Let’s go back in time. Not to 10 years ago, not to the pre-Internet era, but to the Middle Ages. More specifically to a dirty, noisy marketplace in the center of a town. Listen to the noise. Bartering, haggling, arguing, laughing, gossiping, plotting, insulting, flirting… The marketplace was the hub of communication, the center of activity, and definitely not a boring place to be. Back then, being shy and reclusive was not an option. If you didn’t put yourself forward, chances are you would die of starvation.
Now, fast forward to the turn of the century. This century. 1999 to be exact. No doubt you remember what a really interesting year that was. The Y2K bug was hanging over our heads, mobile telephones were finally mobile, and Internet was this thing that we had to get our heads around. Everyone was talking about bandwidth and emails and search engines.
That year a book was published called “The Cluetrain Manifesto”. A very interesting book, and if you were to read it now, you’d be surprised just how prescient it was. It discussed how we needed to adapt our form of communicating to the new medium, and what the new medium meant to our way of doing business. While many of us have radically changed the way we communicate and get things done, in our professional and our private lives, it is also surprising how slow the rate of change actually is.
15 years on we still get a lot of envelopes in the mail. Our children still lug heavy textbooks to and from school. We still carry around wallets full of plastic, paper and metal. And while it is understandable that profound societal change can take some time, and that institutions have an incentive to resist messing with the status quo, failure to initiate the process ends up costing businesses their livelihood and people their jobs.
But that’s not new, you’ve no doubt heard that many times before. What we need to get our heads around is that a huge amount of the change that has yet to happen, that as a society we need, is in your hands. How? By going to the proverbial market. By putting yourself forward. By communicating.
One of the main messages of the Cluetrain Manifesto was that “Markets are conversations”, and in 1999 that was ground-breaking. All though the last century we were sold at, we were manipulated, we were categorized, and unless we formed part of a tedious marketing focus group, we were not listened to outside of our immediate social circle. Internet gave us a voice, companies started listening to us and talking back, and we became part of the conversation.
I imagine that most of you have bought something online over the past year? Now, did you leave a rating, or a comment? Few of us do. So where’s the conversation? Maybe you didn’t feel like it, you didn’t have time, or, more likely, the online store didn’t ask you for your opinion. Having worked in e-commerce for years, I understand the reluctance to open yourself up to the risk of getting stuck with a lot of stock of a consistently poorly-rated product. But if collective opinions can wake up the manufacturers and get them to focus on making better products, we will be approaching a more efficient marketplace.
Which brings us back to “Markets are conversations”, and how, while some of us are well on the way, many of us have yet to realize that the nature of communication has changed. It’s not so much that we can communicate with the market. It’s that we should. The market needs us. So, comment. Like. Share. Your opinion is one of millions, sure, but it matters.
Most of us have some degree of shyness. We are afraid of being judged. We don’t want strangers to know us, we don’t want to regret divulging sensitive details. We don’t want to lose control. But this reluctance ignores a fundamental shift in the way our civilization is developing. That a “marketplace is a conversation” is truer than ever. Companies that don’t talk to and listen to their clients are missing the point, and losing out to the competition that IS participating in the conversation. Many businesses, large and small, don’t even realise this yet. They still are afraid of their customers, and they still underestimate the customers’ interest and influence. Sales used to be about knowing more than your clients. Not any more, now it is about validating choices already made, and helping clients to generate new ideas.
(image via video on the digital face of Burberry – really interesting, if you haven’t seen it!)
On a personal level, as well. How we act, what we say and do, says a lot about us. It determines peoples’ opinion of us, which has both personal and professional repercussions. And it doesn’t really matter how “private” we wish to be, NOT participating, NOT communicating, in itself speaks volumes. What we don’t do is as interesting to others who wish to know us better (potential employers, that cute guy you met at the picnic last weekend) as what we DO do. Staying completely private in this era of “let’s look it up” is no longer an option.
And I think that that’s good. The future is about connecting, communicating and creating. If you don’t participate, you have no influence. If you don’t show up, you miss the opportunity. If you don’t put yourself forward, you won’t get noticed. With easier communication, more and more decisions will be made collaboratively, and if you don’t express your opinion, your voice won’t get heard.
You’ve probably heard of crowdsourcing, where we all create together. Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced encyclopaedia, research projects are asking for public participation, even art exhibitions are getting crowd-sourced. We believe that, yes, markets are conversations. But more and more, conversations are markets. Conversations generate ideas, collaborations produce results. Arguments stimulate, debates inform. And this is all happening, all the time, under our very noses. We can’t be everywhere all the time, not on a personal nor on a professional level. But we can participate, get noticed, connect. And with that, we generate a marketplace, for our product or service, and for ourselves.
The future is coming. We can help to shape it. Get involved. Get your company to open up even more to its clients. Listen. Talk. Fix problems as they arise, and do so publicly. Your clients will love you for it. Your friends will support you. And along the way, great things will emerge from the conversation.
And as for the title of this post, well, I think it could make a catchy song, don’t you?