Social Media: Astonishing Tales of Mediocrity

(There’s an audio edition of “Social Media Is Bullshit” in the works. For that reason, I am making the text of the revised audio edition available both here, and later, in an e-book. I have one request, if you like what you read below, I hope you will consider clicking here to chip in for the audiobook.)

Chapter Two

 

Something else you should know about me, in light of all these stories from the tech world about the boy or girl genius who comes out of nowhere and strikes it rich on the Internet. I was not the best student in high school. I was the kind of kid who was absent a lot, because I didn’t feel like going, and got C’s and D’s when I did. Then after the school day was over, I would go home and read books like Irving Stone’s “The Agony and The Ecstacy” and every Tom Clancy novel my Dad had laying around.

I had a problem with authority, and following the rules, as this book’s title may have suggested to you, so high school was not for me. I decided to coast as much as I could and learn about the things I wanted to learn about at home. Stupidly, I thought this was a grand strategy to get into the college of my dreams, New York University.

Yes, despite having a Gentleman’s GPA of a 77.0 after four years of high school, I told my Dad the only college I would go to was NYU, and that I wouldn’t apply elsewhere because, and I really said this, “other colleges are bullshit.” Going to one of those bullshit colleges turned out to start a new adventure with the Internet and my second career as a marketing consultant. Something I did for twenty-years from 1998 to 2018.

Knowing I wouldn’t get into my school of choice, Dad filled out an application for me to attend Alfred State College. So in the Fall of 2001, I reluctantly went to Alfred with a bad attitude and a chip on my shoulder. Thanks to The Island’s success, I learned that if you do something interesting, the people who ignored you will now pay attention to what you’re doing. So, the funny but dickish behavior that got me rewarded my last three years of high school continued into my first year of college. That is until I received a lifetime ban from the Alfred State College radio station and alienated everyone on campus. (Fun fact: When I returned to Alfred State College in 2013 as the only student to have published a book, the adults who operated the campus radio station were conspicuous by their absence. I guess I left quite the impression on them.)

They are right to hold a grudge. I have a tough time listening to my jokes and other material from this era because I felt I was an asshole and want to kill my earlier self. Of course, had I done that, you wouldn’t be reading this right now, but know that if I could travel back and time and kick my ass, I would.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that ban was a blessing in disguise. Back then, Alfred State College could affectionately be described as a “Suitcase Campus,” meaning everyone went home on the weekend. Without money, a car, or people to hang out with, the Web was my last refuge for entertainment. So in February of 2002, one month after my lifetime ban from WETD went into effect, I went back to publishing my jokes and audio files online.

After a year of mediocrity and spelling errors, I had a long string of humor columns go viral, starting with “The Universal Break-Up Card” in February of 2003. After I built a name for myself with additional columns like “I Hate Captain Planet” and “What Would The Hulk Do?” that had similar success, I started consulting and writing material for other people.

My first writing gig was for a porn star in 2004, writing music reviews for AVN Hall of Famer Joanna Angel. From there, I worked my way up to a nationally published indie music magazine, Wonka Vision, and then got a college survival column syndicated to over 800 college newspapers through CBS College Sports known as “The Brandon Show.” I know. I know. It’s a very clever title.

Later, I contributed to a number of outlets including The Huffington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, The Albany Times Union, The New York Observer, the Eisner-nominated ComicsAlliance, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN. I don’t freelance much anymore, because the pay sucks and I don’t like being told what to do, but occasionally you can find my material in odd places around the Web.

I’ve also written another book, “Privacy: And How We Get It Back,” which was published by Curious Reads in the Fall of 2017. It reads like a mini-sequel to this book, for those of you who might be interested. (I promise, it’s also the funniest and most accessible book on privacy and what happens to your data that you’ll ever read, which is why I wrote it in the first place. Marketing books may be full of shit, but privacy books are known for their ability to beat taking an Ambien in putting their readers to sleep.)

Journey Into Mystery (And Marketing)

Let’s talk about my career as a marketing consultant since this is why we’re all here.

With the experience I gained using the Web to promote my columns and comedy websites, people started emailing me for advice on how to market themselves and their products. I have no idea what suggested I was the guy to ask, but it turns out that this would be my introduction to something we see a lot of in the marketing world: A credibility gap.

There’s maybe 5%, if we’re generous, of people who know what they’re doing, and everyone else is either learning or just trying to cash in by recycling the advice of others. This is important to note because if you’ve ever wondered why every marketing book sounds precisely the same, that’s because they do. It’s this weird, dumb chain of people repeating stuff Dale Carnegie, Edward Bernays, and Napoleon Hill said before World War two, and David Ogilvy said afterward. Ogilvy remains my favorite of the bunch, by the way, and I strongly recommend reading all of the books he put out in addition to the biography about him written by Ken Roman. This way, between my book and his books, you’ll have a complete understanding of both advertising and marketing, some technical stuff aside.

And of that 5%? Maybe 4% don’t want to say much because they’re paranoid and think they’re giving away their “secrets,” somehow making themselves less valuable and employable. Hey, asshole, there are no secrets when it comes to marketing. Everything you need to know about it can be learned in the fourth grade, or by reading this book, which was written by a man with the humor and sensibility of someone in the fourth grade.

Because of this credibility gap, people tend not to trust marketers and instead contact people they see as being successful on their own. And what’s hilarious is a lot of successful people will tell you they really have no idea how they got to be so successful, and so they’ll give you the standard line everyone else gives about working hard, being a good person, and making friends. Sure, those things are all true, but again, you learned about that stuff in the fourth grade. This advice should not surprise you.

I wanted to be a lot of things growing up, but a marketer was never one of them. At first, I was reluctant to help the people emailing me, but college is expensive, and I needed money to impress girls who had no intention of sleeping with me.

So, I caved and picked up some clients and started to do marketing for them while charging only enough to pay for my textbooks. This way I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I messed up because it didn’t cost them much, and I was still basically learning on the job at that point.

One of the things I wanted to be, instead of a marketer, was George Carlin. And this is the part of the story you should pay the most attention to because it’s where I became a small business owner and struggling creative looking to get people to pay me for a product.

The trouble was, I wanted to get in to stand up when I was eighteen, but most of the bars in New York had a strict rule about not letting anyone under twenty-one into their venues.

This is because, in America, you can’t drink at eighteen, but you can volunteer to fight and die for your country. Actually, you can’t drink at any age under 21 because the drinking age became a campaign issue for Ronald Reagan, aka a marketing campaign. Raising the age was one of the things he ran on in his re-election campaign in 1984.

So,  the American drinking age restriction has little to do with logic, because studies have shown introducing high school students to alcohol responsibly will eliminate binge drinking on college campuses; It instead has everything to do with marketing. I may be flip throughout this book and my presentations, but don’t let me fool you. As easy as marketing is to learn, it’s just as influential in persuading people to do things. If you doubt that, let me ask you how many friends you may have who happen to be members of a monotheistic religion.

So, I wasn’t allowed in the bars for this reason, but I figured out a cheat. Or a hack as an asshole might describe it. I figured out that if I rented out the bar for the night, I could do whatever I wanted in it. And so that’s what I did. I worked with bands up and down the East Coast of the United States who pre-sold tickets to all the shows. We then used that money to rent out the venue and charged a small cover at the door that we split at the end of the night. It was, and remains, a great business model, provided you can convince the bands to pre-sell tickets, so you’re not carrying the load yourself. A lot of them hate doing it, but my attitude is if you can’t convince people to come and listen to your music, what are you even doing in a band in the first place?

I did fifty-five of those shows up and down the East Coast, doing stand up comedy before each concert and in between sets. My parents were less than enthused about this career path and ultimately talked me out of the concert business in 2004. It was then that I moved back to strictly consulting. It was smart on their part because the concerts were bringing me more clients than I knew what to do with, and I kept turning them, and their money down, which is not the smartest thing to do when you need money.

So I moved on to working with small businesses like LoveSac competitor, Comfy Sacks, and then I promoted authors like former University Of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Andrew Shatte.
Later in 2007, I worked for “The Edge With Jake Sasseville,” a syndicated television show that aired on ABC affiliates, and in 2010 I helped promote Colonel John Folsom and his not-for-profit, Wounded Warriors Family Support, with a national outreach campaign called “The High Five Tour.” A tour that, as of this writing in the Summer of 2018, is still going strong.

In that time I also did some work with Ford, Overstock.com, Sprint, Sears, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, and Ogilvy & Mather. And in the event, you’re wondering, yes, I was also a lousy college student, since I spent more time consulting than I did going to class. Lucky for me, I was still able to graduate with a 3.5 GPA at SUNY Potsdam in December of 2016.

It’s at SUNY Potsdam where I meet my wife, now ex-wife, Amanda Morin. I love, and loved, Amanda. And if you know anything about recent American history, you know something really bad happens with the economy that screws Amanda and I, along with our entire generation, taking jobs and opportunities with it.

In 2007, and going into 2008, we were both worried about making money. Amanda, because she was a teacher waiting for a spot to open up, but never did because the Baby Boomer teachers couldn’t retire because of how bad the economy was. And me, I noticed no one wanted to talk about SEO, word of mouth marketing (the thing I specialize in), and other web marketing tactics anymore. Instead, the conversations I had with clients revolved around this thing called “social media,” which had previously been a dumb term coined back in 2004 but was now skyrocketing in popularity. (Amanda and I would later divorce in 2012, mostly due to financial struggles which plagued our marriage, but also because I was not well at the time, both mentally and physically.)

In 2008, I used an old psychological trick I learned from Professor William Laubert at Alfred State College: People bring the previous experiences they have in their head about you and connect it to the idea you’re proposing. You could have the best idea in the world, but if people don’t like you, don’t trust you, or don’t know you, they’re not going to consider it. However, If you cite what someone else is saying, someone they might have heard of, that lends the idea more credibility. “Another way to look at it,” Professor Laubert said to me, “would be to think of the person as looking at you with blue-tinted sunglasses (their previous experiences are ‘coloring’ the way that they perceive you). By using other sources that the audience finds credible, it’s sort of like having them put on a different colored pair of glasses—you haven’t changed but the way the audience perceives you changes. Before you appeared sort of blue, but now you look green.”

Here’s a quick example for my friends in 2018 to illustrate what Professor Laubert is saying. If you contact someone on Twitter, and you have the Blue verified check mark, they’re more likely to take you seriously because Twitter vouched for you as being credible in some capacity. Whereas if you pitched that same person without having the blue checkmark, they’d be less receptive to whatever it is you’re pitching. You follow? The blue checkmark changes how you are perceived.

This might sound silly, but it’s worth mentioning here that western society is obsessed with credentials. So if you’re wondering why the blue checkmark matters, or why most journalists talk to “experts” who really don’t know anything about anything, it’s because that “expert” is credentialed in some way.

So this phenomenon isn’t limited to online stuff. If your friend Ralph tells you to put your fist in your mouth because it can cure your addiction to smoking, you’ll ignore Ralph and tell him he’s crazy. But if you’re doctor says you should do the same thing, for the same reasons, well, more than a few of you are going to follow the doctor’s orders. Why? Because they’re a doctor! That’s why. They’re credentialed. The lab coat, in this instance anyway, is no different than the blue checkmark.

Using this trick to reframe the conversation I was having with my clients, worked well to attract more of them, so I continued using the ideas of marketers like Gary Vaynerchuck, Seth Godin, and Guy Kawasaki instead of my own. This never felt right, but when you’re just married and looking to build a family, you get a little desperate when your bank account reads zero.

In my defense, I thought what they were describing was stuff I already did but in a new way. It turns out I was wrong. Big time. Everything those guys said, and continue to say in some cases, made sense on paper, but little of it actually works in practice.

Photo Credit: NYU-Stern/Wikimedia Commons