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The Drum Digital Transformation Festival launch

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Gordon Young
Editor-in-chief at The Drum

Is SEO selling its soul and fuelling hate?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Reflecting on yet another tragedy over the weekend, influenced very clearly by the poisonous tabloid press of this country, I can’t help but think it is time SEOs and Digital PRs look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether or not we are inadvertently contributing to a toxic culture of hate.

Let me be very clear this is not virtue signalling. We've all been there, Builtvisible included. The raw metrics in terms of audience size, referral traffic and - of course - link juice provide undeniable benefit for both client KPIs and agency case studies, but at what cost?

The uncomfortable and inconvenient truth, is that by running content marketing and PR campaigns that target coverage and links in publications we don’t need to bother naming, we are just bolstering the vast reach, ad revenues and ultimately power these publications use to consistently fuel hate.

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t think of any occasion I have walked away from a conversation with someone in our industry thinking they are actively looking to spread hate, but that is very much the point. We can sit by and be complicit, or we can start the conversation, take a position and do something about it.

Campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate are out there actively applying pressure on advertisers, but I haven’t seen anything from our industry, and can’t help but think addressing the elephant in the room would be hugely beneficial for the industry across the agency/client landscape.

Obviously anyone can stand on a soap box and shout into the void about things few people would disagree with, and there are very clear shades of grey here which make the whole issue hugely nuanced. But this doesn’t mean there is no way forward.

So what can agencies do?

With so much opinion and nuance around an overtly inflammatory topic, the logical route to clarity is opening up a series of dialogues that begin to surface thoughts, viewpoints and positions.

Dialogue 1: your agency

We run an explicitly value-led organisation. Everything we do comes back to values defined by everyone in the company and this gives us clear corridors of interpretation and guide the way we approach everything we do.

Regardless of how formalised your approach to work is, soliciting feedback from an agency team will very soon establish a position that includes everyone’s voice, concerns and opinions.

It can be as simple as a short survey, or as involved as a full debate. The key is to surface the issue and get aligned on how you as a group would like to proceed, and how everyone is empowered to act should they need to.

Dialogue 2: your client

The agency-client relationship is two-way. It has to work for both sides so this shouldn’t be a nervous conversation. There will be cultural reasons you have chosen to work together and with SEOs/content marketers often being custodians of our clients’ brands it should be an incredibly easy chat to have.

The convenient likelihood is that clients will have their own brand guidelines, few of which I imagine will include actively fuelling hate, and an interesting position in might be asking “What is your policy on links in publications such as X,Y and Z?”.

This positions the topic as an issue in its own right which is important to you agency.

Dialogue 3: the line in the sand and how you approach it

The reality is you will never get to a definitive, comprehensive view of your and your client’s stance on every single publication out there. The key instead is to understand the characteristics of what constitutes that line in the sand and put an escalation procedure in place as you begin to approach this line.

A clearly defined value set, alignment between agency and client and explicit examples/cases make it incredibly easy to spot things that might cause an issue a mile off. The real key here is doing something about it and not being complicit. This can only be avoided by having the conversation first.

As I say this is a hugely nuanced topic. There are infinite shades of grey, endless edge cases and exceptions I am sure. There is no one size fits all approach and I’m sure there are many opinions out there.

Either way, what is undeniable is that this should be something our industry is more actively talking about across the board to ensure we are aware of how our campaigns might be affecting wider societal issues, and are comfortable with our actions as a result.

From my standpoint, enough is enough, and we are working on a policy right now.

Geoff Griffiths, managing director at Builtvisible.

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