Black Hat Social? A Turn Toward the Dark Side?

By Nicole Fletcher

My boss recently got back from SXSW and made an interesting comment. A question was posed in a talk he attended at SX asking marketers if the contests, giveaways and bright shiny fanfare that has been so popular as of late is as brilliant as it seems to be…or if it’s just lazy/shotty marketing.

My gut reaction was this: I run contests… I’m not lazy – what gives? That got me thinking though and in doing more research, I realize that there is a LOT of “black hat social” out there and I guess my naivete turned my blinders on to it.

I pride myself on the creation, maintenance and growth of our clients’ social communities. I take care to find each voice, do the industry research, tread lightly until accepted and grow fans organically with better chance of return and brand loyalty in the future. My clients are happy and they actually see the difference a few months of good quality social makes. Certainly, I run contests to inspire fan interaction and growth. They work and at the end of the day, clients want to see numerical proof of their financial investment and fans want to be rewarded for their loyalty. When agencies though, promise skyrocketed fan numbers in short amounts of time – I can’t help but wonder, what am I missing? – And I think I hit the nail on the head: it’s black hat social and I’ll tell you, black hats never prosper (just ask the SEOs).

It seems history repeats itself and as with the search engine marketing boom of the early 2000s, social is beginning to flirt with that turn toward the dark side. Black Hat SEOs would weave keywords and link builds into web content to get high page ranks and as a result, increased web traffic. It took some time, but Google has finally caught up with these delinquents, changing their algorithm significantly a number of times recently. They now heavily incorporate social into their secret sauce and rely less on high page ranked content farms laden cruddy content. Well done Google, well done. (Read more about this Panda Update)

So what is social media and why is it important(on a basic level of course)? I see the social movement as an honest evolution in marketing inspired by modern technological innovations. The social sphere acts as a modern extension of one’s brand. That means you have to:

Step 1. State and create your brand- what you do, who you are, how you want to be perceived by your target market.
Step 2. Maintain brand consistency internally -ie: face to face interactions, customer experience, products etc.
Step 3. Expand and extend this ‘vibe’ or ‘personality’ through your marketing whether that be print, Facebook updates, tweets, videos, your website, etc.

As a result of technological advances, consumers can now easily talk back to their favorite and most hated brands alike. While in the past, businesses would put out expensive billboard and print ads without any proof of conversion, now, those same billboards can talk back to you…and boy do they. I think the thing most people fail to understand or accept is that these conversations are going on with or without you – so really, your choices are to listen and evolve…or to become extinct.

Back to my original point: black hat social. Countless studies have been published regarding the value of a facebook fan. Is it $3.60, $1, $100? Personally, I’m not even close to confident you can generalize that value. What I am confident of is that the non-socially-savvy business owners are number happy and they scarf these stats up. The more fans, the better. I get it. But as a social marketer/brand advocate/community creator, I’d rather have your fan page grow to 3000 loyal, chatty, amazing fans that actually interact with your company in REAL life and not just by clicking the like button once, than I would have you have 300,000 fans that only joined your page because they were told they’d win a big screen. After all, isn’t the point of marketing to increase brand awareness, advocacy and loyalty so that customers will interact with your brand in real life and as such, you will ultimately increase revenue and grow? That’s not to say I don’t advocate facebook ads and contests – I do. It’s just that while my intention in running promotions like these is fan happiness, brand consistency/loyalty, fan interaction and getting that return on investment, the black hat’s goal is numbers. Bottom Line.

Call me crazy. Call my wrong. I just hate to see something with as much honest potential as the social sphere turn toward toward the dark side. In the mean time, I’ll be here…over on the white hat side. Feel free to email me with any questions and remember: black hats never prosper.