Marketing is getting attention from the right eyeballs at the right time. No need to overcomplicate the concept itself; it's surprisingly simple.
Throughout the years, marketing has gained a negative connotation. For some, marketing is manipulative, materialistic, or misleading. However, while that description may fit some marketing practices done in the past, it's no longer effective in the modern world: consumers can easily see it's bullcrap.
In "David's Bullcr*p Marketing Video" above, I feature a few surface-level forms of this deceptive practice we've all seen and can easily point to and laugh at: cheesy stock music, overly fancy transition filler, businessy-looking icons and generic stock video (the corporate jargon is just a bonus).
But why do those things bother us? In a word, they're inauthentic. They feel fake - which puts them in a categorically different type of marketing altogether: bullcr*p marketing.
What is bullcr*p marketing?
Here's the definition:
Why am I starring out the "a" in "bullcr*p marketing"? It's a bit of a jest, but also to illustrate that even the term itself isn't fully transparent, much like the tactics it describes.
Effective marketing doesn't involve grandstanding or deception, it's authentic messaging targeting the right audience. Ideally, you're solving a need for someone and offering it to them directly.
History shows us that trust between business and consumer wins over the short-term benefits of deceitful self-fluff.
Marketing: ruining mass communication since the 1600s
Marketing as a practice has existed since the dawn of man, but scholars tend to agree that mass marketing started with Gutenberg's printing press in 1450.
From there, a pattern arose in which each new form of mass communication was hijacked by some form of marketing or advertising. Around the 1600s, paid advertising began in Italy, England, and Germany across flyers, brochures, and newspaper advertisements. As print became more scalable, marketing tactics followed.
In London during the 1730s, more than half of the space in newspapers was devoted to advertising. In 1864, the telegraph was used for unsolicited spam for the first time. Radio advertising began in the 1920s, just 20 years after radio itself was invented. It didn't take long for ads to creep into television (1941), phone calls (systemized telemarketing in the 1950s), email (the 1970s), and the rest of the early web (starting in the 1980s).
Finally, we've seen how marketers have dominated social media with display ads, utilizing influencers, and with branded social profiles in the last 15 years or so.
Or as Gary Vaynerchuk puts it:
"Marketers ruin everything."
Effective marketing is authentic
Thankfully, we know that despite the proliferation of advertising and marketing messages in our lives, getting a targeted, relevant message is a more pleasant experience, especially if it helps solve an immediate need or want.
A study by Marketing Dive suggests 71% of consumers prefer personalized advertising, a product of the modern era. Havard Business Review finds targeted marketing messages are more effective than traditional advertising.
Therefore, marketing has gotten better, but only as a consequence of more faithfully serving the needs of the recipients of its intended audience. This means authenticity, transparency, and adding value should be at the top of the list for any marketing strategy. Just blowing hot smoke won't cut it anymore.
Generation Z in particular can't stomach fakeness. Research suggests that Gen Z specifically values authenticity and transparency in the companies they support, more than previous generations. They're also less loyal to brands. Gen Z is currently one of the most powerful consumer forces, spending $44 billion currently or $600 billion if you count the influence they have on their parents. Needless to say, businesses should be paying attention.
Case Study: Discord's launch campaign
One of my favorite examples of marketing done right was the launch of the instant messaging social platform Discord in 2015. Their growth and adoption were insane, with 11 million registered users in the first year, and a projected 200 million monthly active users today.
What did they do right? They spoke directly to their target audience, which was mostly younger users who enjoy video games as a hobby. Discord HQ identified their audience's main pain point, which was the need for a simple, easy-to-use voice and chat tool to communicate with their friends when they played games together.
This video encapsulates it perfectly:
Their brand voice was fun, punchy, and spoke in plain English.
I got to talk directly to the Discord marketing team at PAX West 2017 (shout out to Zac Citron!) and it turns out every video they made up to that point was mostly just 2 people - one to do the video direction and voice over, and the other to do the video editing and graphics. Shows you how a small but mighty team can help drive impressive growth.
Although their branding has changed significantly since 2020, I will never forget the initial impression they made, and their success today can be attributed in part to their authentic, laser-focused marketing efforts. I even ran a partnered 10,000-member Discord server myself for several years.
How to avoid inauthenticity in marketing
Even though we know it doesn't work long-term, it's easy to get swept up in marketing nonsense. It's a competitive enterprise and there's a lot of pressure to be viewed in the best possible light expediently. Achieving so-called "quick wins" in this area over authenticity can be tempting. So here's a quick list of how to avoid being inauthentic:
Don't lie. Even the smallest embellishment should be avoided. There may be short-term positive effects from deceitfully fluffing up your image, but lies come back to bite eventually, no matter how practiced you might be.
Don't exploit. As we've seen with keyword stuffing, link farms, and fake reviews, trying to bend the rules in your favor inevitably ends with platforms and services penalizing its abusers (more on this later).
Focus on problem-solving for your target audience. It should be well understood that a single business, brand, product, or service can't be all things to all people. If you begin to lose focus on who you're serving, you start to enter bull territory by casting your net too wide and saying nothing at all.
Don't virtue signal. One PR tactic is to try taking a stand on a socio-political issue for public karma. If your business or brand truly aligns with it, then that can work as a strategy. However, too often, decisions are made to have a public stance that doesn't truly reflect the core values of that business or brand - or worse, it's even inconsistent with how they operate. Anyone familiar with whatever the particular issue may be can smell virtue signaling from a mile away.
A history of bullcr*p marketing trends
Old-school marketing methodology doesn't work well in today's world.
Here's a timeline of bullcrap ways marketers have tried to fluff up their chances to be noticed, which inevitably end in being penalized (also see: black hat SEO).
The 1990s: Keyword stuffing and invisible text
In the early days of search engines, websites would stuff their pages full of keywords, often to the point of making the text unreadable, to boost their visibility in search results. Some even took to using invisible text or placing white words on a white background to deceive search engine algorithms. Thankfully, Google's algorithms evolved and started penalizing these tactics, promoting the idea of high quality content over keyword manipulation.
Early 2000s: Pop-up ads and spam emails
Around the turn of the millennium, the internet was besieged by a torrent of pop-up ads ("Congratulations, you've won!" - does this sound familiar?). These intrusive messages were seen as a clever way to capture attention, but they rapidly became one of the most despised forms of advertising. Similarly, email inboxes were flooded with spam messages, often of dubious legitimacy. The backlash was significant, leading to legislation like the CAN-SPAM Act in the U.S. and more sophisticated ad-blocking tools.
Mid-2000s: Link farms and doorway pages
Link farms, which are websites created purely to link to other websites, and doorway pages, low-quality pages filled with keywords designed to trick search engines, were other practices that came to prominence in the mid-2000s. These schemes sought to exploit search engine algorithms and were ultimately detrimental to the user experience. Like with earlier tricks, the response from search engines was clear: anyone who used these tactics would be penalized, further emphasizing the importance of genuine, valuable content.
2010s: Fake reviews and clickbait
With the rise of social media and online shopping, the 2010s saw an increase in fake reviews and clickbait titles. Companies started paying for positive reviews, while sensationalist headlines or "clickbait" were used to drive traffic. However, these tactics resulted in widespread mistrust and dissatisfaction among consumers, forcing platforms like Facebook and Amazon to crack down on these practices.
2020s: Misleading influencers and "deepfake" advertising
In recent years, influencer marketing has taken off, but it's not immune to deceptive practices. Some brands have been accused of not marking sponsored content clearly, while others have used deepfake technology to create misleading advertisements. Both these tactics have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency and authenticity. As a response, social media platforms are developing stricter guidelines to promote clearer advertising.
So, what's next?
While it's difficult to predict exactly what the future holds for marketing, it's safe to say that authentic, transparent, and targeted messaging will always outperform gimmicky, misleading tactics. Anything that compromises a good user experience will likely be penalized. There's no doubt that companies will have to work harder than ever to win the trust and loyalty of their customers.
Natural language processing models like OpenAI's ChatGPT and Google's LaMDA are powerful tools with lots of potential, however they shouldn't be relied on exclusively for content creation. Anti-cheat education software Turnitin has developed tech that can already identify whether or not text was generated with ChatGPT, and they're not alone. Princeton computer science student Edward Tian has already built something similar himself, GPTZero.
As user adoption continues to climb for AI chatbots, and sophistication increases in spotting when language learning models are used in content, it will become easier and easier to spot in the wild. Don't think copywriters will be out of a job any time soon.
In the modern world of marketing, most attempts to trick the system, exploit loopholes, or deceive the market are destined to fail. Instead, the focus should be on creating value for your audience through relevant, high-quality content that addresses their needs and wants. Only then can you steer clear of the bullcr*p marketing trends of the past and ensure your marketing strategy is effective.
Marketing Tips for Content Creators
I'll be writing more on the topic of marketing - specifically for content creators who want to up their online presence game.
If you fit that description, you can subscribe to my newsletter to get new posts sent to your inbox directly.
Topics I'm considering are tips for effective personal branding, choosing the ideal online username, profile best practices, social platform-specific tips, and growing your own community, just to name a few.
Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment with any thoughts. 🙏
Did you find this article valuable?
Support David V. Kimball by becoming a sponsor. Any amount is appreciated!