August 10, 2009

Just Break ‘Em: Not So Cool Rules in Marketing and Media

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + And Guy Who Questions The Answers

Wired's new rules

For all our talk of freedom, we Americans LOVE rules…

  • Our favorite sport, football, has the most rules of any sport on the planet.
  • America poker players make up new rules with every hand (“threes and hearts are wild except for the Queen, which you can pass to the right if someone sneezes during play”).
  • Our institutionalized belief systems — whether Rastafarianism, environmentalism, or even Libertarianism — bristle with rules of what can and can’t be done.
  • Wired wrote an entire section on rules, “How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans,” which includes a few illuminating ones by Brad Pitt (“Don’t take a picture of your wife’s butt. That’s silly. Take pictures of other people’s wives’ butts.”).
  • And, of course, this here blog occasionally lays out rules for marketing and media as laid down by a higher authority (me).

Want more proof that most of us are rule-snorting junkies? Take this here Internet, where many users routinely cry “net neutrality!” and “information is free!” and “hands off, Feds!” — YET first-comers to any new website, network or medium are quick to impose rules that newbies must follow or die.

Case in point: When I edited MCA Records’ first website in 1995 (yes, kids, the Web existed back then), doing anything commercial online was considered taboo and totally uncouth. That’s right: the Internet was strictly “information only” and completely off limits to us marketers. So we record-industry scalawags disguised our website as a music magazine called “AMP.” We still got hate mail for commercializing the Internet, but just a year later, all those anti-commercial “rules” were chucked like yesterday’s cat litter. For better or worse (obviously I say better), the Web got full-on commercialized.

Here are some other examples of silly arbitrary Internet rules, in no particular order:

1. If someone follows you on Twitter, you should follow them back.

Considering the number of tweeters who are spammers, scammers or completely inhuman bots, following them would simply be supporting extreme douchery. Many other tweeters are self-promoters who rarely read a tweet from the thousands of people they “follow.” They’re compiling Twitter stats as if they were frequent flier miles, but the stats have no value. Indeed, exorbitant stats call your credibility into question: following more than 1,000 people is like subscribing to 1,000 free magazines — you can’t possibly read them all. Hence, I won’t follow a serial follower unless I’m really really really interested in what they have to say — and for me, that’s an extreme rarity on Twitter.

2. Don’t edit your published blog posts. Rather, cross out mistakes like this and add corrected text alongside.

Yeah, sure. And next time I find myself speeding on a highway, I’ll just report myself to the nearest cop. The beauty of digital media is that we can correct our errors continuously — and we should. A blog post is not a literary classic that must be preserved in its original form for future generations to savor. And blog posts are rarely ever read twice by the same person, so who will notice if I edit and update? All the text strikethroughs just make the post a pain in the freakin’ ass difficult to read. Rather, the rule should stipulate that bloggers try to get their facts straight and eliminate writing errors, even after publishing, so that we don’t all pull a Drudge and spread misinformation and ignorance.

3. Don’t moderate the comments on your blog: no censoring, editing or commenting upon them.

Which spammer wrote that? If I didn’t filter my comments, my blog would become a free bulletin board for cheap Viagra, MLM-based lobotomies, and mortgage refinancing scams. Although I use Akismet to filter out most spam, some weasels are hiring dirt-cheap labor (like former Bush economic advisors) to bypass filters and post on unsuspecting blogs.

A blogger should also feel totally free to delete comments. Your blog is a manifestation of your personal brand: you don’t need it sullied by comments more suited for a bathroom wall. I do allow critical comments on my blog, since smart criticism helps me see holes in my arguments and improve my rhetorical skills. They also give me the opportunity to provide additional arguments and dis back. But if some kid simply wants to post “you’re a turd” on my blog (which has happened), sorry, that “right” doesn’t exist. One’s blog isn’t democracy square — it’s an island dictatorship.

4. A website needs an “About Us” section.

That’s a convention, not a rule. Conventions are traditional practices, “the way things have always been done around here.” Web design is, unfortunately, full of conventions, with the “About Us” as only one example. (Always putting the logo in the upper left corner is another.) Now if you’re running an ecommerce site or an SAS (software-as-service) site, then a well-written “About Us” section helps build your credibility. If your site is just an online brochure that describes who you are, then having an “About Us” section is like having a biography chapter entitled “Biography.”

On another note, no rule says you have to call the section “About Us”; feel free to call it “Background” or “Our Story” or “Da Scoop.” It’s your site and your brand. Do it your way.

5. Websites for banks and other financial services can’t have a personality or — the gods forbid — a sense of humor.

I call this the “Chase Rule” after the intense soul-numbing boredom that Chase imposed on Washington Mutual after buying it. Most business service sites look like they were cloned, not crafted. They all have the same gag-inducing stock photos, the same bland reassurances of their stability, the same patronizing assertions that they “care” about our dreams and families. Yeah, right.

I originally banked with WaMu because they seemed different from other banks in L.A.: they actually had a personality. Now when I need financial services, I ask friends for recommendations, because looking at another generic, multi-million-dollar banking website is a waste of time.

6. Typing in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is equivalent to shouting.

I DON’T BUY THAT ARGUMENT, BECAUSE WHEN YOU SHOUT, PEOPLE CAN HEAR YOU BETTER. RATHER, TYPING IN ALL CAPS FOR MORE THAN A FEW WORDS IS NOT SMART BECAUSE IT’S ANNOYING TO READ, NO? AND IF PEOPLE CAN’T READ YOUR WORDS, THEY’RE NOT GETTING YOUR MESSAGE. EVER WONDER WHY THE SURGEON GENERAL WARNINGS ON CIGARETTE PACKS ARE PRINTED IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS? THAT’S RIGHT: THE TOBACCO COMPANIES WANT TO MAKE THEM HARD TO READ.

7. If you enjoyed reading someone’s blog, send them money.

Now that’s a rule I endorse.

There are many other silly, arbitrary rules out there. I’m not talking about laws against spam and truly criminal behavior. By all means, obey those rules. (Die, spammers, die!) And I’m not talking about the rules you find here. Obey those, too. But if you hear of other conventions and unofficial rules out there, feel free to question them.

And while you’re at it, let me know all about ’em — indeed, before you tell anyone else.

That’s because breaking rules and conventions is a highly profitable business. Ask Zappos. Or Craigslist. Or iTunes. Or any other business that’s leveraged the Internet to blow out traditional businesses. The Web has been the biggest convention breaker of the past two decades. It’s reshaped entire industries and made billionaires out of the rule breakers. Hence, trying to impose silly, arbitrary restrictions on Internet usage is fundamentally wrong. There should be a rule against it.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. It’s because ppl like you Prof that I can’t find a reliable Viagra supplier anymore … >(

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