Clues vs. Trains

I don’t begrudge anybody going after advertising money. And I don’t have anything against advertising itself. For many products and services advertising will remain the best way for supply and demand to get acquainted.

But advertising also involves guesswork and waste, and always will. It is also, by its shout-to-the-world nature, not a “conversation”.

This is why I’m uncomfortable with the notions of “conversational media” and “conversational marketing”. Especially when gets used to justify it. Such is the case with the awful current entry for Conversational Marketing in . It begins, “Conversational (or Conversation) Marketing arose as a current buzzword after the [ClueTrain Manifesto], which starts ‘All Markets Are Conversations’.

First, it’s Cluetrain, not ClueTrain. Second, it begins “People of Earth…” Third, it’s true that the first of its 95 Theses says “Markets are conversations” (no “All”, no headline-type caps); but the next 94 unpack that point, along with a few more, none of which are justifications for advertising. In fact, we mention advertising only once, at #74, which says, “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.” (Even if that’s not true, it’s what the thing says, so at least get that much right.) Fourth, a phrase is not a word, even if the phrase buzzes.

I could go on, but why bother. I just hope the Wikipedians delete or bury the whole topic until its promoters start thinking and stop buzzing.

Anyway, this all comes up because I’m thinking about what to talk about tomorrow night at There’s a New Conversation in Palo Alto. (Details here.) The event is one in a series occasioned by the upcoming 10th anniversary of Cluetrain’s publishing on the Web; but I’m not much interested in talking about that. Instead I’d rather talk about what’s going to happen after we finish throwing both media and marketing out the window.

Both will live, of course. But not the way they’ve lived in the periods that began with their common usage and can’t end soon enough.

More to a piont, I’d like to explore what happens after buyer reach exceeds seller grasp. Because that will happen. And when it does neither media nor marketing will be able to live in their old halls of mirrors. Even with Wikipedia’s help.


  1. Eric’s avatar

    Interested to hear more of your thoughts on Wikipedia. Have your edits to the entry been reversed, or do you have more fundamental issues w/ the way Wikipedia is working (are too few people dominating contributions to entries?). I see Wikipedia cited as a reference all the time and find it is useful for some technical topics as a starting point or to quickly find some interesting links.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Eric, I have no edits to the cited entry in Wikipedia. I also have no edits for it because I have doubts that “conversational marketing” deserves an entry at all.

    Wikipedia can be an outstanding source for stable and durable topics, but often falls down around topics that are both current and about which there is any disagreement or controversy.

    Also Wikipedia has become *the* place to publicize what one hopes will be the canonical take on any topic. That’s why “conversational marketing” is in there. Unfortunately, it’s basically a promotional entry. That it cites Cluetrain is annoying to me, but not that big a deal, really. Errors in entries about living people are more important, and there is no shortage of those as well.

  3. Another Eric’s avatar

    I updated the entry to correctly cite Cluetrain. I didn’t want to delete the whole article and be accused of vandalism, even though the entry is poorly written and pointless to boot.

  4. Chris Heuer’s avatar

    This issue has been bugging me for a long time. In fact, I wrote about it last August before we officially launched The Conversation Group. At the time, David Weinberger was the first to respond, and I have to admit I came around to his way of thinking, despite being adamant about the importance of the language we use to relay our underlying intentions.

    Please take a read when you get a moment – Stop the insanity! Don’t call it conversational marketing

    Also, the Wikipedia entry is #1 result on Google when searching for the term…

  5. Bruce Fryer’s avatar

    Some thoughts on topics for tomorrow:
    1) Intention vs. Attention marketing: Life beyond Search Engine Optimization and Word of Mouth (yuk). How do I find stuff I’m interested in and know I won’t get burned?
    2) Gilded Cages: Death to Silos. Social Networking has made our cages larger, with larger spaces between the bars but they are still cages. What does a silo-less world look like?

    On the positive note, look at the global warming discussion, in a few short years we went from denial to “green guilt”.

  6. Mike Warot’s avatar

    A silo-less world looks like Usenet circa 1996… tons of crap and a lousy signal to noise ratio. Silos serve a useful function by providing a framework to filter out things, and control oxidation rates in foodstuffs for cattle… Silos on the net make it possible to take a wide range of input and control spam rates and other diseases of the net.
    We can get rid of silos when we have a web of trust and a reputation structure that’s expressive and secure enough to replace the silo walls. Well, that really doesn’t get rid of them, but lets us build our own, doesn’t it?

    As far as “green guilt”… it doesn’t matter what the global climate change facts are, we’re going to downscale our carbon emissions by at least 1/2 in the next decade regardless because of the rapidly falling value of the Dollar. Our “non-negotiable” lifestyle is unsustainable, and will rapidly lose favor when gasoline hits $10/gallon in a few years.

    It’s going to be a rough ride through the greater depression, but we’ll be far stronger for it when we’ve climbed out the other side.


  7. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Social networking seems an attempt to filter the Net to the interests of me and my tribe — human recommenders with whom there is already some thread of connection.

    (I’m not a fan, have an entirely passive Facebook page, a slightly more active public life at LinkedIn. My tribe is wild seed, I find them spontaneously. I shrink from reporting my own life, I am the journalist fly on the wall.)

    Trust and reputation based on identity trouble me, too. Real names make it hard to be real.

    I know people who already regret that they can’t just blog or comment that they went to a restaurant and had a lousy meal. They are identified with jobs they don’t want to lose over a small rant writ large.

    Many more are customers who fear the cook will spit in their food next time they’re spotted there. I don’t think humans are ready for transparency.

    To be continued…

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    There are two problems with silos, even giving full respect to all the good they do that Mike describes.

    First is the belief that captive customers are better than free ones.

    Second is the belief that a free market is “your choice of silo”.

    Both will fail in open, free and fully connected markets.

    A good example of an open silo, by the way, is Flickr. I can upload photos there, annotate them, tag them and everything else. I can also pull those photos sideways over to Tabblo and create works there. That’s way cool and makes me like both outfits better.

  9. links for 2008-05-29 « Dragonrouge’s avatar

    […] Doc Searls Weblog · Clues vs. Trains I don’t begrudge anybody going after advertising money. And I don’t have anything against advertising itself. For many products and services advertising will remain the best way for supply and demand to get acquainted. (tags: Cluetrain) […]

  10. Mike Warot’s avatar

    One of the great things about Flickr is that it’s a “safe” place to get images from… everything there has been run through a resizing engine and is thus a “clean” file, and not some trojan horse waiting to take out an unpatched JPEG library. It’s like having a trusted party certify the file as virus free, in a way.
    They also do adult content filtering, so you don’t have to worry as much about GoatSE type games going on, which makes it safe in a social way.
    The APIs, Creative Commons focus, and innovations that they keep adding are just gravy, if you look at it from a safety standpoint.

  11. Dan Thornton’s avatar

    I’m responsible for Community Marketing, which tends to involve the buzzwords ‘conversational marketing’, ‘word of mouth marketing’, ‘buzz marketing’ ‘viral marketing’ and about 20 other terms which can be argued about endlessly without producing anything actually useful…

    But none of what I do involves advertising. Mainly for the reasons you mentioned above.

    My role is basically to let anyone using our brands be able to use them in the way they want, through the channel they want, and be able to get the value out of them they want.

  12. Simon Edhouse’s avatar


    you say: “But advertising also involves guesswork and waste, and always will. It is also, by its shout-to-the-world nature, not a “conversation”.

    I disagree… because you are talking about the current paradigm of advertising. ~ I am bullish about changing this…

    You also say: “…I’d like to explore what happens after buyer reach exceeds seller grasp. Because that will happen. And when it does neither media nor marketing will be able to live in their old halls of mirrors.”

    So you do countenance the possibility of another paradigm, and your link points to ‘Project VRM’… I support the basic thrust of the VRM exponents, but it seems to me to be a very well intentioned ‘toothless tiger’… I have been talking to DW about a project that is expressly designed to put re-tooth that tiger (the buyer) and to radically change the current paradigm (over time).

    However, forgive me for coming across as a little disrespectful to two of my heros, but both you and DW, seem a little down-beat on this subject. (Has 8 years of Bush drained the collective Chutzpah?)

  13. Doc Searls’s avatar


    First, best wishes for changing advertising. All for it.

    Second, what makes VRM “toothless”? and how is it different from “a project that is expressly designed to put re-tooth that tiger (the buyer) and to radically change the current paradigm (over time)”?

    If DW is David Weinberger, it could be that we’re both talking about VRM.

    Also not clear what subject we are down-beat about. Can you clarify that?


  14. Simon Edhouse’s avatar

    Doc, VRM is well intentioned, but its taking a committee-type approach, and drafting a set of desirable guidelines, that sound very… ‘desirable’, but where’s the mechanism? Where’s the killer app? Its like a philosophy club… Good luck!

    Its toothless because its just a wish-list, and is so niche-like as to be like a grain of sand relative to the 1 Billion internet users, (most non-english speaking) and 99.99% of them will never be even aware of this little club, no matter how on-topic they are.

    I am simpatico with them, with the ideas and philosophy etc, but without a vehicle for broad mass-engagement that enacts what the primary ideas are seeking to change, it will just be a self-congratulatory movement of fellow-travelers, irrelevant to the mass scale of the on-line world.

    DW is DW yes… You are both 2 of my heros, along with Clay Christensen, but I sense a feeling of “Its all too hard to change”… and I am just not wired to accept that… I am a former OgilvyInteractive Managing Director, (Shanghai) and now Software developer/entrepreneur, working with some brilliant Computer Scientists and I am an avid exponent and student of Christensen’s teachings for D.I. Strategy implementation. ~ If you can vector that, you will locate me exploring the quadrant where user-generated-content meets user-powered-systems, and there’s some rich fruit there… But to grasp it, involves the conjunction of computer-science and marketing-science, and the strange logic of disruptive theory, which by definition has to be un-obvious.

  15. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    On one side we have an appreciative audience. On the other we have an enthusiastic and appreciated artist.
    One side has money, the other has art.

    Between the two is a chasm of unimaginable depth into which has almost completely fallen a three hundred year old rope bridge known as “Ye old Publishire’s Copyrighte”.

    Only a couple of strands of rope remain, and the crossing is ever more fiercely guarded with an ever higher toll charged for an ever more perilous crossing.

    Some are too scared to go anywhere near the chasm. The more inquisitive lay against its edge unable to remove their gaze from its unfathomable depths. Meanwhile engineers obsess and prevaricate about how best to reinforce or rebuild the bridge.

    About a mile further up, there is no chasm. But aside from the beaten paths brimming and bustling with bootleggers there are no artists and no audiences there. Why? Because 300 years has conditioned everyone to believe that a rope bridge across a chasm is the only way artist and audience can meet and do business.

    The market for copies has ended…

    The market for digital art has just begun.

  16. Doc Searls’s avatar


    First, we’re working on code. If you followed ProjectVRM more closely you’d know that. To take just one example, I can’t imagine a better combination of computer and marketing sciences.

    Second, if I thought “It’s all too hard to change,” I wouldn’t be working on VRM at all. On the contrary, I have a deep, abiding and perhaps completely delusional faith that it will change everything. That’s not just philosophy. It’s a commitment to doing work with good and able people on stuff nobody else is doing. Reject it if you like. But don’t be too surprised if we succeed.

    Third, the presence of committees does nothing to betray the absence of anything else. What it does say is that nobody can do everything. Least of all me.

    Now that I’ve broken the un-obvious rule for disruptive operations, have I compromised the project? 🙂

  17. Simon Edhouse’s avatar

    I have some knowledge of the direction of ProjectVRM in terms of the technology approach… and as far as i can tell, and correct me if I am wrong, its a kind of ‘federated solution’ rather than a granular one, and one that depends on a presumption of voluntary exogenous cooperation in the commercial exchange process. Its also somewhat like APML in that its designed to operate inside the current commercial web paradigm. ~ I think the APML guys have the right basic orientation also, but the idea of having people’s ‘Interest-Data’ moving around the web between vendors under any circumstances seems to me to be the wrong approach. But… horses for courses. ~ As to the un-obvious rule… and potential for true D.I. – Like ‘beauty’, it’s probably in the eye of the beholder, until its a case of game-over… So, we’ll see. Cheers.

  18. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    I’m fascinated that there could even be a question concerning ‘a presumption of voluntary exogenous cooperation’.

    Into what world have we stumbled where it would be better to presume ‘involuntary’ over ‘voluntary’ or ‘antagonism/disruption’ over ‘cooperation’?

    Markets are naturally voluntary commercial exchanges, and humans are naturally cooperative and pleased to make agreeable bargains (whether individually or collectively).

    If you suspend people’s liberty, to hold them hostage in expectation of ransom, they will be inclined to disrespect their captors and break their bonds. Only in that kind of ‘market’ would you not have such a presumption.

    Where did people get this crazy idea from that customers have to be forced to pay vendors? That it is unnatural for customers to want to pay?

  19. Simon Edhouse’s avatar

    LOL… its like the parable of the blind men and the Elephant. ~ One can take a word like ‘voluntary’ and because it was one of a series of words describing a concept, the presumed meaning of the concept can be misinterpreted by inferring that the contrary position must involve the antonym of voluntary, ‘involuntary’. – No.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    “When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’

    “Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

    “Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

    “Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

    “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”

    Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,

    O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
    For preacher and monk the honored name!
    For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
    Such folk see only one side of a thing.

    Jainism and Buddhism. Udana 68-69:
    Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

  20. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    I inferred that the word was not redundant since you had considered it necessary to supply it.

    I was criticising the fact that the word was necessary.

    I was not attempting to address or respond to your comment as a whole. Indeed, I may well entirely agree with you and have no criticism of your comment.

    I’m simply interested in why it seems so necessary these days to qualify everything with ‘voluntary’.

    See my recent comment here:

    I’m also amused by the deceptive use of ‘voluntary’ as in ‘voluntary collective licensing’ which is actually quite compulsory (for everyone except the licensor).

  21. Simon Edhouse’s avatar

    Crosbie, we probably do agree on many things, and you would be interested in one of our projects which involves a new paradigm payment approach to an ‘independent digital music market’.

    I take it VODO’s voluntary payments are like ‘donations’, if that’s true, then the model is weak. The model for the system we propose (above) is the closest manifestation to ‘Coase’s Theorem’ put into action that I have seen/conceived. (payments would be automatic and based on the providers ability to supply, but lock a % of payments back to content originators) But that system requires a third party dependency on a Bank or (analogue) and that is a show-stopper, for the moment.

    As to ‘voluntary’… I guess its just that so much of the web implies or presumes/necessitates an obligation to adhere to the prevailing orthodoxies that people think of ‘voluntary’ action as a logical alternative to the ‘foundation-dependence’ lock-in of the great client-server web con. (see my post)

  22. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    Simon, your show-stopper may be a nail, it may be a screw, but either way, I have a hammer that might one day let your show go on. I have been working on the for some time. This is an online market designed to enable people to make contracts to exchange money contingent upon the outcome of public events, whether in the past or future, whether dependent or independent. I expect it to be demonstrated as operational by by the end of the year.

    Although the market supports commission, it’s voluntary. 😉

    Thanks for the link to your post- I’ll have a read.

  23. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Simon, VRM is a concept, not a single technology or technological approach. You can already see that in the multiple ways just one use case — change of address notification — can be done.

    In no case that I know, however, is VRM “federated” in vendor-to-vendor sense, or dependent on “having people’s ‘Interest-Data’ moving around the web between vendors”. But then, I don’t know what you mean by “a kind of ‘federated solution’ rather than a granular one, and one that depends on a presumption of voluntary exogenous cooperation in the commercial exchange process”. Maybe you could unpack that, or show us where something like that is proposed as a VRM approach.

    As for APML, it’s never come up.

    VRM is intended from the start as a new commercial paradigm — one in which customer relationshps with vendors are under customer and not just vendor control. It is exactly the kind of “break from orthodoxy” you’ve been calling for.

    From the start — which I’ll date roughly from the publication of The Intention Economy, which was months before the term VRM came into use — I have been highly insistent that we keep “attention” and “attention data” out of VRM discussions, and to focus instead on actual customer intentions, and on equipping customers to be fully independent and autonomous in respect to their dealings with vendors. As Joe Andrieu said here, the individual needs to be the “point of integration. And as Adriana Lukas said here, the user needs to be the driver and not merely the locus of external concern.

    As for blind men and elephants, VRM is a new species that we’re creating pretty much from scratch. It has never beeen intended (certainly not by me) to operate inside what you correctly call “the client/server paradigm of the World Wide Web”, and correctly (IMHO) identify as its “negative externalities”. While we obviously have to deal in some (perhaps many) cases with the commercial Web as it exists today, we wish to confine those dealings to ones in which the individual is in control, in which the individual can assert the terms of interaction and service.

    Finally, it is largely because of the vendor-controlled nature of the server-client paradigm that I have also been insistent from the start that we look to the mobile world, and mobile devices, and live interactions, as the best greenfield environment for working out the best of what VRM should become. We have to get away from both the Facebooks of the world, and their mentalities of contained and controlled customer dependence.

    This won’t be easy. Mobile systems vendors (phone companies chief among them) have customer-control mentalities that date back to the dawn of the Industrial Age. But I still think the live & mobile world where we’ll be able to make the best VRM stuff happen.

  24. Simon Edhouse’s avatar

    Doc, I’ll unpack that statement in a subsequent post, but first some broad observations…

    I resonate with the concept and the philosophy, but I still don’t see where VRM ‘bites’? Where are its teeth? It’s going to need vendor buy-in to actually work? You can’t shame them into action, or count on enlightening them. Vendors are not going to volunteer to be ‘managed’… the name of the meme itself, almost jinxes it, for non-adoption by traditional product/service suppliers in the value-chain.

    How is VRM going to be enacted? By what mechanism? If you are counting on a mass movement, you should also count on it splintering into numerous factions who will each see the movement through their own human-network scale lenses. (i.e. thousands of people can’t sustain such a collegiate approach without it breaking up into geographic, ethnographic, sociological or psychographic sub-groups, and there’s evidence of such disparity and clustering already among VRM advocates)

    This discussion:
    is all about ‘semantics’…. “user-centric” or “user-driven” ???
    with phrases like: “…I don’t know if it’s too late to get the identity community to adopt it”. This battle is not going to won by which exact words you agree on to describe the theoretical forces… This is such navel-gazing… and what’s the take-out prize? An agreement on terminology?

    References to “The Identity Community” and “The Identity Folks” and the implied need for their buy-in, indicates already that for instance you will have to take into account the smart people who are pushing APML as a solution in this area, (who incidentally do essentially advocate pushing ‘Interest-Data’ around the web) among a plethora of others, like the OpenID movement etc etc, and OpenID has already been partially appropriated by many vendors, who will extract the benefits that suit them from the system, and disenchant its initiators who will be dismayed with the slightest misappropriations.

    Its heady stuff to think of reversing CRM… but the mechanics of trade (on the web) favor vendors managing customers, not the other way around. So you have to change the mechanics. But I think that putting your cards on the table the way that the VRM movement has, is like giving away your mission before you have defined how you are going to win the war.

    …and everyone’s getting excited about ‘mobile’… Mobile is a distraction. The extent to which it threatens to become a real force is tied to its direct appropriation of the web’s systems and power-structure… Solve the web first, mobile will follow.

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