Yeah, that’s right, I said it. Content marketing is all about manipulation. In fact, if you think about it hard enough, online content manipulation, just like online content selling, is all about seduction. What does manipulation, seduction, propaganda, what do they have in common? Something very basic. You basically get somebody to do what they won’t normally do. At the very least, you’re trying to get them to take action on something that they might not have even thought about or maybe they are on the fence about. That is the essence of online manipulation. You see this happening all the time. When you load a webpage, there’s a lot of ads. When you read content, there’s a lot of manipulation there if you’re reading good content. Bad content basically makes you scratch your head and wonder what the hell you just read. Good content tries to push you in one direction or the other. Regardless, all online communication is all about manipulation. It can take many forms from the ads that you see to the content that you see, even the links can be manipulative. Sounds shocking right? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you, if this shocks you: the reality is that all communication that seeks to persuade is manipulative.
Think about it, lawyers write legal briefs because they want to persuade a judge. Ads are created because their users want people to buy stuff that they normally wouldn’t buy or they are unsure of. Guys write love letters because they want women reading their love letters to feel a certain way. Pastors and priests write sermons that are supposed to change your mind or make you think of things a certain way. The truth is everything spoken or written or shown graphically that seeks to change your mind is, at its root, manipulative.
The good news is that there is nothing bad about manipulation in of itself. Manipulation is actually all about persuasion. We’re not all experts. We don’t have all the facts. We don’t have all the data that we need to make truly informed decisions. As a result, there is always space for persuasive content in our lives. This can be as something basic as trying to buy laundry detergent. I may have a need for the whitest shirts, the cleanest pants, but I’m on the fence as to which brand to buy. When somebody tries to manipulate me regarding this topic, instead of running away, I actually pay attention. Why? It might be the answer that I’ve been looking for because it speaks to my needs. In the vast majority of the decisions that we make as human beings from the stuff that we eat, the stuff that we put in our bodies, the stuff that we bathe ourselves and the stuff that we spend money on, we need information. The people who have products and services that they want to sell to us so they can make money, they have an incentive to give us information we can use to make a choice. In a very real sense, there is a happy medium where manipulation and facts can coexist and won’t harm people.
Manipulation in of itself isn’t necessarily bad. It is a technique. It is a skill set. With that said, there is such a distinction as bad manipulation and good manipulation. I’ve already outlined situations where manipulative situations can be good. Bad manipulation is what any serious content marketer should be aware of. If you are providing SEO services or you are conducting marketing for your own website or for your clients, you have to be very clear when your actions start entering the gray area or cross the line completely into unethical and improperly manipulative practices. So what is the difference between “good” manipulation or “acceptable” manipulation and “bad” manipulation?
Bad Manipulation Boils Down To Truth and Transparency
Bad manipulation can really be boiled down into two key components: you are not telling the truth or you’re hiding your agenda. If either exists, you are engaged in bad manipulation. If you conduct your content marketing or SEO content creation activities online and play fast and loose with the truth or you hide your agenda, you’re engaging in bad manipulation. This is a serious problem because the more you do this, the more you eventually will burn yourself and, just as bad, burn everybody else that is trying to manipulate opinion online. Your bad actions have a halo effect on the rest of the content marketing community. However, if you are like most other spammers, you wouldn’t care. At the end of the day, it’s whether your actions result in cold hard dollars in your pocket or not. Be that as it may, you have to understand that the more you play fast and loose with the ethical boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable types of manipulation, the more you make it harder for yourself to persuade people down the road.
To see the practical effect of bad manipulation, think of email marketing in 1996. When the Internet first started to gain commercial acceptability in 1996, almost everybody that got email quickly clicked links because they didn’t know any better. Sure enough, spammers got a hold of the action and they started abusing email. Now, people are very careful regarding the staff they click on email. The same goes with banner ads. It used to be so easy to make money online because everybody would basically just click any banner that they see. Now, hardy anyone clicks banners anymore. By engaging in bad manipulation, you basically poison the well for everybody else. And ultimately, it harms you because your activities have degraded end users’ trust so much, they would no longer clikc on your promotional links.
The Fifty Shades of Gray Truth
One of the biggest existential and philosophical problems of the post modern age is that people is unclear as to what is truth. In fact, if you are philosophically honest, there’s a lot to recommend this philosophical posture. One person’s truth might be different from another person’s truth. There are many different sides to something that we define as “true.” Still, truth does have certain objective criteria. First of all, you can back it up with facts. You can point to real things, real events, real people as evidence that your position is sound. You base your conclusion based on stuff that is real. This is where a lot of the subjective definitions of truth fall apart. Why? Most lies are not based on facts. Most lies are based on opinions that are all about wishful thinking and wishful reality, but not based on actual facts.
The more facts back you up, the more likelihood that you are championing something ethical. At the end of the day, ethics really is all about conclusions that don’t harm other people. Coming up with conclusions that aren’t based on facts can somewhere down the line harms other people. Another aspect of truth in the post modern age is hiding your agenda. When you hide your agenda and you hide your motivation, that is a form of lying. As the old saying goes, half the truth is the same as a full lie. It’s not enough to tell and show part of the truth and part of the situation, but hide your hand. Hidden agendas are inherently bad because you manipulate people to conclusions that serve your agenda and they don’t know your agenda is.
Transparency is Crucial
While our subjective definitions of truth may vary from place to place, situation to situation, culture to culture and person to person, transparency is pretty much across the board. If you want to preserve ethics in your content marketing and SEO activities, you have to be transparent. Transparency is crucial because it tells the people that you are trying to manipulate all the data that you have. With a clear mind, voluntarily come to the same conclusion as you. You can still manipulate them using facts, using great argumentation, but everything is on the table. Unfair manipulation is when you try to convince people and hide certain facts from them. This is the big difference between lying and persuasion.
Persuasion rejoices in the truth. Persuasion is all about having all your cards on the table. Persuasion is when the person being persuaded has all the options available to him or her and still decides to go with you. In that case, your skill in persuasion wins the day. That is real salesmanship. That is real argumentation. Lying is for lazy people. Lying is for people who like to cut corners. Unfortunately, lying burns relationships and burns key trust building processes on the Internet. Just look at the sorry history of email spam and banner conversion rates to see what I’m talking about.
Content marketing is all about manipulation. Let’s get that out in the open. The good news is that if you are very clear regarding the facts that you are using to persuade people and you are transparent regarding the information that you’re presenting, you can manipulate in an ethical way. Selling online is all about building trust and using that trust to achieve an outcome that you desire. While that may seem harsh and impersonal, at the end of the day, you are truth and transparent about the whole process, no one is being harmed. However, if you lie and you hide your agenda, you can be harming a lot of people, least of which is yourself.
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