For many of us, the web and social media are useful tools to fuel our hobbies. Getting outside at the weekend to go walking, cycling or climbing is our main focus, but online channels give us information and inspiration, perhaps to discover a new challenge, research new gear or to follow our favourite adventurer.
Sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? But in the murky world of online marketing we’re being actually being stalked, our online activities monitored and our data bought and sold. To marketers, we’re a sales lead, easily influenced and a lucrative income stream. Let me explain.
Have you noticed that you sometimes get new Twitter followers from people who describe themselves as “influencers”? Do you sometimes see website adverts for products you’ve recently been researching? When you click on links in certain blogs or articles do you sometimes notice that you don’t see the information you expect but instead, are taken straight to a retail site. Taken individually these incidents don’t add up to much but these are sure signs you’re being stalked. The online marketeers are after you!
My blogging has taken a bit of a back seat over the last few weeks thanks to a welcome holiday, a busy time at work and a new house extension. But in that time my mailbox has been receiving a continuous stream of messages. I’m not necessarily talking about the genuine comments on various blog posts or the many Kickstarter campaigns looking for support. I’m not even talking about the 43,000 messages previously filtered out by WordPress or the 108 currently in my spam folder. (But read below if you want a good laugh at some hilarious spam e-mails, produced by online bots).
What I want to focus on here are the messages from marketing companies looking for me to lend credibility to their devious schemes.
Clickbait for cash
One such message asked if I was willing to consider a guest post for my blog. Great, I thought, and replied to say that as long as the content matched the theme of my blog then I was willing to consider it. The article duly arrived (on hill running incidentally) and except for a few tweaks and the substitution of American for British English words, it was ready to publish. However, it contained a number of spurious hyperlinks to various brands of running shoes on a US website that bore no direct relevance to the text in question. I asked for these to be removed, they weren’t, and so I politely pointed out that I wasn’t willing to publish it.
In marketing terms this is all about affiliate advertising. So every time an unsuspecting reader clicks through to a website the marketing company gets a small percentage sales commission.
It’s certainly not illegal and perhaps harmless enough. But it’s manipulative. These links are everywhere. Most major retailers with an online site operate them and if you look closely at the small print at the foot of their websites you’ll see them recruiting bloggers and website owners to run ads. Text taken from a well-known UK outdoors retailer explains how it works:
The system’s really simple. You register as an affiliate with our partner, Webgains, put an ad on your site linking to xxxxxx.com, and every time a visitor to your site uses that link to buy something, you get a share of the price. Meanwhile, we get a sale, so it’s a perfect win-win arrangement.
We supply you with all the graphics you could need, regularly updated throughout the year. The links we provide automatically make sure we know which visitors have come from your site.
I did a bit of research of my own and stumbled across a site that explains how to write articles appealing to you and I, people in the “camping affiliate niche“. Take a look. It makes for an eye-opening insight into how some individuals seemingly make money out of trying to promote stuff to unsuspecting consumers. I particularly like his take on the “high traffic, low competition keywords” that would entice us campers in!
Despite the downtrend in interest in the topic (camping), there will always be niche markets to get into, and if you are passionate about it, money can be made anywhere online. It’s always possible to put your own spin on it and build a brand based on YOU. Good examples would be camping + technology, camping with disabilities, camping for city slickers, and so on.
For me, transparency is key. I’m savvy enough to know that if I’m reading an article on a retailer’s website then I know that they’re promoting their products. But if I read something on another site – a individual’s blog perhaps – I assume that they have a more objective point of view, particularly if they don’t openly disclose at the foot of the article that they have a relationship with any company.
The difficulty really comes when a social marketing company sets up a site specifically designed to look like a blog run by a group of outdoors enthusiasts, but is in actual fact a fairly well-disguised tool for getting access to customer data. The second example I wanted to share from my inbox was a request for me to be added to a “List of Invited Experts” (their capitals, not mine) to provide advice on setting up a new “Nature-saving Scholarship”.
This is simply a manipulative means of buying content and data that they can then re-use to generate even more affiliate links
It sounded intriguing – as well as flattering. My initial response was to say that I didn’t regard myself as having any particular expertise in “nature saving” and therefore I couldn’t help them. However, they followed up with a reply giving further details about the aforementioned scholarship. It turned out they were setting up a competition aimed at young people, inviting them to produce articles and infographics containing tips on topics such as “How Hikers Can Make Sure That They Don’t Hurt Wildlife” and “Recommendations for Responsible Behavior Near Bodies of Water That Will Protect Water Inhabitants“. (It must really be important if they’re using So Many Capital Letters). “Scholarships” (read prizes) of $1000 and $500 are on offer for the first and second best entries.
This is simply a manipulative means of buying content and data that they can then re-use to generate even more affiliate links. As I pointed out in my response, anyone who knows anything about conservation wouldn’t participate in such an ignorant and clumsily-worded competition (who says “nature-saving” anyway?!), and would instead go to a respected and credible conservation body for information.
But it got me thinking. While you and I are probably savvy enough to suss out a mediocre article on wildlife conservation without needing to read beyond the first paragraph, there are many people who aren’t. Perhaps the targets are yet more young people doing a school project on conservation, who find that the interesting link they’ve just clicked on has taken them to some dodgy retail site? In the jargon, this is “click bait” – enticing people to click on links which earns the owner of that link a few pennies.
Fake sites and fake news
There are two issues here. First, I don’t like the fact that there are people setting up fake sites and littering the web with spurious links simply to steer us towards particular retail sites, earning money in the process. It’s akin to the sad guy outside the Apple store on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street who holds a large wooden sign advertising cheap mobile phone repairs in a nearby backstreet. Except he doesn’t jump out in front of unsuspecting passers by.
The second, and I think most important point, is this. In today’s digital world, how do we have the confidence to know that what we’re reading is independent and objective? There’s so much user-generated content – which in itself has to be a good thing – but we need more finely-honed skills to differentiate between authoritative insight and marketing content masquerading as useful information.
Libertarians among you will no doubt say that this has always been the case. The task of filtering out nuggets of gold from the dirt is as old as the hills. Understanding that the tabloid press don’t produce the same standard of journalism than the broadsheets is something that everyone is aware of.
… we need more finely-honed skills to differentiate between authoritative insight and marketing content masquerading as useful information
This is true but I also think that in an online world things are different. Many people these days seem to inhabit online ‘filter bubbles’. This is when, in selecting the sites or individuals we follow on social media, we reinforce certain streams of information while effectively filtering out contrary opinions and perspectives. This gives space for this media manipulation to take place, where fake news is presented as plausible and where subjective messaging can be believed. As someone who spends his day job searching out objective evidence this does concern me.
Do you know which advertisers Twitter sells your data to?
This week I took a look on my Twitter account at my data and ‘advertiser list’. It was an eye-opener. It lists the dates and times I’ve been using Twitter, the specific places where I’ve been when I’ve checked my feed, and the 40 or so specific interests matched against my browsing history (including cycling, holidays, men’s shoes and skiing). The advertiser list then matches my profile and interests to 23 pages of corporate Twitter accounts and has presumably sold this data to any willing buyers.
I know that I signed up to Twitter’s terms and conditions (and couldn’t be bothered to read through all xx pages to understand what it all meant). I also understand that personal data is a valuable commodity for marketing purposes. However I just didn’t expect to see how far this approach is being taken.
So if you’re a typical outdoors-y person who uses the web and social media to research new adventures, gear or new skills, should you be worried? I imagine few people will be surprised to hear that companies see increasing value in getting access to customer/user data. But hopefully by revealing some of the tactics the social media marketeers are adopting then this will raise awareness about the issue and its potential implications.
And finally … some words of wisdom from bot-generated spam e-mails
Finally, just to lighten the tone a little, I’m sure you’re interested to read some words of wisdom from the next army of social media marketeers. These are the millions of AI ‘bots that are scouring the internet to somehow make sense of its obsession with cat videos, technology, sport and Kim Kardashian.
A site selling cheap sports jerseys (their description, not mine) has contacted me to let me know that:
The word hockey is possibly derived from the word hooked, middle French word which means a shepherd’s stave. I know it won’t seem for instance it’ll perform, but in case you eat balanced meals PLUS do your vertical step exercises, you’re muscle will get better faster and you will be stronger. You will find plenty of such books written by home organisation experts either in the library of book stores.One good thing about roller shutters artwork is you can paint them without having to remove them however, this is not suggested.
I was complemented by a German site which seems to have something to do with pyjamas (!):
My family members every time say that I am wasting my time here at web, however I know I am getting know-how daily by reading such pleasant posts.
However, a site specialising in something called “runescape gold” seems to be struggling with plagiarism from the very same bots that are spamming my own inbox – not to mention its challenges in spelling and font selection:
Wіth havin so muhch wｒitten content do yοu еver run nto any issues oof plagoriism οr copyright violation? Ꮇy site haѕ a loot of cօmpletely unique contfent Ι’vе either created myself ᧐r outsourced but іt lookѕ like ɑ lot ᧐f it iss popping it uρ all օveг the internet withߋut mү authorization. Ɗo yoou knkw ɑny solutions to help stоⲣ content from bеing stolen? I’ԁ genuinely appｒeciate іt.
It’s a good point to finish on. So in this distinctly murky world of online marketing I’ll leave you with a final question: do yoou knkw ɑny solutions to brIng greaeter tra nsparenCy to advertis.ng or st0p inf0rma tion bEing manipul8ted? I’ԁ genuinely appｒeciate іt.