Digital roadkill

Just over 13 years a group of Silicon Valley technologists wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, detailing what they saw as being the new rules of business in a connected world.


Cluetrain was mandatory reading when terms like “information superhighway” were fashionable and Yahoo! was the dominant web portal. It has somewhat fallen out of fashion today.

Like most manifestos, Cluetrain was partially unreadable and heavy on dramatics, but it did lay down the principles that are now largely accepted in both the online and mainstream business worlds.

I was reminded of the Cluetrain Manifesto earlier this week at a suburban marketing event run by one of the country’s biggest media organisations. The lessons of the last 13 years seemed to have passed by almost every business in the room.

Most of these businesses were operating the way they did in the 1990s. While some of them had a website and a couple had Facebook pages, their businesses had barely changed in the last twenty years.

These businesses are digital roadkill. Many of them have no idea what’s about to hit them as they sit paralysed wondering what the bright lights bearing down on them are.

In this respect they aren’t dissimilar to the big department stores or electrical chains that are working to a model that’s ticked along nicely for decades and don’t realise how the fundamentals of the economy have shifted in the last five years.

Many of these small traders are still taking orders by fax and some of them still keep their chequebook ready to pay their suppliers bills. It’s that bad.

The idea of selling over the net is completely beyond them; only big overseas companies dodging GST do that sort of thing.

Even in the marketing field, these businesses have ignored the obvious for years with many still advertising in their local Yellow Pages and freebie community newspaper, despite barely making a sale from either in five years. But these channels worked for them once.

Few of them have up-to-date websites, are doing the bare minimum search engine or mobile optimisation and almost every single one hasn’t bothered to claim their local business listings.

To be fair to the little guys, the host organisation was no better. This large media organisation has a good online product – they even own one of the major online local business listing services – but their salespeople on the night didn’t mention it as they are too locked into selling their traditional local newspaper advertising products.

At least that company is wealthy and has other profitable arms that can prop up its dying local newspaper arms, which can at least appear profitable while there are costs to be stripped from the operation.

Unlike those big media companies and retailers, the small local business doesn’t have big cash reserves or deep-pocketed investors allowing them to survive for years in a declining market.

These small businesses are just going to drag their owners into poverty.

Not only have the old rules of business gone but the value of businesses that choose to live in the past has evaporated too. Few people are going to buy a business with an old, declining customer base.

“Roadkill” is an apt term for a business that probably won’t be around in two years.

Today the Cluetrain is a big lumbering road train carrying ecommerce goods down the fast lane of the information superhighway, with a driver that has no intention of stopping.

Make sure your business isn’t the cute fluffy rodent sitting in its path.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.


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