Last week I was having an interesting Twitter DM conversation with my friend Sarah (who, due her employment circumstances has asked I not link to her).  Our conversation, paraphrased:

  • Sarah: Ugh. I’m having a terrible time with this new marketing campaign I need to setup for my boss.
  • Me:  Why, what’s wrong? Can I help?
  • Sarah: No, it’s just that… well, I think marketing is SO manipulative.
  • Me:  Hmm.  Well, are you trying to be persuasive? Manipulation isn’t always bad.
  • Sarah: I don’t know, I just know that this feels GROSS.
Ok, let me be unequiovcal: if your marketing feels gross, something isn’t right.  But let’s dive into that word… manipulation.  I wonder, does marketing have to be manipulative?

I think It Starts with Definitions

The dictionary definition of the Word manipulative:

skillful in influencing or controlling others to your own advantage

Hmm.  There’s lots of talk these days about influencing, and there isn’t anything BAD with having influence over someone, right?  But controlling… I’m having visions of Halloween horror movies with that.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to influence or to control, the difference between good manipulative and bad manipulative is your intent.  If you have bad intentions, I don’t want you influencing or controlling.  If you have good ones, then perhaps either verb isn’t as scary.

Opinion: Marketing typically does mean to manipulate someone, but with two vastly different intents:

to persuade and influence
to deceive

What is Your Intent?  Examples…

Here’s a good example of intent:  I recently put in place a waitlist for my business coaching packages.  Someone might say that I was being manipulative, to make you THINK that they were unattainable, making you want them more.  Such is common practice with Internet Marketers.

However, my intent was to avoid deceit. I recently took on a big contract which meant someone would be buying my coaching package, and then when they got to booking an appointment with me, they’d find out I just couldn’t accommodate them until after the holidays.  That would suck, and isn’t a good experience.  Thus, a waitlist.

What about when I write about travel destinations on my travel websites?  My intention is to persuade you to book a trip there – because I get a commission on your booking.  If I’m doing my job right, my marketing helps you decide if that experience is right for you, but if I was of the intent to deceive you, I wouldn’t care, I would just pressure the $hit out of you until you bought a ticket.  Now that’s manipulation.

What do others think?

I posed this question to my Twitter crew (“Is marketing manipulative/should it be?”), who all agreed that manipulation is bad.  Love Margo’s comment about sincerity, which is along my thoughts about your intent.

Hmm.  Maybe I’m wrong and we shouldn’t be manipulating anything, regardless of intent.

Alternative Definitions

LateVilla prompted me to an article by Seth Godin I already had open while writing this. He states:

Sometimes (and too often) marketers work to manipulate people. I define manipulation as working to spread an idea or generate an action that is not in a person’s long-term best interest.

And there’s that concept of “person’s best interest” – e.g. your intent.

Coming Full Circle

Having thought this one out loud – and with you – I am coming full circle back to what I told my friend Sarah.  It was my gut reaction, and I think it was right.

Regardless of definitions (or anything else), if it feels gross, you’re doing the wrong thing.  End of story.