Is Marketing the Scourge of the Internet?

Note: I would love to hear your opinion about the current state of online marketing in the comments below. This is an incredibly important topic. Please share your thoughts after reading my intro and explanation here.

I’ve long felt that marketing is a necessary part of succeeding in business. Most who follow the “if you build it they will come” philosophy languish in obscurity.

I learned this the hard way back in the early 2000s with my first attempt at building an online business. It failed miserably for a number of reasons, not least of which was my complete lack of understanding of how to get the word out about what I created.

In this case, I’m defining marketing as promoting your products, services, or your work or business in general. It’s the act of getting the word out and telling the world what you have to offer.

But the act of getting the word out can take many forms, especially online.

First, consider that marketing can happen either on-site or off-site. If I had a little advertisement for a product of mine in the sidebar over there, that would be marketing on-site. If I put an ad on Facebook for my website or a newsletter, that would be off-site marketing.

Next, consider the many different types of marketing that are used online. Some are innocuous, others obnoxious. How you react to certain marketing might be very different from how someone else reacts.

If I mention to you here that I have a book launching next week (I don’t, but just for argument sake), most readers probably wouldn’t be bothered by that. However, if I email you every day this week to convince you to buy my book even though you didn’t ask for more information about it, you might get annoyed. You might even unsubscribe or convince others to do the same.

How someone uses marketing depends on his goals, what he believes and how he sees his relationship with his readers and customers.

On one hand, some people see their customers merely as “lists” of email addresses to be “optimized” for “conversion rates.” These marketers place revenue maximization first, and helping people or changing the world falls much further down on the list of priorities (if at all).

These entrepreneurs use old-school internet marketing strategies. They use these strategies because they’ve been told they work, and maybe because they’ve seen better results from the techniques.

When a business or blogger falls into this first category, you can tell because their marketing is often more polished than their actual product.

On the other hand are entrepreneurs who see their readers and customers as people who have problems, needs or desires that can be helped or fulfilled. To them, spreading ideas, inspiring people and affecting positive change comes first.

These people haven’t studied marketing strategy much, and tend to just treat their customers as they would like to be treated. Some of these businesses and bloggers don’t do much marketing at all, and many struggle to make ends meet.

I started thinking about these issues last week when a heated discussion unexpectedly erupted between my dinner companions and I over beers. Leo, Scott and I had been debating the merits of attending college (a whole other tangent for another day), when the subject of marketing came up.

Leo is one of the bloggers I respect most, and he’s become a great friend over the past year. His very popular site Zen Habits contains very little marketing and almost no advertising.

Leo is a strong believer that most marketing is unnecessary because it damages the trust relationship with your customers and inhibits growth. Leo wrote a scathing piece on Google Plus called The Scourge of the Internet (along with this follow-up) last week following our conversation.

My personal relationship with marketing has gone from knowing nearly nothing, to becoming obsessed with the capabilities of marketing, to being somewhat more pragmatic about the role of marketing in my business (albeit occasionally susceptible to misuse of marketing from time-to-time as short-term greed or laziness overtakes long-term goals).

During our marketing debate, I found myself on the side of defending the need for marketing. As an entrepreneur who struggled for years to support myself from my work, I’ve learned to rely on marketing strategies to help boost my bottom line and spread the word about my business.

I love and respect my readers and spend 80% of my time producing free content and helping people for free, sometimes even one-on-one. But, sometimes I do things that I don’t feel completely comfortable with, like selling products much harder than I would like to, or pushing emotional hot buttons because I know it will increase sales.

I do these things out of necessity, or so I’ve always told myself.

In the days after our discussion, I started to wonder how much of my defensiveness was genuinely in support of marketing as a necessity, versus a protection mechanism for my own mistakes or greed.

I decided to create two lists. One list of things in favor of marketing, and another list in favor of not marketing.

Here’s the list in favor of doing marketing:

  1. To spread the word about my work and become more popular.
  2. To earn more money.

You can decide if those two things are positives or negatives. Personally, I don’t have a problem with earning money. I also think that popularity is good if the underlying cause is important. On the other hand, these two things could easily be driven by vanity or greed.

And here’s the list I came up with in favor of not doing marketing:

  • Marketing can create false demand where it shouldn’t exist (for example, the bottled water industry).
  • Marketing can insult people’s intelligence by preying on emotion.
  • Marketing can set expectations you can’t fulfill.
  • Some customers (often the smarter ones) will leave because they get tired of your marketing techniques.
  • Marketing can bring out the worst in people, causing things like this.
  • Without marketing, the relationships you form with readers and customers are more genuine.
  • Without marketing, you can focus on what really matters: the work and your contribution to the people who look to you for help.

Of course, as I mentioned above, there are many different ways to conduct marketing. Some of the points on this list could be moot if the marketing is understated, respectful and hype-free.

Looking objectively at the list, it seems like all else being equal, the world might be better off without marketing.

But there’s just one problem.

I’m still not convinced that most small businesses can survive, let alone thrive (especially in the early days), without employing a decent measure of marketing.

The biggest question for me is this: what minimum level of marketing and which marketing strategies and techniques are a) necessary to earn a living through your creativity online (in whatever industry you’re in) and b) morally congruent with putting your readers’ needs first, or at least on equal footing with your own needs to support yourself.

Here’s another way you can look at these questions.

When does marketing become counter-productive to the growth of your business? In other words, when does marketing trade future prosperity for immediate dollars?

Also, does competition force the need for marketing. Is it an arms race?

I don’t expect to sort this out overnight. I’m thinking some experiments might be in order. This discussion has made me wonder if my assumptions that typical online marketing is a necessary evil are unfounded.

Has anyone ever questioned the Internet Marketing strategies that so many businesses rely on today? Has anyone experimented to see whether a very small business can forgo those strategies and still flourish in the short-term?

Now I’d love to hear from you.

Is marketing the scourge of the Internet? Bill Hicks famously said marketers are the ruiners of all things good. Do you agree?

Specifically what marketing techniques do you appreciate, which do you tolerate, and which do you abhor? Please list your preferences: pop-ups, sales pitches in blog posts, banner ads, pitch emails, group “mega sales,” social media buttons… tell us what you like and what you hate.

Is there a better way for a small online business to use marketing than the typical strategies employed today?

Feel free to share examples of people you think are doing it right.

I'm Corbett Barr, co-founder of Fizzle and entrepreneur for a decade. Get my weekly curated email of useful things for independent entrepreneurs »

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