Is Ethical Marketing an Oxymoron?

Wendy Kelly
Apr 27, 2016

Dan Lyon's book "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble" is "hilarious" and "funny"

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According to reviews, Dan Lyon's book "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble" is "hilarious" and "funny". Why, then, do I actually have tears in my eyes?

Ethical Marketing

Good question.

The reviews also use words like "unsettling", "exacting, excoriating", "troubling". The book is all of these things as it paints a rather disturbing picture of the MarTech industry.

MarTech, in case you're unaware, is "Marketing Technology" - an industry that has sprung up and grown from under 150 brands in 2011 to over 3,800 in 2016. In this space, start-ups are working hard to convince and convert you that you need their service or platform.

And, above everything else, these companies know their stuff. They're selling and marketing selling and marketing.

HubSpot - Loveable Teddy Bear Brand

I remember way, way back the first time I threw a URL into HubSpot's Website Grader. As I waited for Marketing Messages my results, adorable, "Slack-like" quips showed on the screen.The results were both cute and actionable. I was smitten. I became a fan of HubSpot then and there.

At the same time, though, I wouldn't say I fit the description Dan Lyons paints of loyal HubSpot fans in his book.

happy smiley Snakeoil sales

In fact, reading all his descriptions of marketers was a little cringy. I get it. We're not journalists. He describes the people in MarTech - from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to the people at HubSpot to a whole slew of industry insiders as "snake oil salespeople" at best.

The people who call leads at HubSpot he paints as stressed out, minimum-wage earning, beer-drinking kids desperate to make their monthly quotas. Marc Benioff is the Ron Burgundy of Tech. The women who write HubSpot's blog seem like silly middle school kids - the way he describes them, I'm sure they dot their "i"s with hearts.

Playful friendsters

The kids in MarTech play with Nerf guns are overly cheerful, and, weirdly, according to Lyons, both sexually harass their female employees and also do not speak crudely enough for Lyons. They are also both too cold and professional and too friendly and unprofessional for him.

Lyons criticizes HubSpot and MarTech in general for changing the industry too much and not changing it at all. I have criticized HubSpot for its lack of profit this far into its business lifespan as well as for its reliance on traditional "outbound" marketing practices while continually preaching the idea of "inbound".

Audience Rules

However, to say that HubSpot isn't a game changer is ridiculous. And to misunderstand that, at its heart, marketing is not journalism is also a bit dense. If your product appeals to someone who is a "42-year-old mid-level marketer with an MBA and 2 kids" then you freaking write to that audience. It's a skill. You write up. You write down. You write sideways if you have to. You change your voice and style to fit the needs of your audience. I do understand that listicles like "Top 15 Stock Photo Sites You'll Love" is not investigative journalism.

The change in the game, though, is this: HubSpot, or any smart marketer, listens to their audience and writes/delivers what their audience needs. How do we know who our audience is and what they want? We listen. The change is kind of subtle, but I think it's easy to notice it as a "consumer". You know how you feel when you are in a store or on a website that "gets" you? You relax, smile, and stay awhile.

we can have lists and read the economist

I'll also venture that most of us are multi-faceted. We might need a quick, easy-to-read listicle on the best stock photo sites at 10:32am, but also settle in with an article from the Economist or similar later on that day.

When we need quick, easy-to-digest information, though, that's what we're looking for. And, yes, when we find that information on a new-to-us website and that information is accurate, helpful, and clearly written, well, what do you know? We might just linger, check the site out a bit, find out what else they offer.

I am not sure why this offends Dan Lyons' sensibilities so much. The instance of content-rich consumer-based websites does not negate or lessen or dumb down the offerings of The Economist. And yet, that was a bit what I felt he was implying.

Mocking the buyers' journey

He mocks the idea of the buyer's journey, too. I get that it sounds a bit cheesy, but at the same time, the difference from "old school" marketing is stark and, I think, welcome. We've always tried to know our audience to some extent: you'd never create an ad selling solar panels that included references to monster trucks. But now, we can genuinely get to know our potential customer and sell them what they want, when they want it. This, to my mind, is the opposite of sleazy. The opposite of "snake oil". The equation understands that there is an attraction between what you offer and the people who need or want it. With modern automation, you can refine your offerings as you learn what your audience wants; you can find the exact people who want your offerings; and you can keep refining and refining to better meet the needs of your audience. 

Quotas, the Candy Wall, & Graduation

There is a place for solid inbound content marketing. But some of the revelations in Disrupted disrupted forever my view of the start up community. The intense quotas levelled on the team at HubSpot, for example. If you've got impossible-to-satisfy quotas that you need to hit each month, how are you going to transmit any sense of authenticity to your audience? In fact, the HubSpot website does often feel a little out-of-focus and harried at times, as though they're just spewing different kinds of content hoping to hit the right audience by sheer volume. Not a great experience.

Surface perks

The fact that surface perks like a candy wall are taking the place of real perks like knowing you're most likely going to have a job next month is disturbing. There's nothing wrong with candy, per se. But without job stability, it's pretty meaningless. As Dan Lyons notes, he can't take a bag of candy home to feed to his kids for dinner. He can't pay his mortgage with a bag of candy. It's nice, but doesn't replace real perks.

graduation & other uncomfortable euphemisms

And, finally, graduation. What a sick kind of euphemism that is. When people were fired from HupSpot, the word used was "graduated". And, though I can kind of see the logic behind that, since the wording implies a positive moving on from HubSpot to a place with a better fit, the creepy way this played out did not instil lots of warm fuzzy feelings for HubSpot in my heart. If Dan Lyons' portrayal is accurate, then HubSpot must be an incredibly stressful place to work. Candy and Nerf guns would almost give the other, less playful aspects a kind of surreal quality. Yikes.

The Belly of the Beast

Perhaps the most damning and unsettling part of the book, though, highlights the dark underbelly of the recent tech bubble. Steeped in sales and marketing, fueled by the US Federal Reserve's policy to print more and more money, and fanned by a "spray and pray" philosophy where venture capitalists throw money at as many start ups as they can and hope something sticks, this crop of tech start ups sounds unmanageable for any but the most savvy investor. For regular employees paid in options, or the "mom and pop" investors that get to invest post IPO, there is no upside.

That sad truth is what may have most upset me. I'm a believer in helping small and medium business people bring their goods and services to market. Helping mom and pop owners get to know the people who want to use their products. Showing people easy, cost-effective ways to better tell their story to the right people at the right time.

But if that means being a part of this tech bubble, I want no part in that. I hope you agree. 

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