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Why Viral Isn't Always Virtuous

As regular INC.com readers know, I'm a diehard blogger. INC. is one of the great business communication platforms and an important channel for us to regularly get the word out about our member companies, track the expanding tech scene in Chicago, and channel information about startups and disruptive innovators nationally.

It's an important resource for entrepreneurs and a quick way for us to share what we're learning every day at 1871 from the hundreds of companies and thousands of people who are going through the very same (and sometimes scary) process of starting and building businesses. 

And although the media world continues to change radically, I don't plan to give up my seat at the table any time soon, even as time frames shrink, production pressures grow, and the desire to have everything be bite-sized continues to mount. As hard as it may be for most people (and even for some curmudgeonly editors) to understand, certain things worth saying simply can't be said in a sentence or two. Sound bites and snippets basically suck-- whether we're talking about the nightly news or the newest nasty politician--and they don't add anything important to the meat of the conversations that really matter.

Now I realize that we're all short on bandwidth and attention these days, but that's no real excuse to stop learning or to settle for fictions and factoids instead of facts and real substance. And I also understand that reading and/or listening does take some time, a little work, and patience as well. And it's abundantly clear that all of these important parts of the puzzle appear to be in increasingly short supply. But it's not just that we're all busy or even the onset of the "right now" economy that's pushing this movement forward. The largest villains in this story are the dreams of "viral" videos and the cameras embedded in every cell phone. It's just become too easy to make a message and a mess that masquerades as something meaningful. Every clown is now a cinematographer and we're all stuck in their circus.

We're smack in the midst of a "tidbit takeover" that's making it increasingly difficult to find a place, a home, or an appreciation for the long form of just about anything. Velocity is all that matters now. We're turning the classics into CliffsNotes. Novels into nuggets. And broadsides into listicles and bullet points. And this is why I'm afraid that the blog business is basically busted for anyone who's trying to make a buck from it. (On the other hand, the alliteration industry is alive and well.)

If we want things to get better, the first step is to clearly understand the problems and then to start thinking about what we can do to shut down the click-bait con artists, viral vultures, and other BS hucksters who are clogging up the critical arteries of the Internet with their cheap tricks and phony features. (See The Trouble with Social Media.) We all need to be a lot smarter about how we're each spending our own time online because, if we don't object, these time-wasting clowns will never have any real incentive to stop.

This isn't a cathartic, philosophical diatribe on my part. It's ultimately about your business's bottom line. If you're concerned about cost-effectively getting your company's message out to the right prospects, consumers and customers, you need to make sure that you're not spending your scarce resources in passé places and on cluttered channels that are getting you nowhere.

Take it from me that your ad agencies, social sharing "experts", and/or marketing companies aren't gonna be the ones to give you the straight scoop. They're all in the same bag with the media and the publishers and they're a big part of the problem. No one wants to mention the Emperor's new clothes or admit that no one's seeing or hearing your story as long as you're foolish enough to keep footing the bills. (See 3 Things You Need to Know About Advertising .)

So, as you try to make some business sense of what's going on, here are a few critical considerations to keep in mind:

Video isn't a virtue by itself. It's quick, it's visual, and it's immediate, but none of these attributes necessarily makes it better, more informative, or even more effective in delivering your message. In fact, it's harder and much more time consuming and costly to create and edit a good video than it is to write a great blog post. Stream of consciousness vlogs are just as often instances of verbal diarrhea as they are cases of memorable communication and unedited webcast videos of events and panels are even worse. (See Your Streaming Video Sucks.) Claims of immediacy, rawness and authority aside, random rants are rarely relevant and juvenile junk is still just junk.

Not every shooter is Scorsese or Spielberg. We're in the mist of this crazy democratization of content where the distinctions between creators and consumers are blurring, and often, disappearing entirely. Speed and quantity -- not care and quality -- is the name of the game. Technology may keep improving, and the capture process gets easier and easier, but talent, creativity, preparation and production values are still essential to turning out something that matters. Just because you made and shared it doesn't make it interesting or important to me. UGC (user-generated content) is all the rage because it's plentiful, cheap and created for free by third parties. And who are the publishers to complain? After all, they're under enormous pressure every day to feed the ravenous beast and they'll sell their ads against whatever garbage anyone wants to watch. And frankly, even what passes for "professional" creative sets a painfully low bar, so it's not like they're offering a host of better alternatives.

It's All About Affirmation, Not Education or Information. Media and political success (if you can call it success) is too much about telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to learn or know. It's unlikely to get better any time soon because you don't see much of the world around you when you're staring into the mirror or watching some slanted cable news show. Today, it's no longer an aspirational "be like Mike" world -- it's all about being free "to be just like me." YouTube users aren't looking for instruction or excellence; they're looking for confirmation that they're just as capable of creating crap as the people whose videos they're so faithfully watching and they can't wait for their turn to generate box office numbers working out of their bedrooms and basements. Surprisingly, it took YouTube itself quite a while (and $300 million) to figure out this distinction. (See Three Lessons from YouTube's Programming Disaster.)

None of this is remotely encouraging. And it certainly doesn't bode well for businesses with real products and services to sell, and a real message to get out. But it's not like you can take your ball and go home either. So when it's up to you to make the call on how to swim in this swamp, you'll find that there's no rule book or roadmap. The best advice I can give you is: (a) to make small, consistent bets with people who can give you real-time feedback on exactly what's working. Remember that engagement and execution are the key metrics, as opposed to eyeballs and bots. Have someone stay constantly on top of the situation so that you can kill off the bad spends and double down quickly on what's driving actual results and purchases; and (b) use these channels and your content to drive traffic from the big guys to sites you own and control so that all your efforts and all your dollars aren't wasted just working to make money for Zuck.

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Topics: Insights