Cluetrain: Human speech, human concerns

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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