Not long ago, I ran into a colleague at the ‘Genius Bar’ of my local Apple store. While queuing, we shared some war stories from our time in the trenches, working with customers. “What’s difficult,” he began, “is convincing my clients that social media isn’t just another way to spray marketing messages out to the public.”
I could only agree. “When Cluetrain Manifesto hit the bookshelves, there it was, in black and white: ‘Markets are conversations.’ Back then we didn’t know that everything would become a conversation.”
“People will limp along for as long as they possibly can. Only when disaster looms do they change their ways. Right now we’re in the era of erosion. TV and print audiences grow smaller, internet audiences grow increasingly fragmented. There’s no cut-through, anywhere. But it’s all happening gradually. Businesses have become accustomed to receiving less bang for their buck, year after year.”
We were both silents for a long moment, amidst the din of newly-activated iPhones and iPads. That’s when I had a bit of a brainwave.
“Apple is a good example.”
“How so?” my colleague asked.
“Apple’s customers have always talked to one another, sharing everything they learn about the goings-on inside their favorite electronics company. Those ‘fanboys’ are Apple’s marketing division. Apple barely needs to advertise, send out press releases, or stage product introductions, because their customers do all the hard work, connecting directly with one another.”
“That happened by itself. Apple didn’t do anything to help it along,” he shot back.
“No, but they should have. Then, when they have a product launch that doesn’t go perfectly – like Final Cut Pro X, which got roasted in the blogosphere by the professional video editing crowd – they could ask the community to step up. Customers are your best defense and your best sales force. Apple’s got a tremendous resource here, and they completely ignore it.”
“Are you surprised? If you’re an Apple customer, how can you connect with the company? Apple will send you an email advertising their latest products, but they’ve never really engaged their customers in a conversation about those products,” he quipped.
“It’s not ‘The Apple Way,” I responded. We shared a laugh, and I imagined Steve Jobs, earplugs in, ignoring a vast crowd, all shouting advice, and encouragement. “It nearly killed Apple, back in the 1980s, during the introduction of the Macintosh. It nearly killed them again during the ‘90s. Ignoring your customers is a sport you can engage in only as long as you have the market to yourself.”
“Apple won’t change its ways without a competitor. And I don’t see one around anywhere.”
“It’ll be some new player, built from the ground up to connect employee to employee, customer to the business, customer to customer. The future belongs to the businesses which connect most effectively with their customers.”
“Exactly what I’ve been telling my clients about how to grow their businesses.”
“My clients are afraid of this future. They know they need it, they understand that this is exactly where things are headed, but they see it as a three-ring circus, without a ringleader: wild, colorful, and completely out of control.”
“Control,” my friend giggled as he said it. “It’s all about control, isn’t it?”
“That’s always what it boils down to. Everyone wants control, and no one wants to acknowledge that we don’t have that kind of power. Maybe we never did.”
“It’s hard to tell a CEO they’re not the king. It’s good to be the king,” he continued. “That’s why we’re consultants: it’s our job to deliver the bad news.”
We shared a smile. One of the Apple Store’s ever-helpful sales associates came up, with an answer to the question I’d posed some minutes before, apologizing profusely for the delay. “Now that’s great service,” I remarked to my friend, as the associate walked off.
“They have the real-world down cold, not so much the virtual one,” he said and it took me a moment to reply.
“That’s going to be quite a chasm to cross. And not just for Apple. Every business, every institution, every government department, everywhere.”
My friend smiled. “Good. All the more work for us.”
“Sure. When they start listening. The conversations already going on, all around them, inside their businesses and outside their walls. But we can’t force them to listen.”
“Don’t worry about that,” my friend responded. “Their customers will make them listen. One way or another.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
Then I bid my friend good afternoon, walking out into Sydney’s lunchtime crowds, wondering what will happen when the circus comes to town.
Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of the VRML and founder of Future St, a Sydney media and technology consultancy.