Over the weekend I read an inspiring book: The Cluetrain Manifestoby Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger.

The Manifesto consists of four discussions surrounding 95 theses; the crux of which is that "markets are conversations". In a world were the internet gives everyone a voice, its time for organizations to listen to and participate in those conversations or be left behind. The authors argue that the internet has tipped the scales in favor of the consumer. Connectivity has given a everyone a chance to shout as loudly as they can how wonderful, or how poor a product is. They challenge institutions to learn the parlance of the new market place and become an active, and most importantly, genuine participant. The penalty for non-compliance is simple, they get left behind and become afterthoughts or lessons of failure.

The book was written in 1999.

1999, that is 4 years before MySpace, 5 years before FaceBook and 6 years before Twitter. The Cluetrain authors already knew what most businesses are still coming to grips with. "Markets are conversations."

A few weeks ago I posted my own white paper on the use of social media in healthcare. The terms and tools are newer, but the ideas are rooted in the work of Levine, Locke, Searls, and Weinberger (though I did not know about the Manifesto when I drafted Social Pulse).

Here in Richmond, VA we have a stretch of interstate that I have dubbed "Healthcare Highway". There are five hospital billboards in less than one mile. "We are the best carido program on the East coast...", "We treat you faster in our ER...", or "Best place to have a baby..." there is nothing wrong with that type of marketing. A friend describes it as being a good neighbor, reminding the community that you are there. But it serves little purpose past that.

This is the time to stop littering the skyline with superlatives and start having conversations. As healthcare providers we need to ask our employees, patients and physicians how we can best help them. What do you want out of a relationship with your local hospital? How can we serve you better, and when we don't live up to your expectations, how can we make it right?

The good news is that its not too late. Unlike what we are seeing with the automotive and credit industries, the unique nature of healthcare has afforded us a chance to slip under the radar. But it will not last long. Look at the scrutiny and criticisms leveled at the for-profit insurance industry. Sure there will always be services where we have a captive audience: OB, the ER, etc. But as modern medicine makes traveling with an health issue easier and recovery time faster will we start seeing people leave our markets and travel for their care? And when that happens, patients will not beat down your door because of your billboard on 64-W, they will come because you cultivated a real and meaningful relationship.

The Cluetrain Manifesto can be found on Amazon, the authors has also made the entire book available online for free here.