Anyone who spends any time on the Internet understands that spam is a nasty and unavoidable by-product of the experience. From endless emails telling us that we’ve won the lottery to those annoying automatic direct messages some people send to new followers on Twitter, being online increasingly means it’s necessary to have a powerful built-in filter.
Although we expect nameless spam attached to email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org, it always surprises me when a legitimate company uses spam tactics openly as though it is just another part of their marketing plan. I am even more surprised when real people who have invested time on the Internet buy into the strategy and effectively help them disseminate their spam.
Most recently I’ve experienced this in the form of Fast Company’s Influence Project. The premise of the website is that users create a profile and then are encouraged by Fast Company to share a personal link to their profile. When someone clicks through, Fast Company counts it as a vote for the individual who shared the link. The more votes you get, the more influential you are considered to be. Everyone who signs up for the project gets their picture in the November issue of Fast Company and pictures will be sized according to the number of votes each user received; the more votes you get, the bigger your picture.
At first read it sounds like a web app that might hold value for people who are concerned with proving their online clout. Where the site crosses the line into the territory of fake lottery emails and pyramid schemes is the method it encourages users employ in order to collect votes. Instead of Tweeting, Facebooking or sharing the project transparently, users almost unanimously chose to share the project in a way that tricks their contacts into unknowingly casting a vote for them.
The most common message: “Do you have influence?” was followed by a link to the personal profile of the user. After clicking through, a Fast Company page loads (ever so slowly) thanking you for voting for the individual who posted the link. It also prompts you to create your own profile and promote it to measure your own influence.
Mekanism, the agency behind the Influence Project, is a shop well known for their ability to create ‘viral’ content. They were profiled in the May issue of Fast Company, and the magazine seems to have fallen under the spell of their ‘cowboy hipsters of the web’ veneer. In the article, various Mekanism employees are almost laughably described as though they are characters in a hybrid cross between a Wes Anderson film and a Douglas Coupland novel: “… cuts her own hair and drives a convertible 1970 Chevy Impala”, “… an Atlanta native who sounds like Michael Stipe, looks like a young Jack Nicholson, and has killed a wild boar with his bare hands”, “… has the scruffy good looks of designer Tom Ford but with a trace of Tony Soprano aggression.” Really?
Bedazzled by the characters behind Mekanism and apparently desperate to join the club, Fast Company decided to let Mekanism create a viral campaign for them and in turn, Fast Company would document and promote the project. It was meant to be a test of whether Mekanism is as contagious as they like to think they are – an epic web-based pissing match. In their original proposal (available as a download on the Fast Company website), Mekanism suggested campaigns with catchy titles from Business Jesus to F*ck China, but everyone eventually settled on the Cover Project, which is what we now know of as the Influence Project.
Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain
Some people may argue that this project was a success. According to Fast Company over 30,000 people created profiles and it was broadcast widely on social networks such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. From a brand perspective, it certainly made a lot more people familiar with Fast Company. This is the quantity argument.
But what about quality?
As someone who didn’t sign up for the campaign, my impression of it and of Fast Company was that they created a system that tricked me into casting a vote that I didn’t intend to cast. Lured in by my own ego to click on a link that promises to tell me about my influence, I instead found that I participated in an election without my consent. And what I feel more than anything isn’t warm and fuzzy about Fast Company or the ‘influencer’ who posted the link, but tricked. And that doesn’t make me want to buy a magazine or become a champion for you or your brand.
Fast Company’s level of success or failure with this campaign is one thing. What really surprises me is the number of people – many of whom claim to work in the web space – who volunteered to become spam bots so that they could have a tiny thumbnail image of their face in Fast Company. If I felt used by clicking on the teaser link, they should be furious that they were duped into participating in spamming followers and friends, and possibly risked decreasing the true measure of their influence – the trust of their contacts. It should be noted that very few real influencers actually participated in the project. As this post on SF Weekly points out, there is no Robert Scoble, Eric Schmidt, Mike Arrington or really anyone you would expect to see on a list of online influencers.
Not surprisingly, according to the original pitch by Mekanism, this project has nothing to do with meeting a need in the online community but is “an attention-getting, easy to participate in viral stunt that will result in lots of coverage and get Fast Company the attention it deserves.” Right, so spam. A stunt.
It’s also obviously a tool to increase sales: “If you’re on the cover of a magazine, you’ll probably buy that issue of the magazine. This idea is going to sell a lot of copies of Fast Company Magazine.” It will be interesting to look at the sales figures from the November issue and see if this played out the way they were hoping.
I received information about this campaign numerous times – about six times on LinkedIn, up to ten times on Twitter and once or twice on Facebook. In every single instance, the person who sent it through did so under false pretences – by attempting to fool me and their network into casting a vote to them. These people are now in a category I like to call ‘Untrustworthy’ and their poor judgement makes me unlikely to click on their links or share their content in future.
To these people: Is having your picture in Fast Company worth it? Don’t you feel like you’ve compromised your credibility? Do you realize that Mekanism and Fast Company used you to become viral and to sell copies of a magazine – that this campaign was never about your needs or online profile/influence?
Viral is about getting lots of eyeballs on your content quickly. Five years ago it was considered the new frontier in online marketing: cool, hip, edgy and attention grabbing. Today it’s kind of like Lindsay Lohan: well past its prime, tired and kind of annoying.
I come across numerous pieces of ‘viral’ content on a daily basis. Some of it is funny, some of it isn’t but as everyone becomes sick with the virus, we stop noticing it as much. Increasingly companies may have to consider that value-added, genuine content is more relevant to their consumers (the people who actually spend money) than the momentary shock and awe of the newest popular Youtube video. Spam is not a marketing strategy and it will only take your brand so far.
For those people who have spent the time and energy to build up their individual profile on the Internet, particularly those of you who rely on it to market yourself to prospective clients and partners: your influence isn’t measured by dishonest means and it isn’t measured by a thumbnail of your image in the November issue of Fast Company. If you are willing to become a spambot for such small rewards, perhaps you should look into a career sending emails about fake lottery tickets instead of cluttering up the rest of the online space.