Cluetrain: Human speech, human concerns

by Mathew on April 28, 2009 · 10 comments

Earlier this year, my friend and former Globe colleague Keith McArthur came up with the idea of celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Cluetrain Manifesto by having 95 people blog about the 95 theses that formed the core of the book. So he set up the Cluetrainplus10 wiki and asked people to sign up, and after looking at the available choices, I settled on number 38: Human communities are based on discourse — on human speech about human concerns. Why? I guess in part because I’ve been thinking a lot about those kinds of issues in my still relatively new role as Communities Editor at the Globe and Mail, where my job consists of trying to find new and better ways to connect readers with our writers and our content.

In many ways, the Globe isn’t really all that different from any other company. We have a product — namely, our content — and we have customers, except that we call them readers. Of course, unlike many companies, we also play a kind of public-service role, but that’s a service to readers and to the community as a whole as well. And just like other companies, we are trying to find our place in this new, more connected world, where our customers are not just looking to interact and engage with us, but are also interacting with each other, carrying on conversations that we theoretically helped to start. How can we become a part of those conversations? I think the Cluetrain message is a simple one: by being human, and by speaking the way that human beings do.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, many companies suck at talking like human beings, quite frankly. Many corporations — including many newspapers and media entities — are structured in such a way as to make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for someone to respond to something in an authentic and human way. And that, of course, just makes it even more important that we try to do so. It’s not just the corporate bureaucracy in many companies either; it’s the cultural walls and hurdles as well. Newspapers, for example, have built up a reputation (in their own minds, at least) for infallibility. How does an organization like that respond to criticism? In many cases, not well. But newspapers, like so many other things, are composed of human beings, and human beings are fallible. Why not admit it? Provided you correct the error and try not to do it again, where’s the harm?

It’s not a popular viewpoint in many circles, but I think that admitting we are fallible can actually increase the trust that people have in what we do. Pretending to be infallible is a lose-lose proposition. Not only will you inevitably be proven wrong, but the fact that you are trying to convince people of your infallibility makes you untrustworthy as well — or at the very least, disingenuous. To me, the significance of what the Cluetrain Manifesto said is that human beings like to talk to other human beings, not to faceless and impenetrable institutions or brands, and the more you talk with them in that manner the better it gets both for you and for your business. That’s a lesson we continue to learn every day.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Kinoshita/550606228 Scott Kinoshita

    You really hit it on the head Mathew. I think companies are just afraid, because being fallible means making mistakes, and making mistakes means someone has to take responsibility for it. Taking responsibility isn't always pretty because it requires more transparency than people are comfortable with. And on the note of transparency — hey, we're right back to why social media is so powerful, aren't we?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Scott — I couldn't agree more

  • Justin

    I would argue that a newspaper's product are readers and their client's are advertisers.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think I know what you're driving at, Justin, but I disagree. A newspaper needs advertisers, yes, but it needs readers more — without them, advertisers would be useless. The readers are actually the advertisers customers as well, they're just piggybacking on newspapers in order to reach them.

  • Justin

    I see readers as a means to an ends. The end goal for any newspaper, as it is a business, is to create a profit. It does this, by and large, with advertising dollars. Advertising dollars are generated by large readership.

    Newspapers have a long, long history of not reporting on subjects that will disturb their readership which therefore scares off advertisers which therefore kills profits.

    The problem I have with the argument that newspapers sell news is that it infers that newspapers are an atruistic organization who's business is to get out “the truth”. It's business, like all others, is to turn a profit.

    Where I do agree with you Matthew, is in regards to how important readership numbers are. Especially in regards to the new unknown model. Once someone does figure out how to make money off digital news, a large readership already in place will be paramount. (That of course is assuming someone does figure it out.. I was there for .com boom/bust and the same arguments then regarding “we'll figure out the business model later” where made then as well).

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com/antje antje

    Print has so many limitations (delivery, size/length, page layout), so many things that are not constricted by web, I'm surprised that more aren't embracing in their cost cutting efforts. A local paper by us just started publishing a “morning edition” that they publish just prior to actual delivery to make sure they get the latest news. Better step, but usually the news is still a day behind and I've already read it online.

    What I don't get online though are the big, in depth, investigative pieces. The ones that take months to research and write and are vitally important to the news cycle.

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com/antje antje

    Print has so many limitations (delivery, size/length, page layout), so many things that are not constricted by web, I'm surprised that more aren't embracing in their cost cutting efforts. A local paper by us just started publishing a “morning edition” that they publish just prior to actual delivery to make sure they get the latest news. Better step, but usually the news is still a day behind and I've already read it online.

    What I don't get online though are the big, in depth, investigative pieces. The ones that take months to research and write and are vitally important to the news cycle.

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