All of us, including this magazine and this publisher, get caught up in e-hype proclaiming the Internet to be the most important communication invention of mankind.
It is not. Not by a long shot.
My pick for the most important communication invention goes to the unnamed human being—probably a woman—who was smart enough to organize incoherent sounds into the first spoken human word. That initial word evolved into words that then evolved into full-fledged languages.
The Internet, while indeed a powerful communication tool, is just the latest in a long line of spectacular human achievements that facilitate communication. (For those readers disagreeing with me over whether most important or most powerful best describes the Internet’s place in history, read The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteen Century’s On-Line Pioneers, by Tom Standage, (Walker & Co., 1998), which uncannily describes the impact of the telegraph system on 19th century Europe and America in much the same way we describe the Internet in the early 21st century.
So why am I so fixated on the topic of communication?
Credit goes to a fascinating book I recently read entitled The Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus Press, 2000), written jointly by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger. The book’s subtitle, “The end of business as usual,” initially sounds like squirmy e-consultant speak. Until you start to read it.
At the outset, the authors challenge the reader with this question: “What if the real power of the Web lay not in the technology behind it but in the profound changes it brings to the way people interact with business?” Hey, isn’t it the other way around? Companies interact with people that the marketing department calls customers.
For me the book’s most important thesis is this: Corporations do not speak in the same voice as the new networked conversations among customers and prospects.
What’s the voice of your corporation to employees, business partners and customers? Is your company participating in their conversations? Are you really listening to them? (Focus groups, customer satisfaction polls and pictures of happy customers in annual reports don’t count!) I am convinced there is a direct correlation between a company’s size and the likelihood of finding the name, telephone number or e-mail address of a human being on a website. Go ahead. Try it. The “contact us” sections of large corporate websites are giant digital black holes that more accurately should be labeled “contact us if you can, and we will get back to you when we want.”
Do you communicate with customers in a never ending babble of one-way corporate-speak? Jargon that drowns out any opportunity to ascertain customer needs, wants and even new ideas for product or service improvements?
Reading The Cluetrain Manifesto may change the way you do business. Or it may lead to an understanding of how newly empowered networked customers want to—and will—do business. Driving it on their terms and not yours. With you. Or not with you.
At the very least, if the book inspires you to review the “contact us” portion of your website to include the name of at least one human being, this is a step in the right direction.