Advertising is to the culture as water is to a fish; it’s so prevalent, we hardly even notice. Case in point: television. For decades, I thought television shows were for entertainment. It was one of the great mediums where people could share stories, compose visual art, and move the culture.

There is truth in that, of course, but it isn’t the whole truth and it certainly isn’t the first priority. If it were, the greatest television show of all time would still be on the air. Why did it stop? Because it wasn’t generating enough ratings. Not the critic’s ratings, the Nielsen ratings.

Television is first and foremost a delivery system for advertising. The networks bracket the ads with comedies, dramas, sitcoms, and news just as surely as Mary Poppins brackets the medicine with sugar to help it go down. When I really see this for what it is, I get the feeling of mundane epiphany. Behold! I just discovered the obvious! Soap operas were really just operas for soap sellers! Wow!

So the real role of a network executive is finding the right mix of shows and advertising that turns the profits without turning away the customers. That balance gets tricky. Especially now that Netflix and HBO show the power of subscription models and video-on-demand. It’s a fascinating industry in the midst constant change.

And that’s just one part of the equation. What about the advertisers who spend billions to keep the networks afloat? Things are changing for them, too. Why do they still buy commercials?

For that matter, why do they buy any ads of any kind? We see 4,000 to 10,000 ads on any given day.  How does an advertiser have any chance of standing out amidst all that noise?

Two Kinds of Marketing

It might help to begin with a framework. In his book This Is Marketing, Seth Godin provides a dichotomy between all the different ads we see on a given day. These ads are either direct marketing or brand marketing. What’s the difference?

Direct marketing is the targeted Facebook ad that boosts your post to generate a click. It’s the auction on Google. It’s the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes that gives you a chance to win a million dollars. How can they afford give away a million dollars? By selling millions more in magazine subscriptions and merchandise. You won’t win the sweepstakes but you’ll get a great deal on discount jewelry.

Brand marketing is Don Draper and the stylish look of an ad for some product I didn’t even know I wanted.

But what does this really mean? As Godin explains,  

Direct marketing is action oriented. And it is measured.

Brand marketing is culturally oriented. And it can’t be measured.

The measurement piece is really important when it comes to direct marketing. You are trying to create an action with this particular type of advertising. This is why the Publisher’s Clearing House wanted you to enter the sweepstakes in order to win your prize. It’s why the Columbia Record House service, the one that gave you eight albums for a penny, had a tiny little barcode and serial number faintly printed on the bottom of its order sheet. It was to measure the conversion rate. And other things. Measurement matters in direct marketing. Ad attribution is vital.

Perfect attribution data is the holy grail of the direct marketing world. I think it matters more than the actual sale. I’ve listened to interviews with data science teams who think about this stuff all day and it just blows my mind to see the complexity that goes into knowing who does what with the direct marketing ads we see.

The point? You must measure your direct marketing. You must understand the nature of what happens to see if you achieve the action you’re seeking.

Brand marketing feels wildly outdated by comparison. This is the softer stuff of awareness and identity. There was no click-through rate to measure the success of Apple’s 1984 ad when it broadcasted all those years ago. There isn’t any clear signal to tell Doritos that their absurd Super Bowl ad really affected sales the next day, either. So what’s the point?

Direct marketing generates a clear signal from the market to the marketer. “I, the audience member, see your ad and choose to click it. You will now get my attention for X seconds and you’ll know what I do during and after that period.”

Brand marketing generates a clear signal from the marketer to the market. “I, the marketer, will give you an impression on this commercial. You will get all the information I think you need and you’ll know what I offer and why it matters.”

One is about generating specific action. The other is about producing specific knowledge. But what’s the point of brand marketing if all it does is create passive knowledge?

Well, for one thing, we’re all managing a brand of some kind every day. So brand marketing amplifies and accentuates the signal we want to send so that we overcome the mixed signals we might otherwise suffer. For example, I had no idea that you could be a Mercedes Benz for under $40,000. It took a television commercial to help me realize that.

Here’s what Godin says about brand marketing:

The most important lesson I can share about brand marketing is this: you definitely, certainly, and surely don’t have enough time and money to build a brand for everyone. You can’t. Don’t try.

Be specific.

Be very specific.

And then, with this knowledge, overdo your brand marketing. Every slice of every interaction ought to reflect the whole. Every time we see any of you, we ought to be able to make a smart guess about all of you.

I share that because I think we get very confused. Especially in the world of online writing.

Clickbait – A Misunderstanding

What makes a good article on Medium? Or Facebook? Or LinkedIn? Or any of the millions of blog sites out there? Is it the number of claps and likes? The number of readers? Or is it the conversion rate of readers to followers? Or the click-through rate of visitors who then go to your site? Or sign-up for your weekly newsletter?

It depends on the game you choose to play, the goal you seek to achieve.

Thanks to Godin’s insights, I’ve come to understand that a lot of written content on the web is direct marketing. The clickbait title is part of a direct campaign to get you to click, of course, but I’m still confused as to why the click matters.

Or rather, why it, as a direct marketing device, matters more than the brand marketing.

Because one thing is true: direct marketing affects brand marketing. The reverse is true, too, of course but I want to focus on clickbait and brands and authorship and trust. I think it points to a confusion we can easily suffer from when we lose sight of the long-term goal.

To illustrate, I’ll go back to Mercedes-Benz. What if Mercedes-Benz started an online direct marketing campaign today? Imagine a pop-up ad put on every major site across the internet. A really intrusive pop-ad with a lot of animation. Click on the mole before if disappears in the hole! Win a new S-Class! The thing dances around and you click it. Hooray! This action takes you to the company page with all their vehicles presented with the MSRP. Along with a flashing banner that says: Buy one today!

Weird, right?

I’m sure it would generate a lot of activity. I guess it might even get the company a treasure trove of information. But it would create a tremendous amount of confusion, too. This is not the sort of thing Mercedes-Benz does. This feels like a violation of trust.  

They have a pure brand to maintain.

So do we. And this is where I get hung-up on formulaic content and clickbaity titles. It feels like so much direct marketing that undermines the brand we seek to build.

If an article is written to get clicks, increased traffic, and other immediate activity-driven measures, then it is a form of direct marketing.

You’re doing the work to stimulate a certain activity (increased follower count, newsletter subscriptions, clicks to other links, extended time-on-site). And you’re focusing on the measures to see how successful you were. The attitude manifests in a shift of focus: nevermind the content. What about the metrics?

Here’s the tricky thing, though: most of us aren’t really that thirsty or desperate. Most of us aren’t adopting that attitude on purpose. We’re just mimicking what we’ve seen others do. We’re not realizing that we’re acting like a direct marketer with this sort of behavior.

I only realized it myself when I got distracted one day and decided to research ways to boost traffic. Why would I do that? Because I had a momentary lapse of judgement. I judged a particular article I had written as being “underperforming” when, in fact, all I really want is for it to be true.

True to what? True to the wisdom I glean from a particular book. True to the service I’m trying to provide. True to the motivation of giving people something useful. Once I remembered that, I stopped researching the boosting industry and got back to work.  

I should be clear: it seems totally harmless to “boost” your traffic. Who knows? It might work. You might get a few more clicks, a few new visitors. That seems fine so long as it doesn’t diminish the identity, the brand, you’re trying to cultivate.

In my case, I realized there is no such thing as an “underperforming” article. Why? Because this isn’t about follower counts or monetization. It’s about something else.

As a final note, Godin draws a point about brand marketing that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s about time. And frequency. If you share at a high frequency, with consistent quality, you will develop a brand people can trust in due time. So whether its my service, yours, or the Mercedes-Benz company (established in 1926), the brand is an orchard that takes years to grow. Direct marketing might help but only when it’s in service to that brand. Like proper fertilizer. Do it first, without a clear sense of what the brand really is, and you’ll create confusion for everyone—including yourself.  

Image by Dave Crosby