Heartbroken. That’s how I felt on the anniversary of the death of one of my favorite authors, media personalities, and general antagonist to the status quo, Hunter S. Thompson, a few weeks ago. I don’t mark the anniversary with anything special, in fact, this year, I nearly forgot about it altogether, had a well-intentioned but misinformed bot acting on behalf of technology PR not brought it to my attention.

Hence, heartbreak. Then I just felt gross—noxious, to be honest—and sad and ashamed. The adoption of a known anti-establishment author’s brilliant turn of phrase to market a white paper—about as establishment as establishment gets in the writing world—is irksome enough on its own. But what’s really egregious is that this title was brought to the forefront on the anniversary of the day Thompson chose to take his own life. The good news—if there can be good news—is that no ignorant human was at fault. It was a bot. The bot was just doing what it was programmed to do: find correlations to trending topics of the day to actual content in the inventory of white papers needing attention, and promote the latter thusly. And therein lies the rub.

Just a few weeks ago, my esteemed colleague Chris Penn wrote about the power of automation. Luddite though I’d like to be, he’s right. But automation has its limits, as do predictive technologies. He pointed out that areas like owned and earned media can’t be completely automated. Based on my experience last Friday, I’d argue that automating paid media has serious limits as well.

Would a human analyst have stopped the problem? Unless they were doing their homework—or born before 1980, when Thompson and his titles were a household name (and before he forever became tied to Jonny Depp via a movie with same tags as the aforementioned white paper)—maybe not. Just ask the folks at DiGiorno when a social media manager seized upon the trending #WhyIStayed hashtag last year, and used the hashtag, which had been circulating among survivors of domestic violence, to promote pizza—much to the brand’s embarrassment once the insight behind the trending hashtag was brought to their attention.

Savvy marketing technologists might say that this problem can soon be solved via another bot that cross-references trending data with other real-time contextual data (ie, the stories accompanying the #WhyIStayed hashtag in the DiGiorno example) and historical data (such as the fact that “fear and loathing” was trending on the same date as the suicide of the man who first penned that phrase). You’d think we could put some liability insurance in place for bots by adding caveats into the algorithm to dictate that if a topic is trending, no action is taken if the topic also correlates to keywords such as “abuse” or “suicide”.

But this is beside the point. Coming up with a solution to prevent future faux pas but that is still dependent on trending data and keywords of the day doesn’t allow for truly creative ideas and smart content to rise to the top. Even if a “safety” bot like the one proposed above already exists, or is soon to come, it still removes the creative component that defines good marketing and PR. In other words, you’d still be marketing your white paper to people who will never read it. But if you create content that aligns with what the target audience for your white paper is already looking for—not just keywords, but actual, useful information—then they’ll come looking for you.

Bottom line: good content can’t be programmed. It must be discovered.

Nicole Bestard
VP, Account Services

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone


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