“Fake News.” It’s become a buzz word to describe news that readers either don’t believe or cannot agree with. It is often not supported with any facts, sources, or other credible cues.
Yet it is incredibly effective for generating traffic and amplifying a desired message. Let’s dissect why this works, and how marketers can ethically leverage these strategies.
History of News on the Web
Hop in your DeLorean and set the clock back to 1995. Astronomer and computer scientist Clifford Stoll boldly predicted that the Internet would fail.
“The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” -Clifford Stoll
When that negative, dark prediction rolled out, news organizations were just dipping their toes into the World Wide Web. The following years brought about massive change in the way that organizations publish news, who can publish news, and how people consume news. These changes evolved into today’s 24-hour news cycle.
To use an analogy, in the mid-to-late nineties, as an online news reader you were drinking out of a garden hose, and the you controlled the spigot. In the second decade of 2000, its more like drinking from a firehose. Content is blasted at news consumers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Today, all you need to do is fire up your favorite social media stream to see that there’s so much information, it’s not always easy to decipher what is credible and what is not.
Why “Fake” News Works
1. Anyone can publish
The barrier to entry for publishing anything is now non-existent. If you have a digital device, you can publish content, promote it, and build a following for whatever information you have. And there is an audience. For. Everything.
2. There’s a hungry tribe that needs to be fed
Author Seth Godin identifies a “tribe” as a group of like-minded individuals (audience), connected to a leader (publisher) and connected to ideas that resonate with them (topics and the angle from which they’re covered).
3. If it’s published, it must be real and true, right?
Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 may be the original fake news story. Originally, the radio play that included simulated reports of a real alien invasion was said to have conned thousands of New Yorkers fled the city in panic. Those reports were debunked as myth just last year.At the time of the original broadcast, Welles created authenticity and trust with a select tribe by using fake on-the-scene reports and interviews with faux military personnel; and due to Welles’ monopoly on the (fake) story, no one could delegitimize it.
4. The story generates a desired response
It took literally decades for the real reach and myth surrounding Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast to be known. Why? The original story was so sensational and generated such a strong emotional response with a select audience that those in that audience never questioned the story’s authenticity or accuracy.
Examples in modern media are everywhere, especially in the latest heated political cycle. Here’s are a few recent fake headlines:
- President Obama’s Birth Certificate is a Fake!
- President Drumpf Tells Dangerous Lie, National Security Agencies on High Alert!
- Megyn Kelly Fired from NBC
- DeVos To Strike More Than 4.5 Billion Years Of Earth’s History From School Curriculum
Fake news publishers know that within their tribes, stories covering topics that illicit the desired response generate traffic to their websites. This traffic, in-turn generates ad revenue. This tactic has been going on for years; long before the most recent U.S. Presidential election.
The emotional response to fake news can be so strong that when readers see sensational headlines in social media, more frequently than not, those stories are shared instantly without people having read the story. A study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute found 59% of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked!
That means that more than half the links shared socially are not vetted for authenticity or accuracy. If it sounds good and resonates with an audience, it is going to get shared; regardless of the message.
How to Reverse Engineer Fake News Strategies for Your Brand
Even if fake news uses some questionable tactics, they are powerful. Here are some legitimate lessons you can take away for your own content.
1. Embrace your tribe
Know your audience and what resonates with them; not just what products or services they like and why they chose your brand, but what they think. What do they expect from your brand: security, well-being, humor?
2. Publish frequently
“How frequent is enough?” The short answer is: whatever makes sense for your brand and your bandwidth. The key thing to remember is that what you publish matters. Aim to publish content that is useful, entertaining, and unique. Ask yourself, “Can my readers get this same content someplace else?” or “Has my audience seen or heard this story or information before?”
3. Create content that triggers an emotional response
In my opinion, this is where a lot of publishers fail. Publishing for the sake of publishing is a recipe for failure; all you are generating is noise. Instead, focus on creating articles, videos, and images that are uniquely yours. You’ll know its successful when it generates traffic long after it’s originally published and promoted.Here are some examples, and the emotional response they triggered (in parenthesis).
Why Do Mentos & Diet Coke React? (funny, curious, I’ve got to try that!)
Are People with Light Blue, Green Eyes More Likely to Develop Cataracts? (what, wait? I have bluish-greenish eyes, yikes!)
7 Must Have Travel Items for Teaching English Overseas (helpful. I need this!)
4. Find out what content resonates with your audience and publish more of it
If you’re not taking advantage of Google Analytics or other tools to track what pieces of your content your audience is consuming, you should start. Analytics tools provide you with tons of details about the content you publish. What people are reading, how long they stay on your pages, and where the traffic is coming from.
With this data, you can gain insight into the types of content that your tribe likes from you, and then you can plan to publish more on those topics.One thing to keep in mind: going deep into a topic requires the publisher to seek out new angles within a specific topic. For example, let’s say that one of your most popular blog posts generates traffic for keywords like “stabbing pain in eye.
Further research shows that when people search for that phrase, Google also displays a “People Also Ask Box” with the following questions:
For each of the above, you could analyze the content that ranks for those answers and determine if you would want to create a similar article. If that decision is made, you have to decide if you can answer the question more completely, or provide more information. If you can answer the question more completely, or support your answer with images, testimonials or video, you may be able to generate similar results with your answer.
5. Above all, be authentic and accurate
This is the more important factor; fake news sites may be authentic in their messaging, but they are not accurate in their reporting. As a brand seeking to grow a following, it is imperative that you develop content that reflects your values and it must be accurate. Last fall, an organization called Label Insight published a study on brand transparency for brands within the food industry. The study found:
- 94% of consumers are loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency
- Nearly three-fourths of consumers say they would pay more for a product that is completely transparent
Those two points would apply to brands in any industry. It’s very difficult to be transparent and fake at the same time. Complete transparency means you are telling a customer how the sausage is made (for lack of a better analogy).
The Future of Trustworthiness
Google is big on machine learning, and they are constantly working on ways to make their algorithms smarter. Couple this with Google’s latest effort that is centered around updated quality guidelines. On March 28, Google released a new quality raters guideline document to provide manual quality raters information on how to spot inaccurate web pages in search results.
That could be interpreted as this: Google is using its human quality raters to inform their machine-powered algorithm about the specific content that should not be visible in search results. Google told Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable that they have been working on algorithms to “combat web pages that are “offensive, upsetting, inaccurate, and hateful.”
The quality raters update is the first step in that process. To automatically filter results that are inaccurate, Google must learn how to interpret the data (content). So far, Google has released fact-checking schema, and they have banned the Ad Sense that appears on a lot of known fake news sites. Perhaps most notably, they made changes to the tops stories algorithm to display more authoritative results.
While these types of changes are only expected to effect less than 1% of queries, the writing is on the wall. Google promises to take additional steps to prevent their algorithm from being gamed for financial benefits. Instead of looking for ways to “win the Google game” (if you ever hear a marketer say that, run the other way), give your audience more of what it expects from your brand. It may sound cliché, but I think Common says it best:
Be real, be yourself, be unique, be true, be honest, be humble, be happy.— COMMON (@common) May 29, 2013
Real. Unique. True. Exactly the opposite of fake. It’s not looking for shortcuts to game algorithms. It’s all about creating content that triggers an emotional response in your audience; people respond with feeling, not with keywords.
SEO and Content in 2017
Our latest guide, The Future of SEO Trends in 2017 and Beyond, provides practical action steps to help you through the curveballs that Google or any other big players may throw this year.