Beware of the dogma: reflections on snake oil, cargo cults and social media douchebags
For a few weeks now, we’ve been running regular Pecha Kucha sessions at my office. The object of the exercise is to encourage knowledge sharing within the studio, so the range of topics covered has been pretty broad – secret passions, favourite authors, artistic achievements, all condensed to 20 slides and 20 seconds a slide.
When my turn came up last week I thought it would be a great opportunity to better articulate a rant that’s been boiling away in my head for months. I found Pecha Kucha’s time and slide limits force you to to cut through the piffle and get to the heart of a concise, structured argument. If you take nothing else from this post, if you ever find yourself struggling to express an idea clearly and succinctly, try putting a Pecha Kucha together. You’ll be amazed.
Anyhoo, the following is an approximation of where I got to with my thinking as a result of putting this presentation together. Bound to piss a few people off (I hope), but hopefully a greater number will understand were I’m coming from and maybe even agree with me. Feedback welcome via the usual channels…
For the most part it stems from a sense of disgust I feel with the proliferation of snake oil salesmen I encounter on a regular basis, professionally, as an agency strategist liaising with clients’ suppliers and prospective suppliers, and personally, as an active user of marketing and technology media. To be fair, many of these people don’t realise that they’re snake oil salesmen, but that’s no excuse and I’ll get to that later.
The fact of the matter is, there’s a prevailing cargo cult mentality in online marketing circles, and an abundance of self-appointed gurus / experts / consultants (I prefer to call them douchebags) are perpetuating it for personal gain and to the detriment of their clients.
Was ist das ‘cargo cult mentality’? Good question. Let’s start with a little history…
Cargo cults have been observed since the late 19th century, in the wake of tribal cultures’ interaction with more technologically advanced civilizations. There was a significant increase in cargo cults during the second world war, as a result of Japanese and western military forces sending masses of manpower and machinery into the Pacific.
For the first time, remote island peoples had access to processed food, clothing, tools, equipment and machinery, weapons… and they liked it. They came to see this precious ‘cargo’ as their divine right – gifts from the gods that had been wrongly appropriated by the American forces and that would one day be theirs (for some reason everything the Japanese did seemed to make sense, so there were no Japanese-oriented cargo cults reported).
Following the end of the war, the Americans went home and the regular deliveries of ‘cargo’ ceased. In order to attract further deliveries, cult followers participated in rituals mimicking the behaviour of the American forces.
They built wooden planes, hangars, antennae and control towers; they constructed runways lined with burning pyres; and they dressed in home-made uniforms and took part in parade-ground exercises sporting bamboo ‘rifles’.
Through these rituals, cargo cult followers were seen to be making the logical error of mistaking a necessary condition for acquiring the ‘cargo’, for a sufficient one, thereby reversing the causation. For example, ‘looking like a plane’ is a necessary condition for building a plane, but it isn’t a sufficient one – the thing you build has to actually be a plane.
On another level, having planes, hangars, a runway, control tower and masses of uniformed soldiers may be a necessary condition for cargo to rain down from the sky, but it sure isn’t a sufficient one – the sufficient one is being an American military installation with a delivery scheduled to take place.
The term ‘cargo cult’ has since become an idiom for any group of people seen to be imitating the superficial exterior of a process without really understanding how it works.
We see this same kind of logical error all the time in the online marketing space, and the same kind of disappointed, disillusioned believers.
For example, much in the world of search engine optimisation is focussed on gaming Google with technical hygiene, keyword selection, link farming and Page Rank funneling. These may be necessary conditions for acquiring Google juice (a.k.a. ‘cargo’), but they are not sufficient ones.
The sufficient condition is to have have high-quality, unique content and actually be the site people are looking for. This is the stuff that generates inbound links, Page Rank and quality scores, which in turn lead to high SERP rankings and masses of qualified visitors coming to your site.
In the decade I have worked in this industry, not once have I heard of an SEO consultant advising a client to improve their site content – to actually develop and implement a content strategy – before commencing a traffic generation program. Going through the motions with paid search, technical optimisation and black-hat content pages is the usual prescription, as this makes sense to the naive observer (the client) and generates revenue for the SEO company.
A plague of social media douchebags has been visited upon brand owners in recent years, and it isn’t pretty. All over the world, people with nothing to say and nobody to say it to are creating Twitter accounts and Facebook pages in the misguided belief that if other brands are successfully using these platforms to engage with consumers, then they can too.
What these brand owners fail to realise (and what social media douchebags fail to tell them) is that ‘being on Facebook and Twitter’ may be necessary conditions for implementing a successful social media strategy, but the sufficient ones include having the inclination, capacity, resourcing and relevant subject matter to engage in meaningful conversations with consumers, relating to them on a human level about things that interest them. If they don’t actually get this, all brands are doing is broadcasting via additional channels, and that ain’t social.
Investing time and money implementing best-of-breed measurement tools may be a necessary condition of having an effective analytics program, but the sufficient ones include having the ability to turn observation into insight, and the inclination and resourcing to turn that insight into action (i.e. to identify opportunities for improvement and actually do something with that information).
If I had a dollar for every site owner out there who has installed Google Analytics and looks at the numbers but does nothing with that information, I’d be writing this post from my yacht in the Seychelles. *sigh*
There is no shortage of examples, and there are new ‘cults’ sprouting up all the time. It seems every other week some new prophet arrives on the scene, spruiking a new and better path to the promised land…
‘Content is king’. This one has been around for a while, and there’s a lot to be said for the principles it suggests. But it’s also a hell of an oversimplification, don’t you think?
Later on, we started to read about how, thanks to social media, connections were now king. The glib analogy supporting this statement is that if someone was being sent to a desert island and chose to take their DVD collection with them instead of their friends, then that person would be a sociopath.
Personally, I’d rather sociopaths went off to their desert islands unaccompanied, and I’m sure their friends would prefer that too – yet I digress… Content isn’t king anymore, connections are. Got it.
Aw, crap! So which one is it then? Who should I listen to? Content, connections, curation – which is the one true faith?
It all gets pretty confusing and frustrating, and you can see why some people find it easier just to pick an ideology, lock it in and go for it. But these dogmatic oversimplifications lead to a world of trouble.
Consider the truism that if your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. People who blindly adhere to popular dogma rather than thinking for themselves are pre-disposed to a given solution for all kinds of problems, whether they realise it or not.
Just as religious people pray for everything from bountiful crops to large pectoral muscles, an SEO consultant will always see your problem as search-related, and a social media douchebag will always see your problem as you having too much money and not enough Twitter followers.
This problem is by no means restricted to the realm on online marketing. The great W Edwards Deming, regarded by many as the father of Total Quality Management, was a staunch critic of the quality movement because it stops people from thinking, reducing a powerful catalyst for organisational transformation (organisational learning) to its physical and procedural manifestations (a set of control charts).
To cut a long story short, the problem with populist dogma – no matter how reasonable it sounds – is that it prevents us from thinking. And not thinking is bad.
So what are these, the all-important underlying principles and processes we should seek to understand, rather than adhering to dogma and imitating others who seem to be doing ok? Are you kidding me? The single most important point I’m trying to make here is that you really ought to figure that out for yourself. But I’m not a complete bastard, so here are some thoughts to get you started…
For my own part, I’ve spent a lot of time getting my head around The Cluetrain Manifesto, and Social Object Theory. While I can’t claim to have picked up a bunch of nifty new skills or tools as a result, I definitely feel like I understand the world I live and work in much better now, and am better prepared to handle a whole bunch of different challenges as a result. I’d seriously recommend exploring both in detail, but here’s my take on both…
Cluetrain: People aren’t the suckers they used to be. Rather than a sucker being born every minute, these days a sucker wises up every minute (or, to lessen the hyperbole, ‘there’s a sucker born every 10 minutes’).
Not only do people have access to more information, but they proactively seek it from and share it with others. This collective ‘wising up’ has shifted the power balance between brands and consumers. Put simply, people can smell bullshit. They know the difference between corporate spiel and human speech, and can tell when they’re being lied to.
The consequences of getting caught out in a lie can be dire. Thanks to the Internet, if PT Barnum went on tour with his travelling freakshow in 2010, he would be tarred and feathered before he left the first town. Some brands see this as a threat, but this is only a short-term problem because they will soon die out, replaced by those who don’t need to trick people into buying their products.
Social Object Theory: Conversations (in the broadest sense of the word) always have a subject. This ‘substance’ of conversation – the reason two people are talking to each other as opposed to talking to somebody else – we call social objects.
Social objects are interesting for a whole lot of reasons. For a start, social networks form around social objects, so we can understand things about groups of people by looking at the social objects that bring them together.
Perhaps more interesting for brands is the idea that social objects can be deployed. This is what marketers erroneously refer to when they speak of wanting to ‘create a viral’ (as if it’s a matter so simple as pressing the ‘viral’ button and away you go). What they really mean is they’re looking to create something that resonates with people they’re wanting to engage with, and that stimulates conversation within that group – i.e. they want to deploy a social object.
Without wanting to offer another populist ideology of the kind I’ve been pissing on for the past dozen paragraphs or so, my musings on social objects have led me to a few observations that are probably worth sharing…
First, if you’re hoping to start or stimulate conversation, you’ll want to make sure that whatever you have in mind is a social object. Of course there’s a lot of guesswork, trial and error as far as specific subject matter goes, but you can save yourself a lot of heartache by considering where your object sits in relation to your brand attributes, and the interests of the person or group you’re hoping to engage.
Are you occupying that magical space where whatever it is that you have to say is both an authentic reflection of your brand attributes and within your target audience’s realm of interest? If your message / social object is true to your brand but doesn’t reflect the interests of your audience, then it’s irrelevant and likely to be ignored. If you’re hitting audience interests but there’s no real connection with your brand, then it’s inauthentic. Picture a bespectacled, middle-aged accountant in a 3-piece suit hitting on a 19 year-old surfer girl with tales of his love for big wave riding – bogus, sad and doomed to failure. Your odds of success are only non-zero when you tick both the authentic and the relevant boxes.
I see this all the time, and it does my head in – brands who are so protective of ‘their’ material that everything has to be hosted on their own sites and steps taken to prevent it from being downloaded, put on YouTube and shared throughout the blogosphere. Are they high on crack? Make. Your. Social objects. Portable.
Third, and most importantly, know your verbs. I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘engagement’ is a bullshit, agency non-word used by idiots to make themselves sound smart. What actions are you expecting people to take when they come into contact with your message / object? If you don’t know, you had better figure it out and fast.
Why? For a start, it could be that nobody is going to do anything, in which case you should probably save yourself a bunch of time and money by doing nothing too.
Further, different actions entail different levels of effort and require different levels of motivation. There is no single set of actions that applies to all situations and social objects – theming one’s wedding, for example, appears to be the sole domain of Star Trek fans – so please ignore all those douchebags out there with their pseudo-proprietary engagement models, because they are full of sh1t (i.e. they are offering a seemingly useful simplification that doesn’t really help you to understand your own situation).
Understanding the full set of actions that applies to your situation allows you to do a few really useful things.
First, you can sanity check each one. Is someone really likely to create a mash-up of your ad and take it to Cannes? If not, you should stop kidding yourself.
Second, you can make sure you’re allowing people with varying levels of motivation to participate. You don’t have to make a call to target a small group of highly motivated people or a larger group of unmotivated ones. In fact, the more people you can get on board, the better. So make sure you’re not limiting your chances of success by not providing enough ways for people to participate.
Finally, by considering each action and its requisite motivation, you can figure out the best way(s) to encourage people to do them. There are likely to be internal (e.g. kudos) and external (e.g. prizes) drivers for each action, so considering the full set of actions and motivations should suggest a whole lot of things you can do to improve your chances of success.
The purpose of this post was to articulate some long-held misgivings about the ready availability of quick-fix solutions that obviate the need to think for oneself and understand what is really going on.
Along the way I’ve shared some of my own thinking about what I believe to be some of the core, underlying principles online marketers really need to get their heads around, and in doing so I may have given a little more practical detail than I needed to – but then it’s my blog, and if you don’t like it you can sod right off.
If you take nothing else from this post (besides the pecha kucha recommendation – seriously, give it a whirl) , let it be this. Beware of the dogma. Don’t be drinking the Kool Ade – not theirs, not mine, and you’d do well to avoid drinking your own if you can help it.
I’m reminded of a speech Richard Feynman gave during the 70’s, decrying what he called ‘cargo cult science’ – stuff and nonsense that was dressed up to look like science, but lacked any sense of scientific rigor and integrity.
Feynman advised, and I paraphrase here, that to avoid becoming a snake oil salesman, the first and most important thing is to not fool yourself, which is difficult, because we are the easiest people to fool. But this is important, because once you fool yourself – once you drink that Kool Ade – all you have to do in order to fool everybody else is just be honest.
Thus, the accidental snake oil salesmen I mentioned at the start of this post are by no means blameless. And you won’t be, either.