• February 1, 2015
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

When It Comes to Marketing, Drop the Scare Tactics

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Read this immediately or die alone!

For people like me, whose bread and butter is communicating ideas, the Internet and social networking have been a huge opportunity. It's easier than ever for writers, artists, videographers, and other creative types to gain exposure for whatever it is they have to express. That's the good part.

The gray lining to that silver cloud is the sheer volume of mass media that potential audiences have to sort through. The signal-to-noise ratio is pretty ugly when the amount of noise is near infinite. To combat this, advertisers and marketers have adopted some fairly drastic tactics to get their share of your attention.

I was recently asked by a client (whom I won't name) if I could punch up the titles of some commissioned articles I had written for them. This is a fair request, and one I've received countless times in my career. A little jazz is expected from time to time.

Unfortunately, the client suggested a reprehensible example of whom to copy. BuzzFeed. Them I'll name, because that site has become its own verb, one synonymous with clickbaiting, or luring readers in an effort to generate pay-per-click (PPC) ad revenue through the use of sensational and misleading titles.

You know the type I mean—the first line of this article is an example. Others, such as "You won't believe this one weird trick to shrink your gut" or "The four things to hoard in a disaster that FEMA doesn't want you to know about," are others I just invented, but that you can probably find if you Google them anyway. The articles linked to clickbait are often tawdry and/or poorly researched and reported, amounting to little more than rumor-mongering and mudslinging.

I refused—vehemently—for several reasons, only some of which related to my professional ethics and pride. The remaining reasons were more about protecting the client than my own reputation, and I'll explain the reasoning behind that in a moment.

In the old days, when print media reigned supreme, newspapers occasionally used "scare quotes" in a similar way to sell papers. Scare quotes refer to the quotation marks around an inflammatory word or phrase from one of an article's sources. Use of scare quotes is a way for an ostensibly neutral reporter to make an insinuation without proving it. Sometimes—in the worst examples of this practice—the quote is taken out of context, so there isn't even the veneer of neutral reporting. They could be used to support a position or to sneer at it, but it always amounted to a cheap shot at something.

The problem with scare quotes, and with "buzzfeeding," is that repeated use of the tactic makes you permanently associated with it, and suddenly nobody trusts content with your brand on it anymore. You become the noise you sought to rise above. Bad, but there's more to it than that.

Marketing and advertising services track clicks and analyze what's working and what isn't. This is how PPC works. By falling for clickbait, you are putting yourself into a user group that you might not want to be with, the "I am a meathead who thinks with a part of my anatomy other than my brain" crowd. You will become a target for more of the same, and more content providers will go for the cheap click. You'll never see decent content again. Is that what you want?

If it is, let me know how that works out for you. You'll have to search for me though, because I won't be anywhere near it.


Marshall Lager has three must-read tips on how to make your business a success in bed! You won’t believe what happens when you click on www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.


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