E-love

Internet - Adam Wishart on how e-companies woo new customers

"We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings - and our reach exceeds our grasp - deal with it!" It sounds like a slogan from anti-capitalist rioters or New Age spiritualists. But this is a call to arms from one of the bestselling internet marketing movements of the moment, The Cluetrain Manifesto, which is a website, a book and a series of speaker tours.

"Burn down business-as-usual," Christopher Locke writes in the opening chapter of the book. "Bulldoze it . . . Topple the statues of heroes too long dead into the street." Drawing strange inspiration from the events of 1968, he implores readers to tear down the barricades between consumers and suppliers, the PR department and the shop floor.

Because of the internet, Locke argues, everyone is free to communicate, and information is ubiquitous, fast-moving and dangerous. Corporations of the future have to understand the value of this gossip, and profit from their workers trading it. The secretive, pyramid-structured businesses of old will come to look more like a "utopia" of intermingling communities abiding by the maxim that "all markets are conversations". In this process, the revolutionary tool is not samizdat or the petrol bomb, but e-mail - and the Jerusalem he hopes to build is rather like a series of email-chattering Tupperware parties.

The Cluetrain Manifesto marks the overblown vanguard of a much wider movement which intends to colonise the world's inbox. By 2004, the average internet customer, according to Forrester Research, will receive 3,500 commercial e-mails a year. When universal e-mail was first created in 1981 - to allow a handful of academics to communicate - few could have imagined its eventual ubiquity (there are now 700 million e-mail accounts worldwide) or its potential commercial value. Early adopters of the internet even signed declarations not to use their accounts for commercial purposes, but now e-mail is the main channel to the wallets of customers.

Many companies are rushing to capitalise on what will soon be a billion-dollar industry. Another.com - which claims three-quarters of a million users of its free web-based e-mail service - hopes that it will survive the dot-com shake-out by asking its users if it can sell access to their inboxes. Amstrad has just launched its "em@iler", a phone cum answer machine cum e-mail box all at the bargain price of £79.99. It is paid for by adverts, from the likes of Direct Line and Britannia Music, which are dumped on to the phone's screen at a fraction of the cost of using the Royal Mail.

For Locke and his friends, this will simply be a fizzing cocktail party of commercial awareness, but one can't help wondering how welcome these come-ons will be. In the past week alone, I received e-mail solicitations for a "secret" Spy Manual and a chain letter promising $50,000 in 90 days.

However, the most radical advocates of the power of e-mail - such as Seth Godin in his bestselling book and website Permission Marketing - argue the exact opposite. E-mail heralds the demise of intrusive traditional advertising, they say. Gone will be the commercial clutter and, instead, consumers will demand marketing material finely tuned to their needs and desires. We can all look forward to a world in which our inboxes are stuffed only with information that we want from companies that we trust - a kind of Third Way contract between businesses and consumers.

This, claims Godin, will all be very cosy: "Permission Marketing is just like dating. It turns strangers into friends and friends into lifetime customers. Many of the rules of dating apply, and so do many of the benefits." Like a cloying sex counsellor, he goes on to enumerate the five-step plan for snaring customers and walking them up the commercial aisle. It begins with inducements and, at every stage, the customer is politely asked if he would like to continue on to the next base. Over time, the victim allows himself to be bombarded by more and more seductive information. Finally, the business gets to hold the customer in a huckster's clinch, a sale.

Permission Marketing and its Cluetrain siblings come with the rhetoric of revolution. But the collaborative and commercial community to which they aspire seems to take little account of the oligopolies of the market, the power of brands or the existence of class. In one respect, they seem correct in invoking the Sixties, when "free love" wasn't so much about feminism as another excuse for men to get their legs over. Now, by extending his dating metaphor even to marriage - between customer and supplier - Godin creates a world of supposedly free information that never questions whether one side is getting screwed.