The Social Cost of Bad Online Marketing
Dan Lyons’s book Disrupted is an often-delightful tour through startup culture, based on the author’s experience working at online marketing firm HubSpot. Despite taking the faux-curmudgeonly attitude of an anthropologist exploring the strange world of business dudes — is a sales funnel reallythat much of a novelty? — Lyons’s dissection of the startup world is warmly humorous far more often than it’s coldly cynical.
But there are parts of his book that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who uses the Internet — like his tale of writing blog copy that prioritizes lead generation above all else, to the point of explicitly eschewing smart content. Or his account of email marketers who automate the pestering process, sending message after message to anyone who was foolish enough to indicate some kind of interest in what they’re selling. Or his anecdote about corporate executives exhorting employees to use their own Twitter accounts to post tweets the company had authored for them, in the hope of driving traffic to a single web page.
As horrifying as I found these tales, none of them came as much of a surprise. After spending twenty years in the tech sector — half of those in social media marketing — I’ve been on the receiving and delivering end of just about all of them. Which is exactly why I think Lyons is right to pillory these kinds of practices.
Today’s standard marketing playbook looks a lot like what Lyons describes in his book. In the B2B world, it’s all about lead generation: getting people to hand over their email addresses and phone numbers so that you can spam and telemarket them into submission, where “submission” means actually buying your product. In the B2C world, it is about sales and customer loyalty: not just getting your customer to click and buy, but getting them so worked up about your product that they’ll never so much as think about buying from your competitor instead.
For both kinds of businesses, digital marketing in general and social media marketing in particular are essential to the game. Step 1: Create lots and lots of content to attract lots and lots of page views. Step 2: Get people to look at that content by blanketing social media in paid and unpaid mentions, ads and links to your content. Step 3: Suck people into getting even more of your content in the future by getting them to like you, follow you, and/or give you their email address.
From a business perspective, this model is fantastic. Instead of paying for expensive TV and print ads, and hoping to see some correlation between ad spending and sales results, you can pay for relatively cheap online content, and track its sales impact click by click. Better yet, since gutting ad budgets has thrown the media industry into crisis, you have less and less competition from actual journalists, which makes it easier to get people to look at your mediocre content instead. And as Lyons points out, most of that mediocre content can be created by employees who are young, inexperienced and cheap.
But from a personal perspective, it sucks. For every email newsletter you’re genuinely thrilled to receive, you likely have dozens that merely clutter up your inbox, where they linger unread. To get to the Facebook posts that have been shared by the actual genuine human beings you know, you have to plough through a feed that’s cluttered with posts that somebody paid to put there. (A problem that’s only going to get worse, now that Facebook has given its official blessing to branded content on verified pages.) And unless you read blog posts while wearing glasses that block your peripheral vision, you’re likely to get sucked into clicking on one of the irresistible headlines that now frame nearly every page of content on the Internet — headlines that somebody paid to put there, and which almost always lead to something way less interesting than the headline suggests.
When we make the Internet worse for individual users, we waste an extraordinary opportunity. In the Internet, we have the most revolutionary content platform in a millennium — a platform that can support not only broad participation in sharing ideas and knowledge, but also support real-time conversation around that content. This is the medium that promised to bust us free of a corporatized media driven by elite interests, so that ordinary people could have their voices heard. This is the medium that offered the possibility that creative artists and independent thinkers might actually be able to find a platform for their work and ideas, and even find a way to support themselves while doing it. This is the medium that has already enabled the rapid dissemination of innovative economic development models, sustainable energy innovations and grassroots mobilization strategies, which were once front-and-centre on the social web, but are increasingly shoved to the margins.
As Lyons puts it, marketers “took the Internet, one of the most wonderful and profound inventions of all time, and polluted it with advertising and turned it into a way to sell stuff.” Worse yet, we’re using it to create ads that look so much like content that we’ll soon lose the ability to tell the difference. Companies that contribute to that degradation by aggressively disseminating lousy content should be regarded the same way we look at emails for discount Viagra.
How can we reclaim the Internet from this dreck? It’s going to take a combination of business innovation and personal responsibility.
Let’s start with the business side. What we’ve got right now is a classic free rider problem: everybody is worse off if the Internet becomes a cesspool of celebrity-themed quizzes and self-aggrandizing copy, but in a world where so many businesses are attracting eyeballs by pumping out lousy content, no single business wants to assume the costs of behaving better. Yes, some companies are able to succeed by producing high-quality content but lots are able to succeed even more, or at least more cheaply, by producing garbage. So we end up with a race to the bottom, in which he who pumps out the highest volume of tweets, emails and blog posts shall emerge the victor.
It would be terrific if we could be delivered from this dynamic by some miraculous new marketing model that demonstrates the ROI of creating really great content, even if it costs more to create, as well as the benefit of a restrained approach to email, even if it yields fewer leads. But most of the businesses that are producing great content are either legacy media companies, holding on for dear life (and wondering how long they can keep that up), or new media companies that accumulate market value by showing that they have lots of users, even if they aren’t generating actual profits. By the time that “great content” marketing model appears — if it appears — we’ll be so accustomed to lousy content, colonized social media feeds, and overflowing inboxes that we won’t remember what good, well-curated content even looks like.
So for now, we need to locate good marketing practices in the realm of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The most respected businesses in the CSR world are those that adopt “triple bottom line” accounting, which considers the environmental and social costs of business decisions alongside their financial impact. The health of the Internet needs to be part of that equation. We’ve got to look at companies that pollute the Internet the same way we look at companies that pollute the air and water supply: as an enemy of public health.
But that’s not going to happen as long as we, the users of the Internet, keep feeding the bears. Every time you click on one of those click-bait headlines, you’re feeding the bears. Every time you give your actual email address in order to get some questionable ebook download, you’re feeding the bears. Every time you actually respond to one of those emails offering a product demo, or asking you for web site link, or inviting you to a webinar where you will get Fresh New Insight, you are feeding the bears.
While there may be a handful of businesses that turn their back on mass-produced content and bulk email purely out of the goodness of their hearts, what will really turn the tide is if those tactics stop working. When a business lures you onto its website with an advertisement disguised as a blog post, complain — in the comments thread, on Twitter, and anywhere else you think it will embarrass them. When a marketer strong arms you into handing over an email address, make it a fake or disposable address. When you find yourself hovering over a “buy” button that you reached through an ad that intruded itself onto your Facebook feed, close the window and find your way back to that product without leaving a click trail.
And most of all, get your mind around the fact that you may actually have to pay for content. We can hardly complain about marketers cramming the Internet with lousy content, when so many of or us react with horror when a quality content producer erects a paywall. Quality content costs real money, so we are either going to pay for that directly, or pay for it indirectly through ever-more subtle “branded content” (read: content somebody paid for), intrusive ads, or the colonization of publishing by marketers who are ultimately interested in sales, not journalism.
We don’t need a wholesale revolution in order to make an impact with our eyeballs and our content dollars. We just need enough people choosing quality content over marketing copy, or eluding the kind of mechanized sales funnel that Lyons describes, to make it worthwhile for marketers to create smarter content, and to lay off the aggressive assault via multiple online channels. Particularly as higher customers vote with their mice, and click away from gated ebooks in favor of content they’re paying for up-front, marketers will need to reassess the kind of lowest-common-denominator strategies that form the digital marketing playbook today.
Smart marketers will anticipate that strategy by asking one simple question, starting now: how can our marketing effort make the Internet better, instead of worse? Creating content that provides real value in terms of information or insight — rather than simply larding a page with search-friendly keywords — is one obvious starting point. So is offering content with no strings attached, by saying goodbye to those ubiquitous pop-ups that demand an email address before serving you the content you’ve been promised. A little less obvious, but just as valuable, is the role that digital marketers could play if they sought out and underwrote talented independent content creators; supported meaningful public interest and advocacy campaigns; used their social media platforms to amplify interesting and thoughtful posts, instead of simply repeating customers’ praise; or lent their voices (and lobbying dollars) to efforts at protecting the core values of the Internet, like net neutrality.
These may not be the strategies that have the biggest, most immediate impact on the KPIs that digital marketers are told to care about today, like web traffic, follower growth or lead generation. But they could have a massive impact on a KPI that digital marketers should care about more than anybody: the long-term health of the Internet itself.