15 Years on - Are you aboard The Cluetrain Manifesto yet?


Business books are everywhere - as many as 11,000 new titles each year, according to the co-authors of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, which doesn’t account for the untold number of self-published e-books.

Yet few actually stand the test of time, which I would define as ‘still having value and application in today’s world’.

So, set against this context, I’d like to single out The Cluetrain Manifesto, now 15 years old, as one of those rare things - a valuable business book.
Cluetrain was written to describe how a digital world was about to turn ‘business as usual’ on its head.
And whilst much of it has turned out to be prophetic, it’s the wider insights about customers and marketing that I have found most applicable to helping my clients in recent years.

So, by way of a 15th anniversary shout-out, here are 3 lessons I first learned from this book and have been applying ever since - I do hope you find them as insightful as I have.

  1. Positioning statements need to be authentic - it’s easy to get caught up in the endless wordsmithing of describing what your brand is all about. Yet customers aren’t interested in reading them. Instead, they judge a company by its behaviour and attitude - how hard it tries to deliver and whether it keeps its promises. Even in a world before Twitter or Facebook, Cluetrain suggested that ‘word-of-web’ would soon expose any fakery in brand positioning, and so it has proved. Positioning is about being true to who you are, not scripting some dream about who you could become. It’s the companies that empower their employees to express brand behaviour instinctively, firms that are prepared to admit a mistake and work in customers’ interests to fix it - these are authentic experiences that customers and employees alike remember….and value.
  2. Hyperlinks Are Us - at the time of writing in 1999, Cluetrain marvelled at the potential of hyperlinks. Suddenly the rigid computer systems that we had grown up with, where programmers decided which page screen should be seen in which order, was swept away. Cluetrain realised that the way webpages could be linked and accessed by anyone, without asking permission, was a blueprint for how business would work in the future. Like hyperlinks, employees could work across silos, formally or informally. Customers could band together, whether as loose connections for a moment in time, or closely knit ‘tribes’ sharing a lifelong passion. On the Web, Communities could be born, evolve, dissolve and re-emerge, with no significant need for a defined leader. Today, far from running from such ‘unstructured chaos', modern organisations actively seek out and encourage these connections. Like sparks, they recognise that this is where energy lies, and the potential for an explosion of interest or relevance. By opening up access and removing structural barriers, brands become more embraceable but more vulnerable. Brave and honest brands do not mind that.
  3. Stories Tell It Like It Is - perhaps the most powerful aspect of the Web is that it has given its users a voice. Every last one of them. And Cluetrain quickly worked out that, to express their view, people found it effective to convey as a story. After all, they were used to accounting tales of their lives to friends, family, colleagues. It was natural. But companies didn’t tell stories. They wrote sales copy, strap lines, memos, instruction manuals. 15 years on, the most compelling brands have become great storytellers. Stories give context, they add colour, they make room for meaning. Politicians have followed suit. And it’s no accident that the most watched speakers on TED are the ones that use carefully-told stories to set up their message. People - your customers, employees, suppliers, followers - are both providers and consumers of stories. The power of narrative to capture attention has always existed, but the digital freedom of the Web has made storytelling more potent than ever.

Cluetrain summed up the essence of its manifesto by pronouncing:

 "Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.”

Most businesses, brands and employees are tuned into this now.

But many still only publish Mission statements and Brand Values to demonstrate it.

Instead, it’s the everyday ‘engagement’ in customer conversation that counts. And as customers, we can tell pretty easily which companies are on-board, and which ones are just playing at it…...