I readthe book Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday.
Ryan Holiday and this book are well known in certain circles. The book reveals the truth about how certain articles and coverage in the press go viral — and it’s always organic; it’s manufactured. Here is what I learned.
1. Going Viral Can Be Manufactured
There’s still a ton of stuff that goes viral naturally.
I see it all the time on Youtube and Facebook. Because it is so cute or funny or entertaining, someone with zero subscribers gets a video with millions of views. Having said that, it’s much harder done than said. You have to have really spectacular content.
Most of the time, the people who achieve this do it unintentionally. They just share a cool video that they casually made.
The few who manufacture this on Youtube do this through vstrategic testing and a decent budget. Examples include: Poo-Pourri, Dollar Shave Club, Dollar Beard Club, and Kobe Vs. Messi. (I didn’t learn this from the book. I heard it from thought leaders like Tim Schmoyer and Derral Eves). We’re talking they split-tested 40+ different video intros with ads before releasing anything.
Ryan Holiday shows through his stories in the book that gaining momentum and growing buzz can be done, even with a small budget.
Although he did a lot of it in ways that had bad consequences: through lies and fake stories.
His book was meant to open the curtain the the system of lies in media on the internet. It’s a methodical method of stirring the pot and growing buzz.
I learned that this is not the best way of going about it. See Point #2 for details.
2. Bad Press Is Not Always Good Press
There’s a saying: “Any Press Is Good Press.”
When Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift when she was getting an award at the VMA’s, a lot of people were pissed off. Others said that Kanye was a genius because everyone was talking about the story and it was going viral, thus making Kanye more famous.
A few years later, Kanye gave a speech at the VMA’s saying how he just wished how people would like him. He sent bouqeuts of flowers to Taylor Swift. Even after many years, the world’s buzz about that still seemed to affect him.
Bad press is a double-edged source. It made him more famous but not all of it was good. I would say for a business, bad press is almost completely not good.
If an Airline employee treats a passenger negatively, that can be be recorded by any of the passengers with their phone and quickly be uploaded onto Youtube and submitted to Reddit. Stuff like this has happened and gone viral, causing thousands to swear off a certain brand. (Note: this is harder said than done, having tried to submit many things I thought were viral to Reddit)
Ryan Holiday shows that in his book that there is tremendous amounts of bad backlash from negative PR marketing. He orchestrated a lot of false stories, intentionally caused controversy, and stirred up extreme groups to rally against it.
This included: incredibly anti-female statements, then pretending to be people against the stories in the comments, and giving anonymous tips to religious and feminist groups to protest movie openings.
From what I could tell, this is a horrible approach. It spreads a lot of negativity. Perhaps, some people will be made aware of whatever you’re trying to promote who weren’t before and purchase a motive ticket or a product, and maybe you can call that marketing.. but I don’t think it’s a good strategy. You’re not really getting many sales, and the negative reputation is not good for your brand in the long run. All the best businesses I know did not sustain and thrive by building a foundation on negative marketing.
I think Ryan addresses these repercussions. Back when I was really into dating advice as a young man, there was really bad controversy on one of the biggest pick-up artist companies in the world: Real Social Dynamics. One of the pick-up artist’s (Julien Blanc) was crossing the line by doing a lot of horrible things to girls and rationalizing it as effective: choking girls and lying about an abusive childhood.
Not only does that not really help, it caused a huge press storm of feminist groups and negative mainstream coverage. It did not end well, the company lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Mr. Blanc rationalized it away as “taken out of context” and “just marketing.”
I think it was more likely a screw-up on numerous levels as a person and as a business, that was attempted to be excused away as marketing. That’s one of the things that pushed me away from the company. After listening to The Mating Grounds podcast, which covers the science of attraction with real psychologists and hundreds of studies, it became clear that many pick-up artists and people who do poorly with women have deeper psychological issues that they have yet to come to terms with from their past.
Ryan Holiday never goes into specific math on how much he spent and the numbers that he got back on the movie he used negative marketing with.
He did say though, that the movie did well in DVD. I think measuring the numbers exactly is really important in determining if your efforts are worth it. I personally don’t believe in negative marketing though.
All clicks are not created equal. 1,000 clicks from an article of mine telling you to NEVER buy a product from this man or company is different from 1,000 clicks from a Facebook ad (neutral) or 1,000 clicks from an article telling you to absolutely buy this product (positive).
You’re going to get close to 0% purchases with the first 1,000. Plus, you may get negative word-of-mouth referral from these people to others outside of this 1,000 click group, further polluting your first impression on potential new customers.
The opposite can hold true for positive marketing. Positive word of mouth referral does wonders. Sam Walton of Walmart has emphasized that the big money he made came from creating loyal, loving customers who spread the word about you and returned time and time again.
3. You Can Make A Story Go Viral Through A Bottom-Up Approach
The book goes into great detail on how to do this.
The general idea is that you pitch the story at the lowest levels to a low-level blogger with low standards for credibility.
Once it’s picked up, you pitch it to a larger source, pointing to the lower source. This can be a number of things at once: a news outlet or an aggregation site like Reddit. You continue this process until you hit the big websites online like Gawker.
Because you have all this previous credibility, they will grab the story as well. By this point, you may not need to approach many large outlets as the buzz for the story has already taken off. A notable point is that it can be a delicate process that requires certain levels of social skills to get the story.
Ryan Holiday’s main point, however, is that it is not hard to manufacture a viral story that is completely false because everyone online is careless about validity in numerous ways (See Point #4) and will simply cite the brand they quoted from.
He points out that this stuff does not have to be used for negative marketing reasons. This has been used to raise money for charity and other good things.
4. The Media Can Be Careless About The Validity Of A Story.. And Boldly Unethical
Here are some of the biggest things I got out of the book.
These were underlying tones to the entire book:
Huge websites like Gawker and Jezebel rely on floods on content everyday. They depend on dozens of articles to be published everyday and finding viral content to grow and keep traffic.
In order to do that, they look to smaller websites, blogs, and aggregation websites like Reddit. The book points to surveys done that prove that many big outlets look to these places mainly to find new content to write about. Therefore, the whole process can be bottom up in terms of finding incredible viral stories.
Ryan Holiday has a fairly negative perspective about the whole thing. It’s a world of websites of all levels not checking the credibility of content, people stealing content without giving credit to get views, and people doing anything they can to get traffic. He points out that a lot of things that seem credible can be still manipulated: Wikipedia pages, fake comments, fake tip-off’s, and fake authors, which brings us to point 5.
5. The Internet Is Sleazy and Allows For Manufactured Growth Due To Crowd Mob Psychology
Do I completely agree with this? No. Read everything to understand.
I’ve experienced some of this myself. The internet can be sleazy and dumb when you have explored its depth on places like Reddit and Youtube. Seemingly credible things may not actually be credible.
Ryan Holiday illustrates this numerous times with his own real-life examples:
- He started up a mob of comments of hate comments based on initial fake comments with fake names (The founder of Reddit did a similar thing to start Reddit)
- He pitches stories and does fake tip-off’s of fake stories with fake names pretending to work for certain companies. It surprisingly works really well and is astonishing how they don’t do any level of verification
- He changes Wikipedia pages. Just by changing the tone of a sentence can drastically affect how writers write about something: “Bob released an album in 2007 and another in 2009” vs. “Bob released an album in 2007, followed by a raging success of an album in 2009.”
I’ve found this to be true. There’s a lot of irrational and stupid behavior that occurs when the masses of people act together. It’s what causes the masses to do ignorant things every decade in the stock market out of fear and lack of knowledge. See the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Madness of the Crowds for further psychology on it and to protect yourself.
The point is that I’ve realized that the people online can be just as gullible. I’ve seen people who I would have assumed to be fairly intelligence share a viral story of how Steve Jobs told the world how he regretted living a life of money, which is completely MADE-UP but still got tens of thousands of shares.
In Ryan’s book, he showed how photos of architecture in Detroit went viral, but what people didn’t know was that the photographers intentionally left out the tens of thousands of homeless people and stray animals that typically lived in the area because it wouldn’t have evoked the same emotions in the viewers online.
He showed how bigger publications online might steal your story or tip without giving you credit to get thousands of views. He pointed out how tough it is too:
A writer who makes 60k a year for a big website has to reach a quota of at least 1.8 million views per month. He says they get roughly $4 for a good article.
He points to YouTube as well and mentions how many influencers make less than 1 cent per view (roughly true) and will do almost anything for a free product or shoutout.
Ryan worked for American Apparel and has sent free clothing and/or paid less than $25 for shoutouts from big Twitter and YouTube influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers.
It’s important to check average engagement and test small before blowing money on a social media influencer. Nowadays, you can buy 100,000 fake Twitter followers for under $100. See how many likes or comments they get per post. Engagements differ slightly across platforms, keep that in mind.
Spend a little bit and look at your return. This is exactly how I saw Google Plus going downhill.
There was a point when Google Plus seemed to be worth looking at and the “experts” there boasted about how they had 1 million+ followers. When I expressed skepticism in the comments of Amy Schmittauer’s videos, she said it was still hot and that I was “simply not using it right.”
We all know what happened to Google Plus from there.
It was tough, but I went with my gut and cross-checked 2 things: engagement levels and public millenial opinion: I realized they were getting less than 5 comments every post they sent out despite having “1 million followers” on Google Plus.
I also talked to a lot of girls and guys in college. People who actually use social media a ton and aren’t clouded by “social media expert advice” and almost all of them thought Google Plus was a joke and not worth a second of their time.
The point is that in his book, Ryan Holiday asserts that there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in this media world.
He points to blogs trying to sell out their blog at inflated prices of millions to unsuspecting “suckers.”
He points to sleazy writers and websites of all different levels. He points to people doing all sorts of things just to get more views, even stealing stories or lying about public figures. I don’t think the whole internet is sleazy. A certain large part that he is referring to is: many political blogs, big media outlets like Gawker, and celebrity gossip websites.
I think you can definitely stand out then by doing what no one else is: verifying your sources and being as credible and trustworthy as possible.
I think there are areas on the internet that are already doing this: fitness blogs, toy collection blogs, psychology websites, the list goes on.. Frankly, there’s a lot of innocent, naive, new bloggers and influencers who are just doing their own thing with their little hobby, whether it’s stamp collecting, tarot card reading, or Magic: The Gathering card collecting.
The world is a vast place and although there may be tens of thousands of blogs, websites, and Youtubers (yeah.. I’ve seen Youtubers do almost anything to get views), there are still, although maybe less, hubs out there who are not part of this charade.
6. Evoke Emotions and Cause Controversy?
Ryan’s book shows how you can get cheap marketing and ad costs by paying for or creating controversial content.
He notes that the cheapest cost that creates the most shares are usually the scandalous, controversial, or anger-invoking. He gives examples such as naked women, false and scandalous stories, and any celebrity tip-off that may be true. While this is all true, it gives me a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think this has to be the way.
There’s plenty of great businesses that have kept a better reputation without doing this.
7. Virality Can Be Built On Lies
Ryan Holidays asserts that in the media, hundreds of thousands can be made to look at a story that is completely false.
He points to method such as:
- editing a Wikipedia page with a fake story that gets picked up and blown up by media websites before it gets caught by Wikipedia
- getting someone to deny or respond to a claim. If they do, that’s enough to source the story and proceed. Otherwise, they will find anyone, even loosely connected to the scandalous story or subject matter, and get them to act as a source to push the article through
- few people viewing the true story or the re-dacted article or updated article with the truth afterwards
While this all seems grim, I think he is too caught up in this world and it is made to seem like this is the entire internet.
While I agree that, generally speaking, the internet is not credible, you have to realize that the companies and websites that continuously lie get a worse and worse reputation over time. Tabloids are a great example: the stories are completely outrageous and wrong and has gotten a horrible reputation.
Having said that, there is truth in the fact that for the lowest, common-denominator of masses, they are gullible and taken in. While I think he holds an extremist view and generalization on the entire internet, I think Ryan Holiday is right when he says that social media platforms like Youtube and Facebook have been psychologically designed to keep you watching more and more.
When he said that Youtubers make millions, that’s a huge generalization that points to less than a fraction of 1%. There’s Youtubers who get millions of views who are barely scraping by. However, it’s true about the Youtube algorithm and recommended videos system. 99.99% of the hundreds of millions who watch Youtube out there will not see this article or even care, but it’s true that the algorithm has been made to favor any video that keeps the user watching more of the video and staying on Youtube.
That is why the whole system has been made to do everything it takes to do this. Youtube videos are made short, punchy, attention-grabbing, with clickbait titles and thumbnail pictures.
Conclusion and Book Review
Ryan has a dark perspective I can’t agree with, probably because he experienced the worst sides of media in his job at American Apparel. He lives and breathes media and press coverage. Media Growth Hacking seems to be all he thinks about. Not everyone in media, let alone social media, will share his perspective.
He talks a lot about being an insider and using lies, deceit, and fake stories to stir the pot and build buzz. The tactics revealed are more geared towards press coverage, big media, and areas where fake news can be built and trusted (like political blogs). Someone who just started an Instagram account about puppies won’t find much value from this book.
Mr. Holiday makes media look like a vile wretch. He mentions how no one cares about the credibility of a story or anything else as long as it gets views. That’s not true. I’m always looking for sources and I’ve met others who do the same. I’ve also heard the stories of many young social media influencers who grew their massive following through spreading honest positivity and value — no manipulation.
He talks about numerous large media websites that will take any story, even if it’s completely false, and do whatever it takes to spin it and twist it in order to get tons of views, engagement, and comments for cheap. I believe this happens, and it’s sad that trusted websites will do this to millions of readers. But I also believe this behavior will bite them in the butt eventually when it diminishes their branding and trust over time.
As part of his profession, Ryan has gone deeper and deeper into the worst parts of marketing and media. As a result, a lot of the book is complaints, such as how no one cares about truth or the public being mislead as long as views go up. This behavior reminds me of sleazy internet marketers and YouTubers who get jaded because they start crossing morales and values for the money, even if it means pyramid schemes or faking pranks.
There are good parts to the Internet too though. There are ethical businesses, blogs, and websites that cite sources and spread truth, such as mayoclinic.org, usefulscience.org, or examine.com. Perhaps you can stand out from the crowd, get more views, and have a better, lasting reputation by being the one of the few who has verifiable, valuable, honest content.
This book spends an excruciatingly amount of time talking about how horrible and despicable media is. He has burrowed himself into the worst parts of the industry (political blogs and celebrity gossip), so of course it will be bad. I do agree that certain parts of media are horrible. I’ve seen news sites twist interviews of the YouTuber, PewDiePie, to focus on how much he earns when it was a tiny fraction of the interview. And I’ve observed how paparazzi and media will behave in the rudest ways to get a picture or story that they can spin into something that gets a lot of traffic. Even news reporters in new industries like E-sports have rationalized re-posting leaked footage as standard practice.
There was an interview that went viral with Robert Downey Jr. where the interviewer asked rude, personal questions that made Robert leave the interview. It was completely outside the scope of the point of the interview: to promote a movie.
Yet the interviewer went on to tweet about it and promote the scandal on his social media profiles to get more views. If all you’ve done by the end of life is make a bunch of money, you’ve failed — especially, if you’ve hurt people along the way.
I disagree with Ryan when it comes to believing that traffic growth must be evil. You can succeed without being a horrible person. There are tons of huge social media influencers who have done well without resorting to scandalous, unethical tricks.
Oprah and Ellen are great examples of interviewers who stuck to their values, and they have been much more successful than a one-time hit exploit.
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