Catch it, kill it

Thinking about the behaviors of Habitat and Moonfruit over the last week begs the question about what we mean by SPAM. Clearly, inserting marketing messages into randomly trending topics is corrosive and shows no respect for the community. Doing that when the topics were the first voices of dissent from Iran was just plain dumb.

Swine flu advert

But what about creating a trending topic with an incentive? If giving away three laptops may get you millions of mentions, then you can certainly imagine why moonfruit might think they want to do it. But noise doesn’t mean interest or relevance, and is this the sort of noise you want anyway, entirely free of content or motivation?

We used to do this back in the day with ‘viral’ competitions – invite five of your friends to watch our video and you’ll get five times as many chances to win. It didn’t really work then either, although for a while, it was the only real idea in town.

There are two reasons that member-get-member died out as a method to spread messages:

  1. The message itself got lost in the mechanic. All anyone cared about was winning the laptop, they didn’t want to know about making their own website with moonfruit
  2. People’s propensity to forward this crap would decrease over time as they realized that they had become the SPAMers themselves, devaluing their personal reputation in their own networks. Remember how we all pitied our contacts that would send around out-of-date or hopelessly commercial messages.

Surely the same will happen with Twitter and the rest. Who amongst us wants to be seen as being tricked into doing a marketers job for them? Or for failing to spot what are commercial messages.

It’s a bit like swine flu. You don’t want to get it yourself and you certainly don’t want to be seen to be the one forwarding it on. Catch it, kill it, bin it.

And it becomes more complex too when we think about ‘personal brands’. Just as twitter – and all that – mark the rise of the citizen journalist, citizen marketer etc, they also seem to mark the rise of the citizen SPAMer. Where does the line lie? Let’s say I’ve got a room to rent out. If I mention it once on twitter or facebook, then I am being useful. How about if I ask friends to retweet it? That’s reasonable. What about if I keep mentioning it and asking friends to retweet slight variants of the message. Haven’t I then crossed the line? What about if I’m asking for attention for my blog posts? What about if I’m talking about an ad or campaign I made at work? Even with our friends, I think the level of tollerance is low.

But it’s a line a lot more of us are going to have to recognize. People like Hugh MacLeod, brilliant though he is, are flirting with this all the time. Needing to make sure the commercial-esque messages make up the right-proportion overall, staying useful, not trying to hide the commercial messages in the ‘editorial’ ones.

It’s a line which is about how closely you are connected to the network in which you are communicating, and how well you stay in touch with what they care about.

Can brands make these approaches work today? I’d say Habitat’s approach is a definite no, Moonfruit’s  a probable no, and certainly one with a limited shelf life.

Of course, this is not really new information. There is little substitute for actually doing the work of getting involved in the market as a collection of human beings:

‘Markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked. (Cluetrain, 1999)