What if Marketing Were Valued as Transformation?

Back in March, I sat on a really fascinating panel at SXSW Interactive about the seventh anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto. How did the concepts of “markets as conversations” and “hyperlinks subverting hierarchies” impact the last seven years? Who’s providing good examples, which companies are still missing the deliveries, what does seven years further out look like? The result is worth a download of the audio to your iPod if for no other reason than to hear the brilliance of Doc Searle and Heather “Dooce” Armstrong (you can ignore everything Henry Copeland and I say if you want.)

A month later I became a part of the creative team working with a major company trying to walk that kind of talk. Public relations, advertising, marketing and corporate communications turn to metaphors from documentary filmmaking, news publishing, blogging and other disciplines looking for new ideas – new ideas on how to embrace transparency as a company, new ideas on to how to listen to the conversations on Web, and new ideas on how to participate in them.

It is messy, contentious, imperfect, and slower than it should be, but it gets better with every build. It remarkably embraces letting people write about the client, or the issues they are embroiled in, instead of writing for them under their direction. It documents moments of brutal honesty, passionate disagreement and gritty determination. It tries to acknowledge the conversation swirling around the rest of the Web, from praise to criticism to bad news headlines.

The project exists for reasons that Mark Fields articulates in the Intro of the project: “The one thing we’re trying to do throughout this organization is rip out the b.s., rip out the political posturing, and get the issues on the table and have a constructive conflict.” At the same time, the project is also an instrument of transformation: the only thing more transformative than learning to listen to the Web is having a videocamera lens pointed at you during a meeting.

Yes, there are critics. Today, Jalopnik brought this all up again by picking up on Henry’s enthusiasm for a set of Blogads we’re running, summing it up pretty well with:

This is all interesting…and yes, the Bold Moves videos are all about saying stuff other companies aren’t saying — but we kinda thought the Cluetrain Manifesto was all about having “real conversations” between businesses and consumers. We’re not entirely sure it means buying your way onto the page the conversations are occurring.

Totally understandable, and I agree about the heart of Cluetrain being conversation. I’d point out, though, that the advice you’d give anyone about participating in a conversation online is that the first order of business is learning to listen. In a way, we could have waited to launch the project until after all the transformation was done, but we kinda hoped it would be more interesting for people if they got to watch.

What we have instead is an opportunity to watch that transformation happen. Since we’re fresh eyes looking in on the client’s process, bringing with us the feedback of the conversation all around the Web, the project also becomes one of the tools of transformation. I find myself using the word “ombudsman” alot with our teams. Of course, the Cluetrain Manifesto laid all of that potential upside for companies that “take delivery” seven years ago, but the delivery doesn’t arrive all in one shipment.

Conversely, I’ve never personally seen launching Blogad campaigns as “buying your way onto the page” — it is far less that than it is about stimulating conversation and curiousity. I’d be interested in hearing what people like Steve Rubel think of that fear.

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark of GMDStudios (http://www.gmdstudios.com/)

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