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SEM Preparation: Social Media and Fake Personas

November 28th, 2010

sem preparationTEL AVIV — Is it good or ethical to develop a fake online-persona for social-media marketing purposes? More on that later.

When I moved from Boston to Israel, my first job in online marketing was for a high-tech company whose target demographic was young males. The goal was to drive as many of them to our website as possible. (I cannot be more specific out of respect for confidentiality agreements that are still in effect.)

One of my tasks was to take groups of keywords that had been researched by someone else in the department and write content using them. The target website was not our own — it was a seemingly-independent “site” containing “blog posts” and “reviews” of all the websites in our particular niche. The point was to build traffic to the exterior site, whose good “reviews” would then direct traffic to the company’s main site.

When I wrote content for the “exterior” site, I was instructed to take the guise of a young, misogynistic guy who thought he was the coolest man in the world but really lived in his parents’ basement because he did not have a job and spent all his time online. Take that as you will. I did not have a problem with the writing — but it impressed me that the women in the department, many of whom were Israelis spoke English as a second language, could do the same.

As I realized later after I had learned more about search-engine optimization, the firm was engaging in black-hat SEO — but I will leave it at that. At least the practice paid for a nice, shiny office in a skyscraper, which did beat my prior workplaces in dingy, journalistic newsrooms.

SEM Preparation: Are Fake Personas Bad?

I remembered my prior experience as I read this piece by Lee Odden at Top Rank Blog on developing an online persona:

While I’m pretty sure an entire book or two could be written about the details behind the art and science of developing personas and profiles, here are a few quick tips you can implement right now to get started.

I first heard of personas from Shar VanBoskirk of Forrester at a MIMA Summit in 2005. She discussed methodology for persona development and it seemed a very smart way to better segment and personalize marketing communications to be more relevant and effective. At the time, there weren’t a lot of resources for small businesses to implement…

The data you collect can be compiled and analyzed to reveal common characteristics for persona development. Then that persona can guide everything from the kind of content planned on landing pages, blogs and social media. It can also guide engagement via social channels.

Odden’s article is not clear on what degree of persona-developing he is advocating, but I am wary. Of course, it is completely reasonable and effective to tailor marketing messages towards a targeted demographic — but there is a fine line, and it depends on whether the communication is coming from the company or a person at the company.

Here is the difference. Say Nike has a Twitter account. (I am sure they do, but I’m not going to look for it.) Messages coming from Nike can be tailored towards teenage guys who like sneakers. But if Nike’s director of marketing is a 50-year-old woman who tweets as an individual person but with a slang name (“Shooz Yo!”) and a picture of a 16-year-old kid, that is deception.

As people working in SEO and online marketing are acutely aware, there is a flood of spam and marketing messages on sites like Facebook and Twitter. One client of mine believes — and sometimes I agree myself — that Twitter is on the way out because users are sick of the fact that roughly 10% of tweets are someone selling something. Marketing on Twitter can be effective — and done in a non-spam way — but most people do not know how to do it.

People today — especially young men and women — are innately skeptical of all advertising and marketing. They are highly educated, and they have been bombarded with the messages for their whole lives so that they know a sales push when they see one.

I am 30, and I can even tell within a fraction of the second whether a Twitter account is real or not. Here is a hint: if your Twitter has a fake name, inaccurate spelling, and a young girl in a bikini or otherwise posing seductively, you are a spammer — especially if you purport to discuss a serious topic like finance or SEO. (If you do this and are not a spammer, then you need to learn some workplace etiquette.)

No one on the Internet — at least not anyone who uses the online world for work — will work with or trust anyone who seems the slightest-bit fake. Full disclosure is important when your money depends on someone thousands of miles away whom you have never met. My two Twitter accounts at @samueljscott and @myseosoftware and my two blogs at Considerations and My SEO Software have my real name, my picture, and my background. Every word I write is my own, original thought — and I stand behind each one.

Anything less smacks of falsity — and perhaps even black-hat SEO software.

Samuel J. Scott, a former journalist in Boston turned Internet marketer in Israel, is the founder and publisher of My SEO Software and Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.