win. It’s lose-lose. Anybody who can tap into the win-win heart of marketing is – you’ve guessed it – on to a winner. Unlike the rest of the field, he’ll almost certainly find that consumers think his marketing communications are worth buyingí in their own right. l

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