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On Not Aping Midgeley

Posted May 21st, 2013 by Andrew Goodman

On Saturday, Seth Godin gave me something to think about. Thomas Midgeley was the evil genius advocate of leaded gasoline and CFC’s. Both have caused widespread damage; moreover, it’s impossible to argue that there weren’t alternatives. And one crucial way to prevent such damage, as relatively powerless individuals, is to avoid being complicit in the spread of harmful, profit-seeking, short-term, shortcut solutions. In the long run, such “solutions” turn out not to be terribly profitable anyway.

Seth closes with a call for “vigilance, candor, and outspokenness.”

But how does any of that relate to what people like us do for a living?

In a less obvious way, it relates. The Canadian Marketing Association, and its counterpart, the AMA, for example, have often lobbied to save marketing practices that nearly no citizen can stand, such as telemarketing. They cloak their lobbying in the guise of “ethical” marketing — while defining ethics. Maybe that’s why we recently let our membership in the CMA lapse.

In the early 2000′s, I found myself in the midst of a little bit of an identity crisis. I’d spent ten years studying democratic processes in public policy, tax policy, and involved myself in progressive causes. Now all I was doing was working in an industry that helped companies sell stuff. Writing a book to help folks make more profit. Who was I?

I’m no saint, and I sure hope you don’t think you are. :) I drive a gasoline-powered car, and got a speeding ticket over the weekend. I plan to drive to the service office to pay the ticket today. Still, when it comes to the big trends, how can we do something not to be the personification of evil?

In 2004 as I was writing about AdWords, it dawned on me that it wasn’t all bad. I realized that Google, and its AdWords program, were bent on saving the world from the pollution of interruption marketing (of the type that Godin named and shamed in his great book of 1999). In a way, then, irrelevant ads seemed to me like a kind of environmental pollution. No one is a saint, but mitigating such pollution is better than spreading more of it than one has to. I even suggested a term for the excessive proliferation of ad pollution by the mainstream advertising industry over the years: “surplus interruption.”

How can we make some small gestures this week to cut against the Midgley grain, to avoid being the “leaded gasoline advocates” of the marketing and advertising world?

I certainly don’t need to tell you to stop sending heavy paper flyers to every household in half the cities in towns in North America, because I’m pretty sure you don’t do that. That excess of unwanted paper is so great, that in another context (yellow pages books), many cities have even banned it!

Here are some suggestions:

  • Set tighter impression caps on your remarketing ads in the display networks. And bid less on them. It isn’t so urgent that prospects must be reminded (to the tune of the highest bid you’ve got in your arsenal, virtually guaranteeing placement on any network site) of their interaction on your site, again and again and again. Less is more.
  • In that vein, make all of your display ads more interesting and more topical. Is the creative being forgotten?
  • Stop writing long missives about how to do SEO that simply fuel people with hope that they won’t have to work harder on the fundamentals of their business, just as long as they figure out ways to create all kinds of brand new pages of so-called content built around different shadings of commercially-valuable keywords. Calling all of this endless production of mediocrity “valuable content” is just a euphemism for more clutter, crap, busywork, boondoggle, and subterfuge.
  • Plan a startup business model around native monetization models, transactional revenue, or something closer to transactional value. Avoid banking on massive numbers of page views and unreasonably high CPM rates. Avoid even more banking on colossally-even-more-massive numbers of page views and “junk” CPM rates that reach $1.50 per thousand impressions only because six large ad units are crammed above the fold, and another sixteen smaller ones below.
  • Re-embrace user experience and intuitive navigation. Redesign a garish, cluttered website and resolve to cut out the navigational options and excessive information, boasting, and graphical elements that don’t seem to do anything to help people find what they’re looking for. Send a prospect to a well-tested lead form instead of a home page with a tiny-fonted phone number, chunks of rambling text, and low-resolution images of two magazine covers where your shop was written up ten years ago. Stop coming up with HiPPO-driven excuses why the status quo is good enough when it comes to your website, and step back to “outdated,” “old-fashioned” basics like Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think or Seth Godin’s The Big Red Fez, in which he advises “Don’t Hide the Banana.” In comparing website users to a monkey looking for a banana, Godin actually came up with a simplified way to describe the all-important concept (Spool et al., Xerox PARC Research Center) of “Information Scent.” Information Scent based design is “not just another set of opinions.” It’s important research about what works, and what turns people off.
  • Making your 800 number large and blinking does not exempt you from the above.
  • Check that opt-in email frequency.
  • If you’re a human being, please don’t automate your tweets.


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