There is some brouhaha over a guest blog post on Techcrunch in which Dan Ackerman Greenberg, who bills himself as the co-founder of viral video marketing company The Comotion Group, reveals "The Secret Strategies Behind Many 'Viral' Videos." The article provides an honest view on the dishonest practices of clandestine marketing campaigns on YouTube, run by Greenberg and other firms to ensure that promotional videos become truly viral.
Greenberg's strategies of "YouTube optimization" include the use of misleading tags, fake comments (preferably those that stir up some artificial controversy), paying bloggers to embed the video, as well as aggressively sharing it through Facebook networks and email lists. In a nutshell: fire on all cylinders, even if that means deceiving users.
Greenberg's look behind the scenes of YouTube marketing has immediately led to a wide moral outcry among Techcrunch’s readers ("basically it's all about using various forms of spam? Classy. What next, an article on how to make money from stock market scams and flogging dodgy pills?"), including Greenberg's father and Techcrunch's very own Michael Arrington ("I will post a longer response to this later, but frankly I’m disgusted by this").
As of this writing, the post has provoked more than 350 comments but Arrington's "longer response" is still due. The obvious editorial cluelessness is not the only irony in this little affair: Greenberg's post itself has become viral and is now on the homepage of Digg. While some commenters view this as evidence that the guy obviously knows what he's talking about, others suspect the controversy has been a calculated effect to forge the viral spread of his post. In fact, some commenters speculate that the whole affair may be fake, designed as a live experiment on viral marketing (if you look at Greenberg's firm's web site, you hope they are right).
Or maybe it is because the content is actually pretty interesting and a lot of marketers are taking notes?
In any event, the dispute is another one of these fundamental clashes between idealists and pragmatists (who always run the risk to be called "cynics"), and it is a particularly odd one because you could argue that a marketing idealist is actually a category error. No one will question that morality has its place in marketing, but to expect marketers to not manipulate their communications is a little bit naïve. We're not talking about investigative journalists here; we're talking about people who are paid to move products through entertainment and information. Persuasion is still at the core of the marketer's profession (even if you don't buy into all of the techniques described in Cialdini's classic "Influence - the Psychology of Persuasion"). In today's world of online social media, moral standards of the past are continuously eroding, not just because of clever and shameless marketers like Greenberg but also because of the big network players such as Facebook and YouTube, which have given marketers the kind of viral leverage they need. Can you really expect businesses to not take advantage of the system? Isn’t search engine optimization essentially manipulation as well?
Granted, for some observers Greenberg may be crossing a line with his dubious practice of contrived user-generated content; and yet, others will just call it "guerilla marketing." Everyone can decide for himself if s/he wants to work with this guy. But neither Greenberg nor Techcrunch should be blamed for having initiated this discussion. It just shows that the new brave world of social media is shaking up the foundations of our ethical beliefs, and that they will need to be redefined if they are to last.