The great viral swindle?
I was hesitant to weigh in on the latest kerfuffle raised by the recent TechCrunch post, frankly, because I knew all of these black hat tactics were being utilized by those less savory in our field, and the post just confirmed it, but felt I had to do so when I realized that too many people in our industry were surprised (vs. the ‘regular folks’ in the TC comments who were justifiably outraged, if not surprised).
Let’s apply some logic here – the Internet is a huge, unruly place, with millions of people and companies vying for attention. Dollars are shifting online in record fashion and LOTS of service companies want a piece. How do you break through the clutter, prove results and make a buck? By pushing the limits to the edge, as all firms: advertising, marketing, PR, Web 2.0, etc. do? Do we really suppose that we’ve always done things completely ethically? I’d like to say yes, but I’ve worked for too many firms with client expectations and million dollar budgets on the line to ever make that claim with a straight face. I know that I founded my own strategic marketing firm because I grew sick and tired of tactics employed, lack of true innovation, and egos, and I keep a firm grip on how myself and my team execute projects and develop strategies, but that’s just little old Wildfire in a sea of thousands. I also am (speaking of ego) able to better navigate the waters and develop innovative strategies precisely because of my track-record in the interactive space and the focus I’ve always placed on customer relationships vs. pure push advertising. It’s easier to determine how to balance a company’s need for bottom-line ROI while remaining authentic and transparent about the tactics employed: been there done that and seen a lot. For example, I’m particularly proud of the creative concept and integrated strategy I developed while working with TFC for Sharp Canada (Aquos 1080p D82 Challenge) precisely because it was pure branding, social responsibility, and community engagement. It worked on all levels and the bottom line result was good for Sharp and good for the environment.
That being said, why are we surprised? It takes work and a lot of money to be truly immersed in the Internet and social media space, and with profit margins at agencies and companies being pushed further down, is it realistic to expect that any firm can afford that much R&D and people-hours? Folks expect to get paid and brands expect a return on investment that is tangible. The bottom line for all brands is to sell product and satisfy their shareholders (which is why they are called “for profit”). That will not change, and it’s why 30-second spots still work, even if they’re being moved online in increasing numbers (hello, viral spots). And, as consumers get more sophisticated, more people will recognize not to necessarily trust what you read online unless you know the person, or unless it’s independently verified (ala Consumer Reports) like all of us old skool interactive geeks realized about 7 years ago. Everyone has an agenda, that’s just life. We don’t live in a utopia, we live in a capitalist society. Even the old standard, The Red Cross, was less than pure after 9/11. We can change things, for sure, but change takes time; people aren’t a piece of software that we can just upgrade when we discover a bug or want to add a new feature.
Why are we trying to figure out social media ROI at all if we believe it’s all about the long-term relationship? True relationships take years to develop, just because someone joins your community, for whatever internal and external reasons suit their needs at the moment, it’s just as easy to leave when it doesn’t. That’s what churn is. Consumers own their relationships with a brand and for that reason they also own the conversation – trying to satisfy everyone while continuing to make money is the rub of social media. You can’t have an agency built with everyone’s best friend. The participation economy is a reality, but it’s also a fallacy when you step outside of our bubble. Hip Hop artists don’t do product placement in videos and start their own clothing lines (multi-billion dollar industry) because someone wrote a positive review online or added them as a ‘friend’ in Facebook.
Let’s be realistic. How much time do you spend on YouTube scouring the new submissions, rating them up and sending them along? With over 10k submitted per day, my guess is not enough that you could spot “the next big thing” without having someone point you to it. The recent WOM conference in Toronto in April of this year recognized Chevrolet for their “Let’s Go Chevy” campaign as being a WOM success story when the company was blaring the URL in TV spots, banner ads, newspaper ads, etc. etc. Did we complain then (well, I did, but not too many others)? Why is that okay and not the tactics employed by The Commotion Group except for our own expectations of the purity of the space? It’s not. Neither of them is okay. We need to take off our rose-coloured glasses and think in the big picture. I don’t employ the tactics used in the article, but I get the feeling I’m in the minority (and no, I’m not going to share my secrets), and although a shame, we should look at this as a learning opportunity and be prepared to recognize that if we really want to succeed in this brave new world, we have to be honest with our clients about how much time and effort it will take to build lasting success… and what success truly means. We need to stop speaking to ourselves and start exploring the space.
We bloggers even do similar things – link-bait posts that exist solely to drive traffic/ reputation (Lists upon lists of “the top blogs”, posting on your own blog about a controversy instead of responding in the comments elsewhere: just like this post, etc), “calling outs” to stir controversy, speaking to our own echo chamber and measuring success against that, plagiarism, passing ourselves off as experts in the space when we aren’t, whatever. None of us are true angels. No one is completely pure in reality, and that includes the consumers we are trying to reach.
Perhaps this will be a wake-up call, but I think not. Too much money on the line and the easy way out is usually the one people take (especially for products such as movies that have a short shelf life to make a buzz on opening weekend – the majority of the clients The Commotion Group appears to work for). I know that I’ll continue doing what I do, and one of these days I’ll hang it all up and go be a yoga-instructor and run a golf course up north. Until then, I’m not jumping on any bandwagons and I’ll keep learning, experimenting, educating clients, and being a hurricane when appropriate.
But that’s just my opinion – there are a million of them (manufactured or not) out there to choose from.
Update: Tony Hung has a good post on this as well…. a choice bit:
Mike Arrington himself seems a bit taken aback by how honest the post is, but is anyone *really* shocked? Are your (or anyone) sensibilities *really* that delicate? ….
Bottom line is that this post pulls the curtain back on a phenomenon that any rational thinking individual would already suspect. That is, when there is financial incentive and opportunity to game a system even when that system has the appearance of being open‚ transparent‚ and built upon the goodwill and trust of its users (how typically quaint!) someone will do it. And the best of them will do it in such a way that no one else will even *know*.
[photo credit: daryldarko via Flickr]