Theory / Practice

Beyond Annoyance, Surveillance, and Hype


Are you skeptical about trends in online and social media marketing? Do you feel that the ads targeting you day-in, day-out, are more annoying than persuasive? Do the most precisely targeted campaigns leave you feeling more violated than connected?

You’re not alone, and your suspicions are borne out by a growing body of research. Much of the research isn’t even new; it’s just been ignored, or spun into good news by marketers and agency gurus with a business model to preserve.

I believe there are better approaches—ones that empower your customers rather than trying to manipulate them. I’m especially interested in approaches based on conversation, information, and community-building, rather than interruption and industrial revolution-era salesmanship.


Seven Battle Cries:

You cannot annoy people in buying your product. You cannot bully them into liking your brand. Interruptive techniques, including modal popup windows and video ads that can’t be skipped, are vestiges of bygone times when consumers weren’t accustomed to controlling their media. Today these techniques do more harm than good. Consumers hate them, and if you use them they will hate you. These techniques continue to exist because they are easy, and are a first resort for marketing people who lack imagination. You should demand better.

Consumers are tired of being sold to. They mistrust salespeople and advertisers. But they’re hungry for useful, trustworthy information, and for actual human beings who represent a company and offer help.

Consumers are tired of being seen as consumers. Think about the word: it conjures ocean filter-feeders, or flesh-eating bacteria. Stop using it. From now on let’s call them customers. Or potential customers. Or people.

Aggressively targeted advertising can backfire. If a potential customer has been researching Acme Rocket-Powered Roller Skates on Google and Amazon for the last week, why are you paying to show them an ad? Market studies based on regression analysis will show that the ad worked … but the customer was going to buy the thing anyway. Beware of regression studies. They often conflate causation with correlation, and are a favorite tool of self-serving marketers. Also beware the predictable feelings you’ll arouse by flooding someone’s work browser with ads for laxatives / pregnancy tests / rehab clinics. One reliable result of aggressively targeted marketing: a creepy sense that Big Brother is watching.*

If you use your social media presence to inform, to engage, and to help, you will have followers. If you offer the right space and tools, you will build a community. If you join the community—first as a member, second as a resource—you will build loyalty. If you listen five times as much as you talk, and if you engage with individuals rather than broadcasting marketing messages, you will cultivate customers who love you.**

If your product or service is exceptional, then your messaging primarily needs to illuminate it in the right light. Let your works do the selling. People are tired of hype. Hype drags you down to the level of everyone else.

If your product or service is not exceptional, your problem isn’t marketing. Fix what you do, then worry about how to sell it. In the Willy Loman era, it was a feather in one’s cap to be able to “sell anything.” Today we have a floating island of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean that’s larger than the state of Texas. Don’t be the problem.


Ok, so these are some fine-sounding propositions. How do you put them to work? I’ll have more to say in subsequent posts, including some evidence-based research, in case you don’t blindly trust my arguments (you shouldn’t!)

For now, please consider these questions:

• How often, when your web browsing has been interrupted by a pop-up dialog or a video, have you felt compelled to buy something or click a link? How often have you felt utter contempt? How often have you gone out of your way to avert your ears and eyes, to somehow punish the advertiser?

• How often have you seen a web ad for something you were just reading about on another platform, and felt … vaguely violated?

Agencies sometimes get uncomfortable when confronted with questions like these, because they’re bad for business. More specifically, bad for their business—if they’re unwilling to adapt. The best solutions are challenging to implement, challenging to scale, and (more worrisome to agencies), challenging to monetize.

Truly progressive and imaginative agencies—and clients—will welcome these challenges. They’ll see opportunities to distinguish themselves from the competition. Everyone else will just see their business model under threat.

If you’re a client or an agency who’s drawn to these challenges, then let’s talk.



*As you now know, advertisers and social platforms have ignored the complaints, and as a result are facing a backlash—both from regulators and from Apple, who is using its 800 lb gorilla platform to empower consumers against surveillance within apps. Apple is really just doing two things: requiring transparency about an app’s data collection, and requiring that consumer’s have to be asked to opt in. That’s it—they’re offing an informed choice. The result? 96% of Apple’s customer’s, when offered the choice, opt out. Maybe it’s time to build our marketing strategies and business models on something besides surveillance …

*Using the latest crop of “social listening” tools is a reasonable step. But you’re going to need person, not an algorithm, to join the community.


© Paul Raphaelson

  1. Killer logo on the Underbelly page. What kind of knife is that?


    • Thanks! Aritsugu A-Series gyuto. Very serious knife. I don’t have one; its shape fit the type better than my own knife.


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