A Better Way to Talk to Customers

Let’s go back a few years to the Cluetrain Manifesto. It started out as a pathbreaking Web site, which then spawned a book of the same name (1999), that began with an idea elegant in its simplicity: “Markets are conversations.”

This might have been clear enough to students of the stock exchange and similar markets, but the insight was not an obvious one when applied to markets for products and services. Now, its essential truth is evident to a lot of people—though there are still plenty of doubters in the corporate world.

It’s easy to argue that conversational tools such as blogs are faddish, hard to control, and even frightening, but the response to that notion is simple: The flow of unstructured information is as important as the management of traditional data. What we tell each other matters as much as what we cram into and retrieve from SQL databases.

Blogs are best understood as a proxy for a host of other bottom-up—or, more accurately, edge-in—media forms. The list starts with low-end technologies such as discussion boards. Then there are wikis, the simple databases that allow anyone to edit any page; podcasts, digital audio delivered to individual devices; video webcasts; and “mash-ups” that use Web APIs to combine data and services from discrete sites to create entirely new ways of showing information. Not least, there is the continuing explosion of the malleable RSS, or “really simple syndication,” the subset of XML that lets you deliver and receive Web-syndicated content with ease.

Think about the way companies speak to the world. Most press releases look as though they’ve been written by a Turing machine—a computer that mimics human conversation— mated with a lawyer. Who wants to be spoken to like that? Not the constituencies of a typical corporation—i.e., its owners, customers, employees, suppliers and resellers—and certainly not the members of the communities in which the company does business. By contrast, a blog’s essential characteristic is its identifiably human voice.

I’m not saying that all communications should be from the “Hey, how’s it going” school. Sometimes we should go for simple data, such as in earnings statements and balance sheets (with the fewer opaque “nuances,” such as obfuscating footnotes, the better). But the act of talking with people is an act of transparency and, ultimately, of confidence in our peers, not just our bosses.

Some marketing and PR folks scoff at blogs. They say the audiences are too small to be worth the trouble. Yet this medium isn’t about mass audiences; it’s about serving many niche audiences, each of which will contain so-called “true influencers.” When they are genuinely engaged, these influencers can become allies, or at least respectful critics. And since the first rule of conversation is to listen, the enterprise can learn new things. Surely learning leads to better results.

Excellent senior-executive blogs are still rare. One belongs to Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise, who has upended the typical relationship between sports mogul and sportswriters. Cuban’s blog tells his side of things with an edge that makes for must-reading. Still, the most effective blogs tend to come from the rank and file—people who are closest to customers and other constituencies. Microsoft’s hundreds of bloggers do more to keep software developers in the know about development tools than all the PR in the world.

Blogging at the world’s biggest software company is largely the responsibility of the people who actually work on the products. Here’s the top benefit: It has put a human face on a once consummately arrogant corporate culture. I’m still smiling at one recent posting that began: “There are certain places where software should never fail. Obvious ones like aircraft, missile control systems, etc. Well here’s a new one: When you are lying in a dentist’s chair, mouth wired up, with a tooth freshly dremeled away, and the dentist and his assistant are staring, speechless, at their special PC’s screen.”

An example of Microsoft’s listening quotient is evident in an exchange that took place last spring in the blog of Sue Loh, a company software developer. Loh had taken issue with the author of an article that had appeared in a trade journal: she thought his criticisms of a Windows CE API had been unfair and, in her blog, she explained why. This author responded in the comments section of Loh’s blog, as did several other people, and Loh responded in turn. In the end, some light was shed on the topic, not just heat.

I strongly urge corporate bloggers to let readers post comments, and when people are critical, don’t delete what they say. A one-way conversation isn’t a conversation: It’s a monologue.

Giving up a certain amount of control raises many issues, including legal ones. A recent cover story in Forbes—fear-mongering about how wicked bloggers can wreck corporate reputations—raised a few fair points, but then drowned them in melodrama and wrongheaded advice. Should companies respond to what others say about them online, especially in blogs? Lies should certainly be countered with the truth. But honorable critics and observers want to get things right. Engagement and respect go further than brandishing legal threats (one of Forbes’ uglier suggestions). Companies that engage in discussions outside of their own marketing machines, even when the discussion makes insiders uncomfortable, are only adding to their credibility.

One genuine risk that a company may face is regulatory sanction, if an employee blogger says the wrong thing, or says too much. I’d like to see pharmaceutical companies—which surely need a boost in consumer respect—engage in more honest conversations with outsiders, but federal laws are extremely strict about what medical companies can say publicly. Similarly, a publicly held company doesn’t want the Securities and Exchange Commission knocking on the door after reading a blog posting that, in the eyes of some bureaucrat, broke some obscure rule. And everyone has to wonder when trial lawyers will start looking for blog postings that can be the basis of, or support for, shareholder lawsuits.

Yet Microsoft, with perhaps the deepest pockets around, has gone ahead and taken the risk. The basic rule for employee blogs, as far as I can tell, is a terrific one: Use common sense.

Bear in mind that internal conversations are as useful as external ones. People can give each other valuable information outside the normal information stovepipes; in fact, even the Office of the Secretary of Defense is experimenting with internal blogs. Inside-the-firewall wikis may be even more useful: They can become corporate scratch pads, places where people can work together on project planning and other common interests. At the University of Hong Kong, where I’ve taught part-time for the last few years, my co-lecturer and I have gotten excellent results in planning class projects with wikis. Our students have learned from them, and so have we.

This is the ultimate advantage in joining a conversation: learning. In his latest book, Democratizing Innovation, MIT professor Eric von Hippel argues, persuasively, I believe, that sharing knowledge brings more benefits than hoarding it. No one suggests giving away vital trade secrets, in blogs or any other form. But in an era when markets are turning into conversations, listening is not just one way to do things. It’s the best way.

DAN GILLMOR is author of We the Media: Grassroots -Journalism by the People, for the People and founder of Bayosphere.com, a San Francisco Bay Area Web site. His next column will appear in February.

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