Many executives are overwhelmed by the rate of change in digital. Little wonder that some just give up trying to understand what currently drives customers. 

However if you strip away the smartphones, iPads and wearable devices, you’ll see that consumer needs haven’t really changed that much. In fact, the desires of the always-on digital consumer may be identical to those operating in the first marketplaces 1,000 years ago. 

This is according to Mark W. Schaefer’s Masters of CX report The Ultimate Customer Experience was Created 1,000 Years Ago an exploration of a theory that the foundations of the ultimate customer experience were created in medieval marketplaces.

Mark W. Schaefer is a globally recognised blogger, speaker, educator, business consultant, and author who writes for {grow}. We’re delighted to work with him on our Masters of CX series which features true marketing thinkers and industry heavyweights covering the issues surrounding the customer experience approach and strategy. 

Find out more about the other authors and download all the reports at Masters of CX then join the discussion using #MastersofCX

In the meantime, here are a few takeaways from the report…

Medieval marketplaces

Here are a few things we know to be true of village commerce from 1,000 years ago:

  • It was highly personal and interactive. You stood face to face with a seller, looked them in the eye and confirmed transactions with a handshake.
  • There was immediacy. If somebody felt wronged or cheated, sellers knew it right away. Feedback on quality, service, and pricing was delivered face-to-face immediately. 
  • Success depended on word of mouth. There was no advertising, mass media, or PR. It took peer recommendations to make or break a business. This also meant that if you wronged a buyer, word would spread quickly.

The parallels between the medieval marketplace and today’s digital, connection-based economy are clear.

Mass media

The thing that interrupted this natural course of business was the introduction of mass media. Marketers realised that they could sell efficiently and at a greater breadth by broadcasting using print media, radio and television.

This unfortunately created a divide between businesses and customers. The human side that people enjoyed interacting with became disengaged when we turned to mass advertising.

When the internet arrived, it was very easy for marketers to see it as a medium similar to television, where ads can be broadcast to passive viewers. Only on the internet it can be done for free.

However we’ve only recently learnt that mere ‘broadcasting’ on the internet doesn’t really work. It’s all about connections. Promoting engagement. Building lasting relationships. Building a community.

Although business leaders marvel at how the digital world has ‘changed everything’ the irony is that today things couldn’t be more similar to how they were 1,000 years ago, it’s just that we’re having to relearn techniques that became redundant 100 years ago.

Back to the dark ages

Here are some simple rules your business can learn from medieval commerce to improve customer experience.

  • People still want to know the humans behind your brand. Customers build emotional connections with products like they build relationships with their friends. Come out from behind the logo. Show the customers who you are.
  • A disgruntled customer can broadcast to 6,000 Twitter followers instead of just their immediate neighbours, therefore your brand must be listening and responding in real-time.
  • People will also talk endlessly about what they are buying, eating, viewing and listening to on social networks therefore personal connection and word of mouth validation are the most important marketing considerations for your business.

For much more insight on how adopting the medieval mindset can help your modern customer experience strategy download the free report.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 10 December, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

686 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (5)


Aviva Pinchas, Digital Strategist at Aviva Pinchas Consulting

Love this post - great framework to talk about trends in personalization, relevancy and the Internet attempting to get smaller thanks to algorithms. Interesting piece on Wired about this trend:

over 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Here's an actual medieval village from 1000 years ago. Small, isn't it? I think most village commerce was informal bartering with your neighbour, who was probably also your cousin.

over 3 years ago



"People still want to know the humans behind your brand” - too true Christopher Radcliffe. Just as they want to feel that they are still being treated as humans. In a world where technology is bringing us fridges that can order our milk and telephones that can put on our central heating, there is still very much a sense of where’s the human behind the service or product. As a customer, it is about a personal engagement with a brand, about understanding the benefits to you on a bespoke level. At Platform, we are finding that using innovative technology, but keeping customers at the heart of the design, production and outcomes is the only way brands will continue to grow in any marketplace.

over 3 years ago


Pauline Ashenden, Marketing Manager at Eptica

There are some very true points here – but one important difference is that today, consumers continually expect more, whatever you are providing. So while a medieval peasant may have been happy with (or at least resigned to), his or her lot, today’s consumers are always demanding a better experience, across every sector. You can read more about this Millennial generation in the Eptica blog at

over 3 years ago


Elijah Lim, Principal Consultant at Elijah Consulting Pte Ltd

The core doesn't change. The core, however, expresses itself in many different ways, geographical locations and time.

over 3 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.