"Markets are conversations" is the fist tenet of the Cluetrain-Manifesto (1999) on the relationship between companies and their customers in a networked world. It outlines an information world in which the Web and social networks have massively shifted power structures, a world in which users decide as to which information and which contents are disseminated.
As a further tenet of the manifesto declares: "For the first time companies are able to directly communicate with their markets. If they fail in these conversations it may have been their last chance."
Is it really the case that companies are now able to communicate with their markets directly for the first time? After all, corporate communication is hardly a new discipline? "If you don't advertise you're dead" is an old and much quoted insight attributed to Henry Ford. By way of marketing, advertising and public relations companies have always addressed their users and customers. And factors such as image, reputation and advertising messages always topped the agendas. Today, companies are still diligently compiling and issuing annual reports, customer magazines, sales media, web sites, newsletters and many other similar items...
As recipients of these media we are entitled to raise the question as to whether these messages are always relevant and credible. "Careers with a future" is a symptomatic example: as Süddeutsche Zeitung noted in its issue of October 15/16, 2011 five employers "found the claim […] so characteristic of their company, that they decided to use it to attract young professionals: the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr), the Targobank, the tool manufacturer Leitz, the software company Connectiv and the Generali insurance group in Austria."
Is this communication? Unique, direct and authentic? No, at best this would qualify as advertising. "Today, those companies speaking with the voice of market criers are not reaching anyone any more."
Cluetrain Manifesto, Thesis 16
We are firmly convinced that communication as the dialog between companies and their markets has a future.
"That was what it was designed to be as a collaborative space where people can interact," are the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the "inventor" of the web and Director of the World Wide Web Consortiums in a talk with Scott Laningham of IBM developerWorks.
Contrary to the intention of Berners-Lee the Internet initially developed from a "technical web" on which experts exchanged information and ideas to an "advertising web" between commerce and customers, revolving around infotainment and with a focus on products and click rates. It is only since the Web has gained social functions that users are decidedly taking center stage: community, dialog and the making and shaping of opinions characterize the so-called Web 2.0.
The social media agency Ethority GmbH & Co KG based in Munich and Hamburg has published its third edition of the Social Media Prisma that provides a graphics-based visualization of the diversity of social media and tools.
The term "Conversations in social media" is at the core of the "Prisma" report and deserves special attention here. Markets are conversations. Dialogs and interactions between people, people who are finding each other, organizing, meeting, exchanging and communicating in entirely new ways. Companies must participate in these conversations - by listening and by answering.
The big dilemma here is that companies as such cannot participate in conversations. Only the people in the companies can do this - in other words, the various individuals performing specific functions in different departments. Today, companies are only visible as the sender of messages.
Above all, companies must allow their people to communicate. Even more so, they must indeed demand that their staff become the face and the voice of the company and support and promote their people in these activities. Bernd Schmitz, Head of University & Talent Relations at Bayer is a salient example of an employee who places his reputation in the service of his employer and engages in close dialog with university graduates and young professionals via social media. In this way, the DAX listed company suddenly becomes tangible and accessible, personified and personal. And what is most important, as an employer in a hotly contested market in which companies are competing for young professionals, the organization becomes visible and attractive.
But it is not only the self-understanding of companies that will have to change. Companies must also deploy tools in order to monitor and track markets, dialogs and conversations and anticipate demands and wishes. What are people talking about? What are the essential, the urgent topics, requirements and fears? Who is dialoging, who is talking about what? And where are the new gatekeepers? What are the relationships between customers and products?
Not only monitoring is becoming an important task, but also the documentation of results. Ideally, topics and protagonists are recorded and managed in central systems, also when communication and dialogs must be conducted in a more strongly decentralized manner.
The messages emanating from companies are usually redundant, entail advertising content - or, what is much worse - completely argument their way past our interests and needs. This need not take us by surprise: the volume of information and messages as well as communication structures grow exponentially depending on the messages, platforms, interactions and the size and the structure of an organization.
A number of companies are already deploying complex technical publishing solutions in order to process and publish their messages in a media and format independent manner. This does not represent genuine dialog or conversation. This is a case of efficiently broadcasting by way of all channels, well-aimed scattering so to speak: one-way communication with a high degree of "sender awareness".
Communication can be organized along bidirectional lines. This is the foundation for shaping, designing and steering a culture of dialog. The right understanding is also part of listening and answering. And this presupposes finding common ground, shared positions. At censhare, we call this collaboration. Not only in companies, but also between providers and customers.