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Every year or so, there’s a new buzzword that marketers flock to like gold in them there hills.

And yet the only people who make money from it are those selling pickaxes and gold pans.  

You should read this blog if you’ve grown tired of all the buzzwords rolling around digital marketing these days.  

I’ve been in the game for a while, and I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. 

I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to speak the truth...

When a new digital marketing trend comes out, there’s a three step process we all follow. 

  1. Your first step is to Google your given buzzword that you’re fighting with, and probably download about 100 whitepapers that glaze over the topic. You’re then entered into mundane, ineffective lead nurturing campaigns that will spam you on a daily basis trying to sell you something you don’t want, need, or likely understand at this point. 
  2. Then, you sign up to some enewsletters, follow some people on Twitter, join some LinkedIn groups, and troll for a couple of weeks, trying to pick up that 140 character nugget that’s going to change your life. Instead, you retweet a few things, glaze over a salesman answering your LinkedIn question, and spam-box some newsletters.
  3. Your next step is to go to a conference or convention and listen to top level consultants explaining the benefits of trend X and how it’s the future of marketing. You’ll be bamboozled by theory and attacked with case studies, and walk away with more questions than answers… and nothing tangible that you can take back to the office and implement.

The thing you have to bear in mind it harks back to 1896 in Dawson City, a village in the Klondike, an unforgiving region in the Yukon Territory in the frigid, extreme north of Canada.

Dawson City exists where no city should. The average daily high temperature in January is a bone-chattering -21.8 C (-15F), and when adding on the wind chill it’s more like -51 C (-59.8C).  

Add on 27cm of snow (10”) and less than six hours of daylight and you can imagine that it’s not somewhere you would move by choice. 

Back in 1896, the southern gold rushes (namely California, Columbia, and Kootenay) had all but finished, and prospectors were gradually heading north and east.  

The thing is, travelling by land back then was unforgiving (in fact, it still is now, and if you’ve ever been caught in a traffic jam on the Trans Canada Highway you’ll know what I mean!) so any locales that could be accessed by water were preferred. 

The Yukon sits just north of a tiny bit of Alaska that connects the Alaskan mainland with the panhandle. You could board a ship in San Francisco, Seattle or Vancouver and head up to Skagway, from where you could get to Dawson City by way of a simple three or four day land journey. 

The prospectors arrived in masses and yee haw! They struck gold. Not just a nugget, but a veritable mountain.  

It was one of the biggest finds of gold since California. And guess what? 100,000 people tried to make the trek up, although only a small percentage actually made it.  

Dawson city steamship

Nearly overnight, Dawson City ballooned from 500 people in 1896 to over 30,000 in 1898. If you’re counting, that’s a 5900% increase in two years!

Hey wait, I’m sure I’ve seen this before...

Native advertising trend search 

Picture yourself in Dawson City – a collection of ramshackle, wood-framed tenements on the outskirts, and a main street littered with countless saloons, brothels, and casinos.  

You could drink the finest champagnes in some of the most extravagant watering holes in the world. You could hire 'ladies of the night' with a couple of dollars, or if you were lucky for a bottle of whiskey.  

You could put a nugget of gold down for a game of dice and if you were lucky pay for your boarding house for a year as a result!

Dawson City

By 1899, all of the good stakes were taken and mostly barren.  In the end, only about 3,000 prospectors found gold, or a 3% hit rate if you’re counting.  

Of those 3,000, most of them could barely pay off the $1,000 it cost to voyage to this rich little pocket in the middle of nowhere. Only a handful of people actually left Dawson City with a profit. That’s less than 1% for you mathematicians out there. 

Dawson City today is a different place.  The latest census puts its population at 1,319, most of whom work either in tourism or for the government.  

There’s still a couple of old saloons with some tired, wrinkly can-can dancers shaking their stuff for a veritable pittance. The streets reek with an air of what could have been  It is a forgotten city, the victim of vice, avarice, and capitalist vengeance. 

Does this sound familiar? 

Web 2.0 trend search

Why am I regaling you with this tale?  Because the digital marketing industry rushes to the online version of Dawson City every year or two.

Take Web 2.0. Social media. Big data. Content marketing. Native Advertising.Whatever, the list goes on.

Each of these has been a gold rush, and marketers pile aboard a steamship heading north. They buy their gold pans and pickaxes, kiss their families goodbye, and embark upon a long, expensive journey to an unknown, savage, and unforgiving hellhole.

And yet, the same fact always rings true, the only people who are making money are those selling the gold pans and pickaxes.

I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

First, you start hearing buzz about this wondrous new channel that is going to change your life. This is like the telegraph signal heading down to the south, letting people know that there’s riches to be had in them there hills, way up in the boondocks of northern Canada.

Every time there is a new trend that comes out, within a month there are self-described “gurus” or “ninjas” or “experts” offering their expertise for a pretty price. They are like the people who open up shops in boom cities and charge extortionate rates for pickaxes.

Before long, there are a bunch of conferences, conventions and trade shows that crop up across the world, who promise that a thousand of your industry peers will attend and that it’s a can’t-miss event.

These are the saloons where you can drink a shot of whiskey but might get shot for your efforts.

And who gets rich?  The telegraph company, the shopkeeper, and the saloons.   

What’s my point? In the gold rush, you had a better chance of financial success if you stayed in the south and did normal things.

If you tried to go up north and pan for gold, you’d either die en route, find a few scraps and drink yourself broke, or, if you were really, really lucky, get rich. 

In the digital marketing universe, this is my point of my meandering metaphor: the tried and tested tactics work the best, irrespective of channel and buzzwords. 

Many marketers focus on trying the latest trends before they truly understand what they mean to their customer ecosystem… and forget that the quickest way to improve your marketing results is to do the basics really, really well.  

Marketing is about making money, not wasting it. There may be gold in the hills but instead of chasing it, start digging in your own backyard first. What you find may surprise you.

Parry Malm

Published 19 March, 2014 by Parry Malm

Parry Malm is the CEO of Phrasee and a contributor to Econsultancy. Connect with him on LinkedInTwitter or Google+.

23 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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Tommy Mustaine

Very true. Gold rushes... tulips... social media mania. This kind of thing has happened throughout history. Goldfish memories!

over 2 years ago

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Richard Hussey

A thoughtful article Parry. The appeal of content marketing and social media is that, when they are done properly, they are built on the traditional principles of effective marketing: connecting with customers, building trust, answering questions and meeting needs.

but too often the message is: you have to be on social media, or you have to start a blog; without really being clear about why.

Yes there are snake-oil salesmen and charlatans but there are also plenty of practitioners in the content marketing space who deliver real results for their clients. In reality, the processes and principles are not hard to understand, so anyone who makes them sound complicated or even revolutionary should be viewed with suspicion, in my view.

I recently heard a digital marketing guru talk about 'forcing customers down a viral funnel'. No, I don't know what it means either, but it doesn't sound pleasant.

over 2 years ago

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Phil Monk

An article the articulates how I feel about industry buzzwords far better than I ever could. Thank you.

over 2 years ago

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Commercial Director at LeapfroggSmall Business

Well said Parry!

A specific example which always springs to mind is Pinterest. I'll always remember the rush of agencies setting up accounts when the social network first came to the fore. Most were pinning infographics, utterly unaware of Pinterest's primary audience i.e. people with little or no interest in digital marketing infographics. It's primarily a consumer platform not B2B yet this didn't stop a swathe of agencies essentially filling the network with mindless rubbish.

I'd like to think that agencies were simply testing the water on behalf of their clients, getting to know the functionality and so on. But unfortunately, most were blindly 'following the gold' in the way you describe above.

over 2 years ago

Mike Holland

Mike Holland, Director at Metrix Marketing

Excellent article. Sums up my own views rather better than I did in my own blog!

over 2 years ago

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Iain Russell

Absolutely spot on! I get so tired of our industry buzzwords on a daily basis...

over 2 years ago

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Clare O'Brien, Senior Industry Programmes Manager at IABSmall Business Multi-user

Feels like I'm coming in at the tail end of the rush with my comment, Parry... all well said and delighted to see that we share a chart as well. I've been using the Native Advertising Google Trends Alpinesque line to illustrate ... well... the suddenness of Native. The chart I use after the single vertical line is another Google Trends chart showing both Native Advertising and Content Marketing. As I can't post HTML I can't demonstrate here the gentle slope that Native Advertising forms... a very long way beneath Content Marketing's (indexing 18 vs CM's 98).

I guess the contemporary equivalent of the miner's pick and shovel, is the VC?

Thanks again for a good read this Friday afternoon.

over 2 years ago

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