Without a discernible motive, online marketing is highly suspicious.

May 15, 2009

Online motives are deceiving

The more I know about digital marketing and communications the more I realize how important motive is.

In the olden days (say 10 years ago), most everyone could cipher the motive behind an ad. Whether it was moving products off the shelf or building brands or both, the intended audience always understood the motive. It was selling. Back then we might call something a hard or soft sell but no one was in denial about its motive. Nor were we particularly upset about it. Consumers understood the reason they got TV for free and paid only nominal fees for newspapers and magazines was on account of the ads. We understood their motive. We accepted the deal.

New deal. And it already has many liens on it. Consumers are balking left and right. They are questioning motive in the communications they receive. And rightly so. Online, advertisers are abusing their privileges. And it isn’t just one or two culprits; we are all guilty to some degree. We influence (pay) bloggers to discuss (sell) products. We use Twitter to attract and herd consumers. We create Facebook pages for brands. We leak films on the Internet. Our new briefs are about starting conversations. Influencing popular culture. Creating fame.

The problem is that all of the above still has one primary purpose: selling. And yet that motive is now hidden, imbedded or disguised. People think they are having an online conversation when, in fact, they are being duped into a sale. People are frustrated because they are being manipulated if not lied to.

It is increasingly hard to tell the difference between the message and the messenger. Facebook and My Space were not supposed to be commercial. But with My Space selling music and Facebook touting brands social networks are starting to look a lot like Walmart. And bloggers, the epitome of personal opinion and fierce independence, are all but begging to be paid to write.

Here’s where it gets tricky. After all, laws aren’t being broken. In some respects it’s hard to blame content providers. Bloggers gotta eat. The more they commit to their blogs the more they need revenue from somewhere. And advertisers recognize the potential. In this light the question is not how collusion could happen but how could it not?

Lest I be accused of calling the kettle black I, too, have muddied the waters. Not only have I pimped my novel, The Happy Soul Industry (even now!) I have also used this forum to talk about my agency, in theory making it more attractive. In addition, I sent my novel to other bloggers, hoping for and getting reviews.

Whether that’s good or bad is not altogether knowable. Who’s to say? But I do think having and presenting a clear motive online (if not everywhere) is a significant step in the right direction.


7 Responses to “Without a discernible motive, online marketing is highly suspicious.”

  1. masteringthemuse said

    This is a great article and I love what you are getting at.

    I think that times have changed and whether it is social or advertising media it is here to stay and the answer is in your post, presenting a clear motive is going to resonate with people socially or business related. The better one becomes at communicating their motive the more they will benefit from it.

    There will always be sharks in the water and wolves among us but I think it is awesome that people are connecting via social media both in fun and in creating business that add value to society.

  2. andywebb said

    I agree, this gets to the heart of the matter in today’s world.

    I assume, that just as people in the old days developed ad-detecting radar and could dismiss or accept an ad message in a second, that the same will hold true in the Web-based world. Ultimately, being up-front and not deceptive about the motive will encourage folks to let down their guards and maybe win the sale.

  3. joey from marketing said

    “After all, laws aren’t being broken.”

    This is soon to change. The FCC is now in the determining stages as to what needs to be disclaimed, where and how much.

    This will not change much of what we are seeing today, with the exception of Twitter. The ADD inherently in the DNA of Twitter won’t allow for opinion plus disclaimer. As for the rest, we will soon begin to see just more ‘fine print’.

    I like your points, SP. Good column today.

  4. Van Gould said

    This is such an interesting commentary. Steffan’s point about how advertisers are trying to influence popular culture and create fame for their clients through often “hidden, imbedded or disguised” ways poses a huge moral dilemma for us all. masteringthemuse and andywebb both agree that “presenting a clear motive is going to resonate with people socially or business related.” I find myself thinking about the countless times I have been manipulated by advertising disguised as something else. Sometimes it’s an amazing piece of art or an addicting advergame with a hidden motive. If something without a clear motive manipulates and entertains, is it still wrong? What do others think? Is a clear motive always appropriate?

  5. SRP said

    It’s like being in on the joke versus being the butt of one. Thank you for these wise and spirited replies. We will have to revisit this topic again, especially as social networks take up more and more of our lives.

  6. Nice post, SRP.

    The attempt by marketers to trick, coax, or charm people into interacting with their brands through social media is not working and will not work.

    As soon as someone develops some reliable metrics, this will be shown to be highly ineffective and wasteful.

  7. I guess we preach transparency as being one of the keys. @andywebb’s point is true that we have learnt to scan and detect very rapidly, twitter has helped hone those skills

    To what Bob Hoffman said, yes I agree and I call that branding as opposed to brand. It’s what “marketers” have degenerated to become these days and they are simply transferring those habits to the social media, which, as you said, will fail.

    I think that there is still a real place for “brand” and that marketing has a chance to reinvent itself – under pressure from social media. I wrote about that:

    Walter Adamson @g2m

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