Would you ever advertise your web site as the place to turn for brutal murder or hanging people? No? Surprisingly, I have encountered several companies that do, big name retailers with brand names that every consumer knows. They illustrate some serious issues with online marketing.
But before we get to the murder and other dark deeds, it might be instructive to engage in a little toilet humor. Can you spot the marketing problem in this picture? It was taken in Moscow a few years ago. At that time, no pun intended, the center of the city was in the middle of an upscale building boom.
As you can see, someone paid a lot of money to cover the side of a construction site with a huge image of a Rolex watch (the young woman in the bottom right of the picture gives you a sense of scale). I imagine that when it was installed the marketing folks were feeling pretty proud of themselves. The print quality was excellent and the placement very visible. Unfortunately,
the construction company working on the building, a big European firm by the name of Strabag, installed a trio of toilets right underneath the poster, with some signage of their own. These portable loos might have earned Strabag some goodwill from a certain segment of site traffic–namely, people who needed a toilet–but the overall effect cannot have been pleasing to Rolex.
The lesson here for online marketing can be summed up in a single word: control, particularly when it comes to content and context. You might think that control is one of the benefits of online marketing. After all, you decide what to put in your ads and on which sites they will appear. Or do you? Consider the following eBay advertisement.
This is a genuine ad, paid for by eBay, generated by Google, displayed on the right of the search results when I Googled these words: brutal murder. (If you don’t get the same results, check your Google settings).
Now, in all fairness to eBay, that ad does lead you to a selection of books that feature the term “brutal murder” in their titles. But we all know that no person at eBay wrote that ad. It was automatically generated from user input; and right there you have two online marketing ingredients that can produce a volatile cocktail: “automation” and “user input.” Consider this advertisement from Target:
Again, Target is a retailer for whom I have a lot of respect. They support some great community programs. But clearly they don’t have a handle on the automation here. This ad leads to a catalog page that lists pictures of famous people you can hang on your wall.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch, again no pun intended. It doesn’t help that most of the products listed feature people who are deceased, some of them tragically so. Do you really want to run this ad when the top two organic search results appearing to the left of your ad are: the Wikipedia entry for “hanging,” and an article titled “How does death by hanging work?” from HowStuffWorks?
The question that needs to be on the minds of marketing folks is this: Are these ads brand-damaging Internet incidents or just unfortunate Internet oddities? For right now, I think they are the latter. But eBay and Target and a host of other brand names need to realize that time is not on their side. Back in the days when I worked on computer security I learned never to under-estimate the amount of time mischievous people have on their hands. Discovering the most gruesome automated marketing output from user input could easily become a new parlor game, or worse, a fraternity game. (I’m not even going to mention the “baby grill” incident currently afflicting a major appliance retailer–but search that term in Google News and the name of the appliance retailer will pop right up).
To summarize, I think we can safely say that, if you’re currently doing any form of online marketing where the content is automatically generated and there is an element of user input, now would be a good time to ask the age-old question: “What could possibly go wrong?”