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Fifteen years ago, in The Cluetrain Manifesto, Christopher Locke wrote, “the internet has made it possible for genuine human voices to be heard again.”

What do you mean, “again”?  Never has the average Joe been afforded  unrestricted access to an audience any bigger than the crowd in a neighborhood pub. This giant electronic soapbox known as the internet delivers a world-wide audience. Anyone can pontificate at will, on any subject, and potentially reach billions of people across the globe.

soapiconHow cool is that?  The democratization of  online publishing allows anyone, anywhere, the ability to post thoughts, opinions, photos and articles. You could argue that it’s the greatest thing since the invention of the radio broadcast.

On the other hand, it’s also producing a cacophony of epic proportions.

Used to be, you had to have genuine expertise a in a given line of work in order to get “coverage.”  If you wanted to get published  you had to get past the editors in control, and they were brutally picky.  You had to have something unique to say,  and a unique voice with which to say it.

Not online. There are no editors screening the content delivered on the internet. Any dimwit can start a blog on WordPress or Blogspot. Content farms are selling the same articles over and over and over again for $10 a pop.  Regurgitation and plagiarism  is now being touted as “content curation.” And corporations are hiring print and TV journalists to produce marketing content disguised as authentic news.

Probably not what the ClueTrain authors had in mind.

I frequently get solicitations (ok junk mail) offering pre-written articles for this blog. Most of the time they’re totally off-topic, as if my marketing-minded audience will suddenly be interested in  a piece about overnight skin rejuvenation. Often these unsolicited articles are on topic, but they’re obvious plugs for a product or company. They’re never well written, thoroughly researched, or authored by anyone I follow/respect in the business.

Why on earth would I run an article like that?  How could that approach to content generation possibly be good for my brand? Or my audience?  I could  probably generate a bump in short-term traffic, but it’s not going to produce loyal readers.

Great brands are built on consistency and quality, not clicks.

I also get a lot of questions from aspiring bloggers, so here’s a piece of advice… Think about your brand first, and clicks second. If you produce something of value — something you really care about— then the traffic will come eventually. There is no shortcut to success, and a genuine human voice will always play better than some anonymous article  you picked up and passed along with a hundred others.

Also, always remember how much saturation there is. On most subjects it’s too much information from too many questionable sources. For instance, you could never wade through all the online chatter about  social media marketing. “Will it help my small business? Can I build a brand around it? How do I do it? Can I generate leads on Twitter? Where’s it all going?”

I don’t know. But I know this: Just because you have a blog and a few thousand friends on Facebook doesn’t make you a social media marketing guru. There are a lot of young wannabes in that field who will gladly charge you for consulting, but few real gurus. It’s too new, too experimental. Guru status comes from wisdom, proven results and the perspective you can only get from years of experience.

So if you’re a brand manager, marketing director or business owner trying to figure out the social media thing, beware. Many of those purported experts or thought leaders are just good salespeople and tech-savvy online self-promoters riding the wave. When you’re scouring the internet for insight, pay close attention to the attributions and read the “about us” section to find out who’s really doing the talking.

Locke preached a sermon of hope for the digital pulpit. He predicted that the internet would forever shift the nature of business communications, and he envisioned a world where the consumer would have a voice and corporations would have to listen.

Pretty good crystal ball, he had.

Many great brands are embracing the online “conversation” and are getting better at communicating on a one-to-one level. They may not be the earliest adopters, but they’re catching on and beginning to respond to consumer wishes. If nothing else, they’re now painfully aware when people start spreading negative word-of-mouth.

But corporations don’t control the bulk of the internet conversation. It’s the average Joe on his soapbox with a big ego and a pay-per-click budget. It’s the stay at home baker who wants to blog about her latest batch of cookies. It’s the teenage entrepreneur cashing in on Youtube. Those little businesses are popping up faster than you can say, “what happened to Myspace?” And that’s great.

Unfortunately there also are many modern snake oil salesman peddling their wares through social media. Despite the advances of social media, (or maybe because of the advances) there’s more phony crap out there than ever before.

The self-help industry. The diet programs. The plastic surgeons. The get-rich-quick guys. And my personal favorite, the golf swing gurus. Every Tin Cup wannabe has an instructional DVD or downloadable E-book available on the web. And they’re all “guaranteed to shave strokes off your game.”

Golf Digest wouldn’t publish any of them on a bet. The tone is no better than the corporate spiel that Locke railed against in Cluetrain Manifesto. “The voice is like a third-rate actor in a 4th rate play reciting lines that no one believes in a manner no one respects.”

Yep.

Sometimes I long for the good old days when websites weren’t free and there was some barrier to entry on the internet. But not really. We’ll all put up with some noise in exchange for the freedom of speech that social media provides.

Now I’m just hoping for a natural weeding out process.

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One of many successful brands that Sears built.

The Sears store in my hometown recently closed its doors. Shut down after a 60 year presence in the market. Can’t say I’m too broken up about it either.  I bought a few tools there, once upon a time. And an appliance or two, but nothing I can recall. I certainly wouldn’t say I had […]

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