Samuel Scott






Online Marketing is No Longer a Bag of Tricks

by | Jan 5, 2015 | Marketing Essays | 3 comments

stock chart

Google was founded close to the height of the 1990s tech bubble. (See above.) By the time that the search engine became the top method to find things on the Internet, the United States was in a recession. Despite the Dow  Jones Industrial Average (DJIA)’s rebound starting in 2003, the economy as a whole did not really recover — the stock market’s bull run was largely a result of low interest rates, increasing debt, and a housing bubble that had started to inflate. Most everyday citizens and smaller companies were still in tough shape. Then, the financial and housing crash in 2008 made things worse.

What did this mean in terms of digital marketing? From the time that Google became popular until the search engine’s Panda and Penguin updates (see the right of the image), there were two overall themes that converged:

  • The rise of Internet-based “marketing” practices such as SEO and technologies such as social media
  • An aversion to spending significant money — because many people and businesses had no money

Before the Internet, what could be called “traditional marketing” consisted of expensive, long-term practices that were meant to build brands and generate publicity over time. But as a result of the two factors listed above, what became known as “Internet marketing” became associated with cheap tricks to get results quickly. In a sense, digital marketing essentially emerged as traditional marketing’s younger, less-respected brother. Rather than build strong brands that will stand the test of time, online marketing at the beginning consisted of “bags of tricks” that aimed to achieve results such as:

  • Stuff keywords and build links to manipulate Google into ranking a website first quickly
  • “Go viral” on Facebook within days of creating a page
  • Get 100,000 Twitter followers within weeks of creating an account

For years, countless “digital marketers” flooded websites, job boards, human-resources departments, and clueless executives with pitches to do all of these things — and often for little money. In the decade from 2000 to 2010 — when the Internet emerged and people had little money — this was how many people viewed (and a lot still view) Internet marketing.

Is is it any wonder that our industry has a branding problem?

My first “digital marketing” job years ago was being a “SEO content writer” for a porn website on which people could watch live “performances” for $1 a minute. (Yeah, I’m not proud of it.) Essentially, I would stuff keyword phrases into blog posts that would then be published on a “review website” with links to the company’s main website. (The company, of course, owned that review website but tried to hide that fact from Google.) I only realized later that I was doing black-hat SEO.

While I was in that position, I heard that a certain D-list celebrity — Amy Fisher of the 1990s Joey Buttafuoco scandal — had agreed to do “performances,” and my fresh-out-of-MBA-school-after-leaving-journalism mind started thinking about (traditional) marketing and publicity. I mentioned some ideas to my boss, and here was his response: “I’m sure the marketing department is taking care of that.” But were we not part of the marketing department? No. As I later realized, the marketing department was doing marketing — and the SEO department was doing spam.

I left that job quickly because I did not want to work in porn — and I had wanted to do real marketing anyway.

But even today, too many potential clients and employers — not to mention business journalists and the public in general — still view digital marketing as tactics that consist of manipulation and deception as well as possibly even downright fraud. And I hate that.

It’s one reason that I speak at global conferences as well as write here and contribute articles to Moz, LinkedIn Pulse, and the Times of Israel on topics that relate to the integration of digital and traditional marketing. It’s time for we online marketers to “grow up” and sit at the marketing table as equals. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • As I explained here as well as in this webinar and follow-up article for Moz, the Internet is essentially a new collection of communications channels in the context of traditional marcom theory
  • However, digital marketers specifically excel at using those specific channels strategically — we are best at executing marketing strategies via those mediums after the prior steps of the marketing process (audience research, messaging and positioning, and more) have been completed
  • Still, each of the elements of strategic marketing plans can be accomplished via both traditional and online methods

In the end, there is no “traditional” or “online” marketing — there is only marketing. And that is what Google wants to happen.

Google’s Panda and Penguin updates, in my opinion, were designed to eliminate the “bags of tricks” that had worked over the prior decade and to reward those companies and websites that just simply do good marketing. The search engine wanted to reward those who build real brands over those who stuff keywords and build artificial links. It’s why I write often that what is called “SEO results” — higher search-engine rankings and traffic — are just by-products of doing good marketing and public relations.

If you do the strategic marketing process well — and if you do it well consistently and indefinitely — then your Google rankings, social followings, backlinks, sales, and more will naturally increase over time. And that takes money.

Too many companies have been wanting something for nothing since 2000. Countless businesses, clients, and customers have asked me, “How can we get high rankings / large social followings / news coverage cheaply?” But that’s not how it works. Good marketing costs money — especially today, following Google Panda and Penguin (which penalized bad content and bad links, respectively). And if you do not want to spend the money to do good marketing, then that shows that you probably do not really really believe in your product.

Take the business world a few decades ago. If someone had a business idea, he or she would go to the bank and take out a loan — the person would “put some skin in the game” because he or she believed in the idea. Over the past decade, however, no one has wanted to take any risk because of both the poor economy and the snake-oil promises from too many “marketers” of getting something for nothing.

Today, however, people need to “pay to play” for the following reasons:

  • The Internet and other technological advances have eliminated many “barriers to entry” — meaning that competition has actually increased and good marketing and publicity is what is needed to differentiate oneself from the competition
  • Almost all of the “cheap tricks” that used to work are no longer viable (and thankfully so!)
  • The U.S. economy has continued to grow — the DJIA chart at the top of this essay has continued to rise to the right — meaning that both you and your competition likely have more money to spend

What does this all mean? To be successful today, both “traditional” and “online” marketers need to work together to do just good marketing. The decade from 2000 to 2010 was a deviation from the marketing norm — there are no more temporary tricks.

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