Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Web Discourse: The human voice of the blog

Ten years ago, four insightful and web savvy guys—Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger—each with an impressive list of internet-related accomplishments—published The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. Addressing a number of issues, most of which relate to changes in marketing and communications that the internet is bringing about, it puts forward “95 Theses” that state how markets have become different in the internet age, that markets are fundamentally conversations among human beings, not demographic segments, and that human beings now want to engage in human conversation not just hear more corporate hype. They assert, in Thesis #68: The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what’s that got to do with us?”

The “95 Theses” provided a kind of line in the sand where the power in American business shifted from corporations to customers. Customers now, they maintained, are demanding a dialog with businesses. They have access to information about companies and are expecting to companies to be open and straight with them, talking in a human voice not in corporate doublespeak. Thesis #61: “Sadly, the part of the company the network market wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.”

It is an injustice to pull out a few quotes from Cluetrain to convey what a significant contribution it has made and how it summarized attitudes that are now becoming impossible to ignore. Read it yourself. You can download it. But nowhere are the implications of Cluetrain more apparent than in a blog. Hucksterism, promotional hoo-ha, obfuscating prose, and self-serving advertisingspeak stand out so prominently that you almost start to feel embarrassed—almost. It’s a sure thing that you’ll probably avoid that site, that blog, maybe even that company later.

The best retail, in my opinion, has always employed magic and theater, evoking moods and attitudes that seduce us. But if the lush imagery that builds the retail brand lacks authenticity, is self-directed and not inviting, it will turn customers off, which is why, I believe that few retailers have successfully put together really readable and entertaining blogs. Many of them just tend to be clueless about the voice of the brand, even though they are pretty sophisticated about it when it comes to imagery. Hint: The voice is human, just like your customers.

That is why the Urban Outfitters blog is so refreshing. It is written by staff from different cities who are plugged into the culture of their communities. Take this recent entry from Paris:
I honestly don’t know how they do it. This Chanel Pre-Fall video brings you into this fantasy mindset for just a few minutes before reality sets back in and you then realize you are unfortunately not one of the lucky girls trying on one of those spectacular headdresses. Nice 7 minute daydream though. X – Jen. This entry is tagged with: Europe, Fashion, Gnarlitude, and Video.

Or this one from New York City: It’s officially BBQ season and with it comes the need for BBQ music. Our recommendation? Nick Catchdubs and Mr. Ducker’s Radio Friendly Unit Shifter mixes. The two volume series, presented by Mishka, cuts up 90’s alt rock (Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, etc.) into BBQ-sized doses.

It’s not just that the topics are appealing to Urban Outfitters customers; it’s also the voice. It establishes a human connection.

Another completely different example comes from my client SA VA: Founder, CEO and Community Organizer Sarah Van Aken is blogging about what’s going on in setting up the first store and the garment center (private label clothes will be manufactured in Philadelphia), about finding recycled, biodegradable hangers, and about the desperately long hours an entrepreneur puts in just getting something going. When the store opens, the blog will shift to the customers, the designers and stylists, but will still have entries from the founder who wants to promote the Philadelphia Emergency Center (her community cause), collaboration and openness. And she’ll do this, showing warts and all.

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