The Whuffie Factor: applied Cluetrain Manifesto for the twenty-first century

Tara Hunt's The Whuffie Factor is a quick, insightful update to books like The Cluetrain Manifesto, the seminal work that described the means by which conversations were conducted online and advised companies on how to join the conversation without seeming smarmy or patronizing. As Hunt points out, Cluetrain preceded the rise of blogging, not to mention Twitter, social networking services, and all the other key elements of modern online conversation.

Hunt's book is a lot shorter on theory and manifesto than Cluetrain and a lot longer on practicalities, devoting a lot of space to explaining how all these tools work and citing examples of different commercial and charitable organizations that have used them to good effect (as well as citing cautionary examples of companies that bungled things badly, usually by being caught out in deceit of one kind or another). Because of this, Whuffie Factor is probably easier to put into effect as soon as you crack the cover, but it's also likely to go stale more quickly, as the specific technologies cited wane (Cluetrain may have pre-dated blogging, but it had enough theory-stuff that it's still worth reading today, ten years later). On the other hand, if Hunt's book does well, she'll have a nice side-line in producing annual updated editions.

Hunt's central thesis is that participating in community and gaining social capital is the fastest, most reliable way to attain success for products, services, causes and movements than advertising and marketing are, and she sets out to re-educate executives and marketing people who haven't cottoned on to this. There's something of a holy mission in explaining the networked, twenty-first century reality to successful but out-dated people, if only so that execs get enough religion to give excited junior people rein to do experimental and exciting things online.

Hunt's book only suffers slightly from having been written before the econopocalypse (writing business books just before a global economic catastrophe is a tricky business), having a very faint air of the commercial excess of the golden days of 2008. But in the final analysis, using conversation and community to succeed is ultimately more frugal and Depression-ready than buying a lot of big, loud, glitzy Superbowl ads.

I've been tracking the progress of this book for a year or so, ever since I got wind of the title. "Whuffie," of course, is the social currency used by the characters in my novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which was incidentally the first novel released under a Creative Commons license, a book that relied quite a lot on community and conversation for its success (I've lost track of how many printings the book's gone through now -- I think it's in its ninth edition). I was flattered to hear that Hunt wanted to use the word in her title, and now that I've read the book, I'm very pleased to have my little neologism attached to such a fine read.

The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business

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  1. I got a peek at galleys of The Whuffie Factor a few months ago during a visit to Citizen Space coworking, and I concur: the book helps translate the concepts of ClueTrain Manifesto and the social-reputation-as-currency of DaOitMK into practical business advice, with real-world examples.

    Yes, the editing-publishing-distribution cycle means that some examples do age rapidly during context shifts. For me, though, this time-capsule effect is a feature, not a bug: it provides an opportunity to bring fresh eyes to our state of mind of six months to a year ago, to look for the patterns we weren’t recognizing (yet) then.

    In this case we can ask ourselves whether Whuffie is a luxury or a necessity in business: something that just happened to work for certain people in certain situations, or a wider principle that can be more universally applied. Does Virgin America get to make a cheeky safety video because it fits their branding, or can ‘vanilla’ flavored businesses break free. And do the actions lose their transformative value and underlying meaning when they’re pursued “for the wrong reasons,” without the genuine transformation at the core of the business?

    I’m looking forward to a full read of The Whuffie Factor. The big question I’ll be asking as I go through it: will it make it harder to distinguish the real thing from greenwashing and manufactured social media campaigns?

  2. “Hunt’s central thesis is that participating in community and gaining social capital is the fastest, most reliable way to attain success for products, services, causes and movements than advertising and marketing are”

    It worked for Obama.

  3. Hmm. Ms. Hunt doesn’t seem to want to work for Whuffies herself (or did I miss a link to the freely downloadable version?)

  4. Do we really want marketing people to know about, or effectively use, “community” any more than they already do?

    I don’t mean to single out this author, or any other particular one; but, frankly, the less corporations know about tweaking my hominid social instincts, the better.

  5. #4 Takuan: can you have whuffies without a way to count them?

    Not if you define Wuffie as the techno-measure of respect. We have always recognized the social value of respect. What’s happening now is that same social mechanism is being translated into a different medium and is becoming more explicit. I’m reminded of the exocortex in Stross’s Accelerando.

    #3 Jonathan Badger: check out Tara’s blog Her entry from 4/16 seems to indicate that she’d love to allow for download. Perhaps the publisher is resistant? It seems like the real market for hardcopies is when someone with a Clue needs to give a copy to their boss. In such a case, a free download could be expected to generate a lot more sales.

  6. someone needs to write a whuffie granting applet easily appendable to websites. Auditable, instant voting, a button that will appear everywhere and let the IP address viewing it vote (or unvote) once.
    How hard is it to expand the existing similar systems to something web-wide? Where will whuffies be stored? Who will form the whuffie-court to correct mistakes and punish offenders?

  7. I don’t think that anyone (serious) is arguing that social media (online and WOM) isn’t important. But to say that it’s more effective than traditional advertising misses the point. It’s like saying that good oral hygiene is more important than comfortable shoes. They’re two very different parts of what seems (to some) to be one, big communications ball.

    For example… One fact touted in the “social media is taking over everything” camp is that Dell has a dedicated team of around 40 people that interacts with consumers through its blogs, community forums and third-party sites. That’s great. I think it’s an important marker, and other companies can learn from that. But…

    Dell’s advertising budget is around $1.5 billion per year. So adding 40 full time social networking people, while it sounds like a big deal when out-of-context, would probably cost around $2-4 million per year, which is less than a third of a percent of their advertising budget.

    I’m not questioning the importance of social media. But it’s additive (or subtractive, if done poorly) to traditional media.

  8. I agree with Jonathan: why doesn’t she allow downloads of her book? She might earn more whuffies :P

  9. Damn, for years I’ve been reading that word as whuffle with an L. Has it really had an I all the time?

  10. And in other news, Chris ‘Rageboy’ Locke wrote a couple of other books after co-writing Cluetrain; “Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices” (the clue’s in the title) and the awesome The Bombast Transcripts: Rants and Screeds of RageBoy. Amazon look-inside is your friend, but I suspect many BB readers would enjoy it greatly. Just check the table of contents.

    (Yeah, I’m a fan, does it show?) I guess the Cluetrain manifesto really works then; after all, I’m a happy customer trying to demonstrate my appreciation of this company’s work by bigging it up by posting to a blog…

  11. Just a thought- Doesn’t the title just reflect the fact that she’s read her own book?

    I mean, just by giving that namecheck, and admitting the influence of a certain book on her thinking, she’s wangled a mention on this site,which will grow her customer base.

    That’s the trouble with marketing of any kind. It makes everything suspect, and puts a price tag on every single action.

  12. “Hunt’s central thesis is that participating in community and gaining social capital is the fastest, most reliable way to attain success for products, services, causes and movements….”

    Wow. That’s a pretty powerful statement. A game changer, if there is proof for this. I thought this was interesting and related:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/20/business/media/20twitter.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss

    Surely Pizza Hut is not the first company to do this but it shows that the majors are aware of what is going on. I wonder how the success of this twitter project will effect their traditional media budget.

    Eric Cohen
    Padosa.com

  13. Being unaware of ‘whuffie’ until now, my first assumption was that it referred to flatulence, and that the red (obviously embarrassed) figure in the group on the book’s cover was admitting that it was her who had ‘dealt it’.

  14. #12 Nelson.C, me too, I not only thought it was whuffLe, but I’ve introduced other people to the concept of whuffLe. OMG when the scandal hits whuffie bankruptcy won’t be good enough for me.

    “whuffie”?? Srsly?

  15. Right about the same time I was reading Cory’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I was also re-reading Bruce Sterling’s novel, Distraction. Hey, some people will watch movies or television shows repeatedly, I read books I like repeatedly.

    Anyway, while Distraction is similar to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom in that there is also a reputation-based economy Distraction is different in that Bruce imagines a world where the US economy is in the toilet instead of a post-scarcity economy. Nearly everyone in the country is broke and once again a reputation-based currency emerges.

    Like a lot of people, I wanted to see a world where something like Whuffie could exist so I was very happy to have Tara on my show to talk about The Whuffie Factor.

    You can listen to my interview with Tara at http://www.alterati.com/blog/2010/05/the-whuffie-factor/

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