A Mantra For Online Advertising And Life: Don't Be Clever

I travel a lot, OK? And, back in the day, I used to try to be clever. Traveling from New Zealand to Denver, I would book the international portion of my flight on Air Tahiti Nui via Papeete, Tahiti. The LA-Denver leg would be a one-way on Delta through Orbitz, and going back would be on United from Denver to San Francisco to LA, where I would reunite with my Air Tahiti Nui flight.

This arrangement may sound complicated, but it let me save tens, maybe even **twenties** of dollars. And in return, when I needed to unexpectedly delay my flight home for family reasons, I had to make multiple phone calls, spend multiple hours listening to smooth jazz waiting for my “turn in the queue,” and pay multiple $150 change fees.

So, yes, I learned the hard way: don’t be clever. Book with one airline. Nonstop flights. Single itinerary. No messing around.

Some years ago, a friend of mine tried to get me into SEO. “It’s super-simple,” he said. “Google will rank your site higher the more other sites link to it. So we’ve created a program that automagically creates hundreds of new one-page sites that link back to your site, and your ranking will go through the roof.”

This was early enough that I don’t think my friend had ever even heard the term “black-hat.” Yet his tactics clearly were. They sounded too good to be true -- and, luckily, I was skeptical enough of his proposition to avoid it. While at that time I was still trying to be clever with airlines, I sensed being clever with Google wouldn’t pay off for very long.

Eventually, this philosophy became my filter. When something comes up that is too-good-to-be-true, I ask myself, “Am I just trying to be clever? Am I trying to subvert a system that is actually designed to give me and everyone else who engages with it the best possible long-term outcome?”

I’ve been reminded of this question as I’ve watched Internet companies come and go: watched, for example, Zynga ride the tide of free Facebook advertising only to plummet when users got sick of Farmville invitations and Facebook yanked them from the Newsfeed. I’m sure, for a brief, sparkling minute, someone at Zynga thought, “This is super-simple. Facebook will let you automatically post status updates to your users’ pages. So all you have to do is push those notifications and the virality will go through the roof.”

Zynga was trying to be clever, but its strategists learned two things the hard way. One is that people will quickly get sick of a repetitive and formulaic call to action. The other is that it’s not wise to rely exclusively on a third-party platform -- especially a free one -- as a channel to market.

And now BuzzFeed is learning this lesson the hard way, along with similar sites like Upworthy and ViralNova. These companies, as my MediaPost colleague Jamie Tedford reported earlier this week, are about to penalized by changes to Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook is aiming to “weed out stories that people frequently tell us are spammy and that they don’t want to see,” by reducing “click-baiting headlines.”

“ ‘Click-baiting’,” said Facebook’s blog post, “is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see. Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in News Feed. However, when we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through.”

Of course they do. People will quickly get sick of a repetitive and formulaic call to action. And it’s unwise to rely exclusively on a third-party platform -- especially a free one -- as a channel to market.

These publishers were trying to be clever. And I only have one word for them: Don’t.

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5 comments about "A Mantra For Online Advertising And Life: Don't Be Clever".
  1. Mark Rovner from Sea Change Strategies , August 29, 2014 at 3:40 p.m.
    LOVE THIS!!!!
  2. Jim Rice from Piiku , August 29, 2014 at 3:59 p.m.
    Your point about cleverness is great and goes beyond just advertising. 20 years ago, I opened a fortune cookie with the saying, "Cleverness is serviceable for everything, sufficient for nothing." (No author). I would argue that the sooner our culture stops idolizing "cleverness" as a way to fame, fortune and success, the better we will all be. Unfortunately, it infects the our legal, political, academic and business professions to a disturbing degree.
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 29, 2014 at 7:46 p.m.
    Whenever I have ever tried to outsmart myself, myself got outsmarted and dumbed down from there. Thinking it through means all the way through including the alternatives.
  4. David Carlick from Carlick , August 30, 2014 at 1:45 p.m.
    I read your article. Then, the most amazing thing happened....
  5. Krista Niess from MKT , August 31, 2014 at 9:34 p.m.
    This is very interesting, it seems like now everyone is trying to take the easy way out and believe that what they are doing is “clever”. When in reality it is only hurting them in the long run. Facebook has been a great platform for companies like Zynga, but what did they think was going to happen to their company when Facebook starts to fade? Facebook is not going to last forever and has changed dramatically since they started, just imagine what Facebook is going to consist of in 5 years. It seems like Zynga didn’t put together a proper business plan and any ideas for the future, they are only depending on one platform, which is Facebook. Everyone is trying to accomplish things the easy way out, whether that be in their professional life or personal life. When a company is trying to find the easy way to do things or believe they are being “clever” they normally end up destroying themselves in the process. Companies need to remember that online advertising can be extremely beneficially but if you are only getting people coming to your platform from the third party that company is completely dependable on that particular third party, which means your company is in the hands of someone else. This seems like a high risk to take and nothing I would want if it were my company on the line. Thank you for this insightful article on being “clever”.