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How Marketers Use Social Media Evilly

1,777 Words. Plan about 11 minute(s) to read this.

In my role as co-founder of Packet Pushers, I do some amount of sales and marketing of the show to sponsors. Our philosophy of sponsorship is very simple. The audience knows when content is sponsored. Period. We don’t hide it. We don’t disguise sponsored content as non-sponsored content in the hope that the audience doesn’t notice. Why not? Because such tactics are evil.

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Packet Pushers began as a grass roots podcast — a bunch of engineers having a good time talking about networking. As the audience grew, two things became obvious.

  1. Making some money from the show was possible. Considering the time & cost invested in producing the show, that was desirable.
  2. Making some money didn’t have to mean the resulting content was garbage. Before the days of sponsored content, we knew it was possible to talk to vendors without it sounding like a wretched commercial. We could gain decent industry perspective, learn something genuinely useful, and share that with the audience. Do vendors have a point of view tied ultimately to a bottom line? You bet. But even within that context, the content can be good. In many cases, very good.

As more and more vendors approach us about sponsoring content, we’ve found that we have to educate marketing professionals about how social media, and podcasting specifically, works. Many marketing folks don’t understand why we aren’t willing to abuse our audience with sneaky links, pop-ups, e-mail campaigns, so-called “product reviews”, and the like. If you’re a marketing person and you don’t get it, allow me to reiterate: these tactics are evil. They are underhanded. They dupe a prospect by pulling them into content they think is one thing, when in fact it is something else. Or it interrupts their attention and precious time with an unexpected, uninvited, and very probably unwelcome solicitation.

Packet Pushers won’t engage in these sorts of marketing tactics. Why? We have an implicit agreement with our audience to be honest with them about what they are getting. Sponsored content is clearly marked as such, and always will be. What’s more, Packet Pushers won’t allow just any old content to hit our feeds just because someone is willing to throw a few dollars at us. We screen companies. Every sponsored podcast is based on an outline we helped put together, trying to make sure it’s going to be interesting to the audience. Every sponsored blog post hits our eyes before it hits the feed. We make recommendations about how to improve vendor content so that a reader will get a benefit from it.

Has every bit of sponsored content released on Packet Pushers feeds been awesome? No, unfortunately. But it’s not from a lack of us trying. Lots of the marketers we work with “get it.” They or someone in their company listens to the show, they have a good idea of the audience’s expectations, and they send us the right people to get behind a microphone and talk with us. Not all of them get it, though. Some marketers think the same marketing methodologies apply to all audiences equally. Therefore, they hammer home the same talking points and message no matter who the mouthpiece is or what the venue is. Marketers, you’ve got to respect any given audience you’re trying to reach, understand the social media channel you’re engaging with, and set your message and expectations accordingly.

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I’m in my 8th year of social media, and have seen many evil uses of social media in the name of marketing. Here are a few of my favorites. Maybe I should say, “least favorites.”

1. The drive-by tweet. In this strategy, the marketer is seeking message amplification. The technique is to write some piece of content, then tweet at an influencer with the URL and a provocative message. The hope is that the influencer will engage on Twitter, and the URL with the message will be broadcast to the influencer’s followers. This is sneaky, underhanded, and devious. And let’s not overlook “cheap.”

As a marketer, it is unethical for you to expect that an influencer will amplify your message for free. If you want access to their audience, you need to earn that right with both a quality product or service as well as proper compensation. The days of free message amplification by influencers who are just happy to be noticed are long over. You look silly if you keep trying that old trick.

2. The product review. This comes in two flavors, one evil and one not evil. The evil flavor is the unsolicited e-mail that hits an influencer’s inbox, offering to give them a free (usually time-limited or NFR) copy of software if they’ll review it on their blog. That disrespects influencers, assuming that they exist to promote your product at no cost to you. Please don’t tell me how giving away a copy of your software costs you money. It might come out of a marketing budget, but to the company as a whole, software distribution is essentially zero-cost.

Someone might protest that the influencer is under no obligation to provide a positive review, and that’s true. But the fact of the matter is that very few bloggers are likely to issue a negative review under those circumstances. All humans want to be friendly and polite, so the likelihood is that an influencer who accepts the “free software for a review” offer is going to generate at worst a neutral review that still raises brand awareness for the marketer.

A so-called review like this is not an unbiased review. It’s an exercise in psychology. But the blog that gets produced is likely to appear as an unbiased review, unless the influencer is scrupulous about disclosures. Or unless the influencer is capable of overcoming their natural inhibitions to be polite and throws down a brutally honest post.

All that said, product reviews don’t have to be evil, and I’ve seen many that are done very well. As a marketer, you should insist that the influencer fully disclose that they were approached by you to review the product, and how they were compensated to review the product. That way, the reader knows exactly what they are getting when they read the piece. If you are hoping an influencer generates content for your product that masquerades as an unsolicited, unbiased review, you’re being evil.

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3. The lookalike link list. Many influencer websites will feature links in a column off to the side of the featured content. For example, I run a widget that aggregates blog content that I am interested in, and that I think my audience might be interested in as well. On PacketPushers.net, we run a pair of widgets that display links for EtherealMind.com and this site, because that sort of cross-promotion of our content just makes sense for Greg and me to do.

Hiding sponsored links that take the web site consumer somewhere they were not expecting in these lists is evil. Why? The link looks like a link to content that’s in the same site. The link does not appear to be sponsored or otherwise tricky. But the consumer finds themselves staring at a lead-gen screen where they need to cough up their personal details to get at whatever it was they thought they were getting. Does this work as a lead generation technique? Of course it does. It’s still bloody evil. Put another way, it’s the same technique used by malware and phishing scams. Think about that for a moment.

4. Pop over ads & forms. Pop over ads are all the rage these days, and they are decidedly evil. Yes, they can drive behavior, causing a small percentage of readers to sign up for a mailing list, fill out a survey, download a free trial, etc. But a pop over ad is, in effect, a bait-and-switch. The content consumer clicks on a link, and lands on a page. They begin to read. A paragraph or two into the article, an unsolicited pop over ad fades out the rest of the screen, forcing the consumer to react. How about the next time you have a bite of delicious food about to go into your mouth, I stick a piece of paper mail in between your fork and your face, insisting that you react to the mail’s message before you can eat? It would seem sort of rude, wouldn’t it? Maybe presumptuous? How about evil?

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Enough of my cantankerous whining. I think I’ve made my point. What’s more, I understand that all of these marketing techniques drive some amount of opportunity into the sales channel. I grasp that some percentage of sales opportunities result in revenue. I get it — really, I do. But my opinion on social media marketing is this. Your product should be able to stand up by itself simply because it is great. Your product should have an obvious value proposition. Your job as a marketer is to present that worthy, valuable product in a straightforward, honest manner. Why be devious? Why be sneaky? When you have something great to share with the world, you can be loud and proud! Engage social media head on by being a great person representing a great product, and being a transparent, honest, believable human while doing so.

As an influencer, I don’t mind making my peers aware of some product or service I think might be a good fit for someone out there. If I have personal experience with something, I might write about it on my own because it happens to be top of mind and interesting to my audience, in which case, lucky you. Free brand awareness. But if you approach me with a specific message you want to share, I am unlikely to do it for free or necessarily even cheaply, as giving away access to my audience would be foolish.

All I ask is that if we’re going to work together, let’s be up front about what’s going on. Marketing by itself is NOT evil, but underhanded techniques make it seem like marketers have something to hide, as if they have to sneak a product up on a prospect before they’d even consider it. Not only do I not want to treat my audience that way, but you, dear marketer, don’t want me to either. Why? Because if I keep up that nonsense, after a while, I won’t have an audience for you to market to.