One of the great tragedies of marketing as a discipline is that shortly after it establishes a really effective way to engage potential customers, advocates, etc. it undercuts its own achievement by cannibalizing it for lead generation, ad revenue, or by following the ‘letter of the law’ rather than the spirit of it (e.g. spamming backlinks in the comments sections of blogs, creating content of a specified length or at a specified frequency because of “best practice”, etc.).
Moreover, whether it’s a Google/Gmail algorithm or some other technology (eg adblock software), it doesn’t take very long for the traffic or leads or revenue that genuine value had been traded for to quickly dry up – leaving the marketing organization with neither leads nor an engaged audience.
Saving Inbound.org, and Facebook Falters – Networks of Value
The “Hacker News for Marketers” Inbound.org struggled with this last year. Ed Fry, Gen. Manager, saw the writing on the wall, and intervened to address it before it compromised their whole online community:
“I’d like to here [sic] your thoughts, and then perhaps run a poll on it next week with some of the suggestions that emerge to solidify a better policy together, as a community, for keeping this place interesting and valuable for all.” – Ed Fry, General Manager at Inbound.org.
One element of this issue was too much self-promotion in the community (marketers posting their own articles only, rather than providing articles of genuine value to the Inbound.org community), but by framing things as he did, Ed Fry ensured any other, smaller obstacles to creating an engaging community could be addressed as well.
Within the year (2015), the Inbound.org community continued to grow to over 100,000 members and today has over 160,000 (60%+ growth in less than a year for those keeping score), with hundreds of digital marketing questions asked and answered every week.
I believe the great migration among teens from Facebook to Snapchat is indicative of this as well (Facebook as “the most important social network” among US teens came down from 42% in 2012 to 17% in 2016, Snapchat as “the most important social network” for that same group is up from 13% in 2015 to 28% in 2016, see image below). Once Facebook starting showing cookies-based ads and sponsored content in users’ newsfeeds (i.e. ads), it was only a matter of time before the user community started looking for another place to congregate.
And once the community of users begin to move, marketers are soon to follow. If the new platform (Snapchat, in this instance) doesn’t establish and enforce guidelines to encourage creating quality content and engagement, users will get irritated by sales-driven (rather than value-driven) marketing efforts, another social media platform will arise, users will migrate to it, and marketers again will attempt to follow.
If you bring a community together around value you’ve proven your organization can provide (whether that’s a social media network, message board, Twitterchat, newsletter, in-person conference, or even just your company’s sales or support team), you will not be able to keep that community attentive if you relax your vigilance about providing that value.
This is challenging, as naturally, if you manage to galvanize an audience into a community, new stakeholders are going to notice, and want a piece of what you’ve created. Whether that’s letting irrelevant but heavily-sponsored ads get a foothold in your newsletter or podcast, or taking a rockstar support team (great for marketing purposes!) and giving them an upsell quota – you have to decide whether the community you’re selling away is worth your asking price, and how much it will cost to re-strengthen your brand.
Targeted Risk with Personalized Content
To clarify: selling your community isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s the right choice. Especially if you can segment your audience, it actually might make a lot of sense to target a particular group within your community and risk losing them as brand advocates in the attempt to more aggressively pull them into the sales funnel (by including product/company-promotional content in your otherwise value-first community).
The important thing is to be mindful of what you’re risking, and to be realistic about what you’re likely to receive in exchange for the genuine value you’re giving up. The marketing organization that gives up an engaged audience for leads, clicks, etc. can end up losing both- but if you are targeted in your approach, you can more easily manage the risk and identify and expand what gets traction.
Personalized content can help you achieve this segmentation. Even a simple tool like an interactive online survey can provide each member of your audience/community with a self-service means of deriving value from your content, and in the process of consuming said content, provide your marketing organization with a wealth of information about what is more or less risky for you to deliver to that audience segment in lieu of the genuine value you’d otherwise strive for.