This post is part of a 95 post series discussing the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto as they relate to business in 2009. Read more about the series in the introduction post. And check out the rest of the series!

Stephen SmithNote: This is a guest post from Stephen Smith, editor of Business Development in Context and a co-founder of the forum. You can follow him on Twitter at @hdbbstephen.

Thesis #19: Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.

Harsh words. But very true, to a point.

Engage your market directly

There are examples of companies experiencing the positive and negative effects of direct communication. You can check out Dell & Zappos on your own, to get more acquainted with those examples.  I’d like to explore 3 simple rules that companies can use to guide how they share, communicate and reach out to their customers.

Simple Machine ForumRule number one: People that use a product or service like to talk to other people using that product or service. Give them a place to do it, and participate honestly and fairly. A forum is a common, and often cheap/free way to get give your customers’ dialogue a home.

This is a dead-simple way to create an FAQ (frequently asked questions) tool set for your company with “official” answers and user-generated comment. No matter how much testing you do with your product or application a clever user will find a way to use it (or misuse it) that you did not anticipate. Sometimes, if you are quick enough, these sorts of happy accidents can lead to new products to sell, increased customer loyalty, and word of mouth advertising worth more than a trip to Hawai’i. Or a marketing department.

tweet statusRule number two: Let your employees talk to your customers. @Ambercadabra pointed out a remarkable truth on Twitter the other day, and the community ran with it. With just 6 degrees of distribution via from some of Amber’s followers this question went out to over 11,000 potential watchers. Of course, not everyone attributed the quote, so it went out even further [search “trust+employee+twitter”].

This is a topic that a lot of people are thinking about.

Yet the answer to Amber’s question remains elusive. Why indeed?

Is it because the conversations that take place online are there forever and legal departments are afraid of getting the company in hot water over an “unapproved” comment or blog post?

Doesn’t this mode of thinking reveal something more basic (and perhaps a little bit sinister)?

What is your company trying to hide if the employees can’t talk to the customers?

If every employee is not on-board with your corporate vision and dedicated to the success of the company and its products/services then that means one of these things:

  1. Your vision is a lie. Or impossible.
  2. Your employees know that you don’t mean it, so why should they?
  3. Your product or service sucks.
  4. Your product or service isn’t worth the money and they know it.
  5. Your employees don’t feel like they are treated fairly, because they know the customers aren’t.

It means that you can’t be trusted to communicate with your employees.

Once you have taken a good hard look at yourself, and your corporate culture, then you can take a look at this fantastic post from Beth Kanter on Social Media Strategies for Non-profits:

Set objectives based on a clear understanding of how social media changes the feedback loop between your organization and stakeholders. The key thing that is different with setting a social media objective is that it is not about reaching a mass audience and blasting your message out, it is more about reaching the influencers, developing relationships, having a conversation, and getting insights. Make your objectives “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound)

laptop spamRule number three: Initiating a relationship is not an invitation to spam. Just because a customer comes to you, your company website or forum, does not mean that you can open the floodgates of special offers. Or trap them in a never-ending series of opt-ins, opt-outs, and surveys.

Clue: Customers hate this!

Don’t teach your customers to hate you. Jonathan Kranz writes at MarketingProfs Daily Fix:

Customers are quick learners. We’ve learned, for example, to ignore subscription renewal letters that come months in advance of our actual expiration date; from experience, we know that there’s no urgency – plenty of other letters will come in the next few months reminding us to renew. That’s why I’m concerned about a prevailing abuse of the word (or concept), “relationship.” As a pretext for sending me overwhelming amounts of unsolicited email, marketers tell me (in the fine print), that I’m receiving this cascade of irrelevant and irritating material because we have some kind of “relationship.” Often, I cannot recall what that “relationship” is; when did I give permission for this volume of vacuous nonsense? It turns out that by purchasing a product, I’ve initiated a “relationship.” By downloading a free case study, I’ve initiated a “relationship.” By simply making a request for more information, again, I’ve initiated a “relationship.”

A relationship is a fragile thing, a mutual thing. A relationship is to be tended by both parties involved. A relationship requires trust (see Rule number 2, above).

Remember, trust can be won and lost. This is the most incredible chance your company has ever had- a chance to tell the whole world about your story.

Are you going to blow it?