Do you remember this moment from about 18 months ago?
Senator Orin Hatch: So, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?
Mark Zuckerberg: Senator, we run ads. [smirk]
Because it’s apparently fun to mock older people, that moment was instantly meme-ified and decontextualized, complete with the Zuckersmirk.
But Senator Hatch was perfectly aware that Facebook runs ads. He asked a rhetorical question to make a point about Facebook’s congenital tendency to impinge on the right to privacy – a perfectly relevant point given why Facebook was under investigation in the first place. Facebook had sold private information about its users to a business called Cambridge Analytica, which then resold that information to Russia so the latter could run more effective political ads in the US presidential election.
Did Zuckerberg not know it was a rhetorical question? Or did he pretend not to know, hoping the resulting cheap laugh would obfuscate the enormity of the subterfuge Facebook was party to? Either way, it worked.
But Senator’s Hatch’s question hasn’t gone away and it has implications for anyone looking to grow their business through paid advertising.
Since the scandal, many have called for an outright ban on targeted advertising (which would cripple Facebook… but not Google).
I’m not about to tell any of you to stop running Facebook ads, or Google display ads that use demographic targeting. Or to stop sending emails that track opens, as does Mailchimp, the product I use to send you this email (I have disabled link tracking but I’m not allowed to disable open tracking without running the risk of being labeled a spam emailer).
But we should all be careful about demographically targeted display advertising in the long term – maybe even the short term. Certainly don’t build a lead generation that relies solely on Facebook ads, such as Sam Oven’s Consulting.com (don’t click it or his face will follow you around the Interwebs for months – unless you’re using Duck Duck Go).
Because this pandemic is making us question everything.
For example, the British government has demanded that Google reveal its search algorithms to – this part is amusing – a “working SEO consultant”. Who will win that lottery?! Six months ago, that would have seemed as absurd as Coca-Cola revealing its formula.
But today close to 2 million people around the world have the coronavirus and everything is on the table.
We don’t know when our business will return to “normal” but we know the safest harbors for our marketing are those that’ll have respect for privacy.
The winner then is still content marketing – the more accurate expression of the value of your solutions, the refinement of your expertise. Maybe that’s why Jason Calacanis’s latest venture is pure content marketing – an aggregator of personal daily newsletters.
But that doesn’t mean advertising is dead; not at all! It never will be, nor should it be. Done right, advertising is a helpful signpost in a crowded marketplace. Advertising existed long before digital platforms feasted off the appropriation of private, personal information and built the massive monopolies called out by Andrew Keen. Yesterday I mentioned the new venture of SEO legend Rand Fishkin, SparkToro, which aggregates anonymous audience intelligence in a GDPR compliant way. What does it do?
So if you want to, as DHH says, sell fishing gear, you can sell it directly on a fishing website, instead of spying on people’s Facebook account to see what photos they share with family and friends. And cut out the middle man by brokering your own deal directly, advice I remember reading from the Shoemoney digital marketing blog back in 2006 (looks like he put the site on display advertising cruise control many years ago; wouldn’t look for guidance there now).
Earlier this week, a colleague and I tried to help a major B2B merchandiser distribute non-medical face masks to potentially millions of people. But the Facebook-Google duopoly had at that point put the kaibosh on all forms of advertising even referencing coronavirus or COVID, directly or indirectly. Did they do it out of civic duty or to avoid liability? I don’t know.
I do know that millions of business and independent professional have the ability to do business directly with one another. Affordable tools keep getting better; guidance keeps flowing through videos, podcasts, newsletters, and blogs.
So maybe the clear blue waters of Venice aren’t the only silver lining to this terrifying black cloud of a health crisis – maybe we’re in for a true B2B marketing renaissance.
Have a great weekend,
Footnotes & Errata
- The book in which Keen called out the Internet as a plutocracy breeding ground is The Internet Is Not the Answer https://www.amazon.com/Internet-Not-Answer-Andrew-Keen/dp/0802124615.
Soshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism painstakingly details the intrusion of digital advertising and Big Tech in general into our lives. She makes a strong argument that this status quo isn’t inevitable.