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It's The End Of The World As We Know It
But clued in to the change, netpreneurs feel fine

(Washington, DC -- March 7, 2000) It was Mardi Gras. It was Super Tuesday. "Let the record show," however, said Thomas Petzinger, Jr., "Right about now the exit polls are being released and the coolest people in the nation's capital are not in front of CNN."

It's no longer business as usual in Greater Washington. The city's company town, political image is rapidly being shed, replaced by a new economic base of Internet and communications entrepreneurs. The Cluetrain came to Washington, DC, this evening, and over 1100 of the region's Internet leaders preferred a glimpse into the future of business over plastic beads and exit polls. They came to hear Christopher Locke and David Weinberger explain why the Internet means the end of business as usual, not just in DC, but everywhere.

Locke and Weinberger are two of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book that has become both a best seller and cult favorite among the digital in-crowd. Says the Manifesto, "Markets are conversations. Talk is cheap. Silence is fatal." It's a mantra that upends everything we're used to about commerce. At tonight's event, entitled "The End of Business as Usual," produced by the Morino Institute's netpreneur.org and UUNET, it was anything but silent, as Locke, Weinberger and Petzinger, author of another business bestseller, The New Pioneers: The Men and Women Who Are Transforming the Workplace and Marketplace, joined with audience members in a . . . well . . . "spirited" conversation. It started with the audience beaning each other with dozens of inflatable beach balls, moved from presentations to dialogue to debate; along the way delivering predictions, very bad puns and more than a little wisdom.

"What is the Internet for?" asked Weinberger. It wasn't a trick question, but not an easy one either. "A telephone is for calling people. Highways are for going places. What is the Web for? I haven't heard an answer. Why does the growth curve look like a hockey stick with the fastest vertical acceptance line since the discovery of fire? Why are we rushing to this thing that we have no idea what it's for? Something deep is going on."

The answer to that question goes far beyond business, and it changes everything about how we do business. "The Web offers us our voice back," is Weinberger's conclusion. "We are not on the Web because we want a better shopping experience. It's not because we have electronic catalogues instead of those old, stupid, paper catalogs. What's doing it is connections. We want to connect with one other. We want to connect with other people as ourselves."

That's why, in the New Economy, markets are conversations, not demographic reports. It's big picture stuff.

"We live in this split-apart world," opened Locke, "where you hear people talking about 'my job' and 'my life' as if those really were two different things." It's been a historical progression from the Industrial Revolution to Organization Man; from interchangeable parts, to interchangeable workers, to interchangeable consumers. He may have begun by sounding a little cosmic, but Locke's message was ultimately, eminently practical—in an interconnected, global market with an explosion of options and where individuals can talk to each other anytime, business must start treating customers as people and allies, not consumers.

Traditional business is hierarchical, and traditional business communications are about controlling the message. That doesn't work when you have the Internet around mucking up chains of command, providing alternate routes to information and letting customers talk to each other, your employees, competitors and the media. Markets are conversations, not lectures.

When did 'marketing' become a verb? In the earliest days, markets were places to go, not just to pick up vegetables for tonight's dinner, but to get the latest news, gossip and debate. To meet people. Weinberger said, "It was filled with the sound of human voice. It's where civilization actually grew up. Somehow, in the 20th century, now the 21st, it got turned into 'marketing,' something you do to people, and you do it to them against their will."

"What gets marketed to consumers are messages," he said. "The only flaw in this is, there is no market for messages."

But, in the New Economy, the old market is back. A Saturn owner posts a message to an email group asking if he was ripped off in a repair at the dealership. "Yes," replies a mechanic from another Saturn dealership, "Here's what we're supposed to do..." Ford and Delta Airlines announce that they will purchase PCs and Internet connections for all of their employees. Why? The newspapers covering the announcement talked about the cost and technology, but for Ford CEO and President Jac Nasser the reason was that, "We're committed to serving consumers better by understanding how they think and act." In Locke's words, it gives them 350,000 ears in the marketplace listening to new trends, and it's bi-directional—350,000 voices in the marketplace not talking like PR people, but talking like mechanics and secretaries. Weinberger quipped, "At Ford, conversation is job one."

Opportunity in the New Economy isn't so much about bandwidth and technology, although those things are certainly important for creating economic opportunities on the Net. In the larger picture, it's about companies releasing their struggle for control—control of the message, the process, the organization and the people. And companies don't have a choice, because the millions of people on the Internet are not in their control. Those which can adapt, will succeed. They'll form conversations in which real people talk to each other.

Said Locke, for example, on the question of how Internet marketers use data they collect about buyers, "If what we get from companies is connecting the dots and facilitating the conversation, there would be far less concern that we are being targeted for spam and advertising."

Traditional business has usually been a zero-sum game, according to Petzinger, who for many years covered, at various times, the agriculture, oil, steel and coal industries for the Wall Street Journal. A dollar in labor's pocket was a dollar out of management's, the same as a dollar going to a competitor. All that has changed, largely because of opportunities opened up through communication. "In nature," he observed, "all boundaries are permeable." But traditional business has been a hard-shelled organism. The co-evolution of the Internet alongside the growth of international markets and customer choice has changed the zero-sum view into one of a growing, shifting, transforming, uncontrollable conversation.

No one was as surprised as Petzinger, for example, when he began printing his email address in his columns. Yes, he received volumes of mail which he had to read and respond too, but his readers also became millions of new eyes and ears. "It was virtually all incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and well written—with the occasional flame, but you need that to make life interesting," he said. "A dialogue began, and it actually shaped how I began to do that column. The boundary between me and my readers had begun to dissolve."

Mario Morino, who wrapped up the event, relies on a technique he calls pulsing. "There is no longer a need," he said, "for any company or organization to make a decision completely internally again." Whether you are in research, customer support, sales or any other decision-making role, it's foolish to keep it inside the conference room. Go out and ask for help. "That's the cultural challenge," he said. "Are we big enough, strong enough and do we have the confidence to carry on that dialogue.?"

As Locke noted, The New York Times never really printed all the news that was fit to print. That's why he sees one of the next big waves of Internet-enabled opportunities in "micro-markets" that bubble up from below, not created top-down through market research. "It's going to go to companies and individuals who can coalesce those markets which don't yet exist, but which are going to gravitate and come together around kernels of good writing, good analysis, good insight, good entertainment—whatever it is that brings people together. That's going to turn over billions, if not trillions of dollars. In the next five years, something as astounding as what we have seen with the Internet in the last five years is going to happen again. It's going to happen with respect to these bottom-up micro-markets emerging with a completely different set of opportunities than existed in the top-down broadcast, mass marketing mass advertising economy that we are leaving."

If the end of business as usual means the end of top-down control, it also means the end of secrets, and according to Locke, "The biggest secret that business is trying to hide from the market, is that we are human; we are fallible; we make mistakes; we are not perfect." The underlying message of the Cluetrain Manifesto is to break old habits, but that's hard to do, even for the cutting-edge entrepreneurs who are immersed in Internet innovation. "You get your first VC money and you start talking like General Motors. Stop that!"

Copyright 2000 Morino Institute. All rights reserved.

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