What can we learn about SEO and content marketing from the most famous poet of the 20th century? Pete Martin ponders what it means for the future of brand communications.
In school, you may like many of us, have been forced to read TS Eliot. His poem ‘The Waste Land’ is one of the most famous and complex works of the 20th century. As well as being a literary giant, Eliot worked as a banker and was a director of the publishing house Faber & Faber. In his spare time, he also liked to wear make-up, call himself Captain Tom and invite handsome young men round to his flat for parties. Not a lot of people know that.
‘Complicated’ would be one way to describe TS Eliot’s life.
But what has poetry got to do with the hard-nosed, number-crunching of search engine optimisation? (Other than our natural nosiness about the emotional turmoils of famous folk.)
Firstly, as Eliot once remarked, ‘Our civilisation comprehends great variety and complexity, and… must produce various and complex results.’
His life and work remind us that, like modernism itself, nothing is as simple or straightforward as it seems. Like Eliot, you can be a great poet and a bit of a jerk. You can come across as frigid and high-brow, and still long for low-brow fun. You can swear to celibacy at 28, and marry a woman half your age in your sixties.
In this sense, ‘it’s complicated’ isn’t just a relationship status. It’s a philosophical standpoint. Life is messy and so is search marketing.
The Dissociation of Sensibility…
The second reason Eliot has parallels with the search business is that he invented the phrase ‘the dissociation of sensibility’. (Now, if you can work that into your next SEO pitch, you will be the world champ of BS Bingo.)
In The Times Literary Supplement in 1921, he bemoaned the schism between intellectual thought and human feeling which, he felt, had set in since the 17th century. And ‘from which we have never recovered’.
In the aftermath of the world’s first mechanised war, the future seemed terrifying. As Eliot put it, “I had not thought death had undone so many”. He feared the widening gap between science and art, logic and intuition, machine and man. We now know how, with the Second World War, the loss of empathy led to the most monstrous of crimes against humanity.
For our own time, there’s still danger in our faith in ‘technical’ solutions; in economism and Big Data, in high walls and barbed wire. There’s something about our logical preference for ‘facts’ that seems to harden the heart.
Parallels in SEO
In its own small way, SEO mirrors the same philosophical debate almost perfectly. If it were possible to trust in the goodwill of our fellow man, would Google have had to take such heavy measures in its algorithm adjustments to protect people from every shade of shady practice?
All too often in online marketing, cleverness has become disconnected from consumer experience or even customer benefit. But it’s not just the blaggards, cheats and crooks who posed a threat to our trust in search. There’s the question of mind-set and motivation which feeds into the long-term sustainability of any human enterprise.
It depends on what you consider as the fundamental purpose of your business or, indeed, of any business. If the sole aim is making a sale, you may win one skirmish at a time. And, inevitably, slowly lose the war for customer loyalty and lifetime value.
Have we forgotten what the direct marketing industry learned the hard way? It’s a fine line between belief in transactional tricks, and cynicism. Cynicism is medically proven to increase your risk of heart failure, clouds the mind, corrodes propositions, and eventually kills the customer relationship. That’s why traditional ‘direct marketing products’ fail.
In the online world, the plague of exit pop-ups is a case in point. “Even if you find pop-ups annoying…” says one expert “In the end, if a tactic generates more money for your business… what’s the point in not using it?”
The ‘end justifies the means’ is a rationale so worn-out that it needs no counter.
As Bob Stone observed in his 1974 book ‘Successful Direct Marketing Methods’: “The most important customer is someone who buys from you twice”. So, anything which degrades the customer experience or reeks of charlatanism or feeds buyer-regret is like the hot chocolate with which the Victorian Scottish socialite Madeliene Smith allegedly killed her lover: sweet at the time, but laced with arsenic.
The real killer though is a failure to invest in what some American clients have taken to calling the ‘non-working’ parts of marketing spend. It’s an illusory distinction, but telling nonetheless.
The soft, heartfelt sense of purpose – of commitment to customers, to emotional connections and even to social progress – is giving way to hard marketing metrics. This ‘dissociation of sensibility’ is regrettable in two distinct ways:
- Common data sources and commonplace tactics force businesses to cluster around the same KPIs, and the same territories. And since similarity is the single biggest source of problems in remembering, it creates confusion, dulls competition and makes consumers’ lives, well, boring.
- Plus, as Eliot’s example suggested, life just doesn’t work that way. It’s complex. We are far more than the sum of our searches. One hundred millennia of homo sapiens suggest that we long – not for facts (which we cannot compute anyway) – but for stories and beauty, and mystery and community. Countless wordless feelings determine what we do far more than anything we say or type into a search field.
And yet there’s still one more fundamental issue for all of us, not just as marketers, but as consumers.
Have you ever googled a category you know well – and got the nagging feeling that the search results were nuts?
That’s because SERPs offer an alternate reality. The pages hold up a distorted mirror in which information (structured across a long list of fairly arbitrary variables) is taken as a proxy for relevance and quality. As a simple illustration, if you search ‘ad agency london’, you’ll probably know that the results bear very little relationship to the real world rankings by scale, by customer satisfaction, by industry status or peer recognition.
But here’s a startlingly obvious observation: producing excellent content around a topic is not the same as providing excellence in that topic. A simple analogy would be Syd Field, the ‘guru’ of screenwriting. He wrote copiously, successfully on the subject of writing screenplays. Yet you wouldn’t have asked Syd to write an actual screenplay for you, in much the same way that you wouldn’t want a sports journalist turning out for your team in the World Cup (or the World Series). Knowing about it and doing it are different.
The same argument, I believe, applies across other sectors. It’s easier to get ranked as a household bill comparison website than it is to run an energy plant. Indeed, perhaps the only category in which SERPs offer a genuine reflection of the service offered is SEO firms.
Certainly, the democratisation of content has opened up market information and disrupted traditional models. But, too often search shows us a misrepresentation of the world. And, in the long run, misrepresentations cannot last. Especially when money is at stake. Eventually, as the Bard said “the truth will out”.
What this means is that those brands and providers who are the ‘real deal’ rather than the ‘Syd Field’ of their sector will need to re-assert their rightful competitive place.
The future of brand communications…
In the coming years, we will see a nuclear arms race for customer engagement as brands switch their spend away from traditional marketing. Like the transition from press advertising to TV as the motive force for brand profitability in the 1950s, information-driven content will give way to marketing properties which command attention and affection, and give brands cultural force.
If you wonder what that model might look like, check out Vance Packard’s 1957 classic ‘Hidden Persuaders’ to see how business sought to buy brand preference through agency-honed creative properties such as Kraft Television Theater and the Colegate Comedy Hour. History may be about to repeat itself in a different guise.
Just as the new ‘science’ of motivational research created insights for advertising in the 1950s, so data will inevitably drive deeper understanding of consumer trends and response for content marketing in the next decade.
However, as the advertising legend Bill Bernbach warned in the 1960s, the focus on human connection matters most:
“There are two attitudes you can wear: that of cold arithmetic or that of warm, human persuasion. I will urge the latter on you. For there is evidence that in the field of communications the more intellectual you grow, the more you lose the great intuitive skills that make for the greatest persuasion – the things that really touch and move people.”
There is a sense that we are at a pivotal point in history – in the history of marketing as much as in world affairs. The idea of human progress seems beset on all sides by an unholy alliance of mistruth and misanthropy.
Even in the narrow field of SEO and content marketing, if ever there were a moment in which men and women of goodwill must make the effort to reconcile real evidence and insight with a genuine desire to do right by the customer and the wider world, this is it.
Indeed, as TS Eliot himself wrote in capitals in his most famous poem ‘The Waste Land’:
“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”