Every now and then someone I barely know at some party or bar or during a random conversation on the train will ask me that all-important icebreaker: what do you do for a living? My default answer of “I work for a marketing firm” tends to be enough for most, because the more detailed explanation either confuses them or does not interest them in the slightest.
Rarely, however, do I receive the following in almost automatic response: “Oh, so you manipulate people.”
Someone said that to me recently. A couple of things come to mind. One: what if I worked in, say, human resources? Assuming that I manipulate people for a living is quite the condescending conclusion to jump to when all you know is what kind of company I work for.
Two, and this is far more important: If you use the internet in almost any capacity, you are being willingly manipulated and exploited by companies for their profit. Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, LinkedIn, CandyCrush, Google Search, Yahoo!… the list of companies, apps, browsers, and services that collect the information their users give them into quantifiable and potentially profitable data sets is endless.
Big Brother is Online?! Not really…
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor am I a cynic, anti-capitalist, or whatever other half-understood buzzword someone wants to sling.
It’s no secret that Data is King in the land of the Internet, and most of that data is given by users — freely. Just look at Facebook’s Terms of Service, section 2.1:
“…you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.”
Basically, Facebook has the right to use your content at their whim. I’m not out to bash Facebook or any other company for these practices (especially since the collective we have generally agreed to them, even unwittingly). Agreeing to those Terms of Services means that you at least tacitly agree to these practices.
However, are there ethical questions to be asked here regarding the use of personal data by companies online? Absolutely. There are probably numerous legitimate discussions to be had about the implications of sharing personal data on any online medium. But that’s not why I’m here (another time, perhaps).
I’m here to call out the hypocrisy in pointing the finger at “marketing” as inherently manipulative when we are all (myself included) at least partially culpable in even the potentiality of our online data being shared and exploited for other than our intended purposes.
Content with a Capital C
Anyone who reads marketing-type blogs has likely seen the adage that “Content is King”. That is mostly, unfortunately, true. Just look at the prevalence of company blog spaces in a wide range of industries — and not just limited to writers or other creatives. According to a study conducted by UMass Dartmouth, 491 of the Fortune 500 have used some form of social media in 2015.
So, even large companies use blog-style content or short-form social media as a form of advertising and branding themselves, thus, content marketing. I freely admit that I also do this. Why else is a personal blog considered a must-have for authors and other creatives these days? It’s branding. You do not see my entire personal life on this space. You see the public image I am trying to build. That’s what every blog is doing, even if its author maintains relative anonymity.
The degree to which I am succeeding at this is debatable. I prefer not to post every day, or even more than two or three times per week, because honestly, I don’t have that much to say, at least to a potentially wide and almost entirely faceless audience. I don’t even post very often on Facebook, because I use it mostly as a means to stay in touch with friends I don’t see frequently. If I did want to publicize every other thought that flitted through my brain, I would sign up for Twitter. But I digress.
Is Content Manipulative?
The shining example of content marketing is, of course, Buzzfeed. If Content is King in online branding, then Buzzfeed founded the dynasty — at least the current one. Buzzfeed has begun to see huge revenue (somewhere in the $100 million range) from its strategy of “native” advertising mixed with legitimate editorial and ridiculous quizzes. Native advertising means that Buzzfeed is not charging users directly for accessing their content. Users are instead directed to posts that other companies pay to have published on Buzzfeed, not to mention the pay-per-click ads and banners that appear on every webpage.
So, what does that mean for the innocent Internet User? It means that every time a user likes, shares, tweets, emails, or even clicks on a Buzzfeed link, Buzzfeed is being paid by someone for the traffic. Now, that’s seems pretty innocuous, right? After all, long ago paper media like newspapers and magazines turned profits by providing physical content to readers filled with pages of paid advertising.
Well, here’s where it gets dicey. Facebook in particular has begun to master the art of turning user data – our gender, age, location, taste in music, favorite pizza toppings, etc. – into an avenue for advertisers to promote their Facebook posts to a highly targeted audience. This art was essentially invented by Google’s search algorithms, which take every word and phrase you type into the search bar to find even more information (and ads) that may be relevant to you. Facebook has taken this strategy and applied it to the News Feed, that space where users see all of the posts from friends they interact with. Scrolling through the News Feed you’ll see “content” strategically placed from other online media, and sometimes just straight up ads. Each one of those ads or pieces of non-Facebook content were selected to appear on your News Feed based on your web browsing habits. We’re not here to discuss the ethics of such strategies, so I’ll leave it at that.
My point, dear Internet User, is that if you are giving your personal information to Facebook or any other online service, platform, app, game, etc., you are willingly taking part in the vast and complex industry of online marketing.
Therefore, next time you immediately assume that marketing and advertising are inherently manipulative industries –and more importantly, that I manipulate people — I ask you to stop and consider what you may be doing to facilitate that manipulation, like telling all of your 800 friends and followers where you’ve eaten for the last month.