The Rise of Meta-Marketing

by Ryan Miller
on June 28, 2018

So, a little while ago I opened my inbox and found this gem from Dollar Shave Club:

Nothing out of the ordinary here, right? Just some content that I, as a customer, might find interesting.

Except, that is, for this little bit that they closed the email with:

What I, as a marketing copywriter, found so intriguing about this is that they actually used the term “shameless plug.”

They’re being 100% upfront with the fact that they’re shamelessly plugging their own product line for you to purchase.

Why is this a big deal, you ask?

Quite simply, because it’s breaking an unwritten rule of the marketing profession: “Never Tell the Audience That They’re Being Marketed To!”

This is the marketing equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in film or on stage.

It’s a diversion from expectations that are generally held.

Consider this  passage from Inbound Marketing, widely held to be one of the watershed treatises on modern-day marketing (and written by two of its gurus):

…we came to a startlingly simple conclusion: people did not want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by salespeople. They wanted to be helped.

Thus, so-called “inbound marketing” was born. According to the inbound marketing ethos, people are looking for advice on blogs, entertainment on social media — and they don’t like being interrupted with a sales pitch.

In other words, they don’t like being told that they’re being marketed to.

Nowadays, that’s taken for granted in the marketing industry.

So why, then, am I receiving a promotion from Dollar Shave Club that not only violates this principal, but outright spits in its face with a self-conscious acknowledgement that it’s a shameless plug?

Meta-Marketing Defined

What our friends at DSC are engaging in — and what I predict will be a major trend in the coming years — is something I’m going to call meta-marketing.

Meta, in Greek, means something akin to “after” or “beyond.” And what it connotes is something that’s conscious and fully aware of its own nature and being.

So, you might hear the term “metafiction” to describe a book that acknowledges and embraces the fact that it is a book, and doesn’t even attempt to portray the story it’s telling as real.

The first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is about the process of writing the story that follows, thereby demonstrating an awareness that the story is fiction. Meanwhile, each of the Harry Potter books are written as though they are a recounting of historical fact, even though the reader knows it’s not.

So what is meta-marketing? It’s marketing that is fully self-aware of the fact that it is marketing.

This is obviously distinct from inbound marketing, but it’s also not quite the same as “outbound” methods, i.e. direct mail, commercials, etc.

Think of your typical TV commercial. It might try to make an impression by entertaining you, like a Mountain Dew commercial with a dancing monkey. Or, it might try to outwardly exhibit cultural values, like Nike does.

But, rarely is an ad so bold as to tell you, “Hey, why beat around the bush? We want you to buy our product, so here it is.”

Why Meta-Marketing is a Game-Changer

There’s not much data I can use to support the argument here, but let’s try to deconstruct why meta-marketing at least has the potential to be a game-changer.

First and foremost, it’s bold as hell.

If the whole purpose of marketing is to differentiate your product from someone else’s, then surely boldness is something a brand ought to aspire to.

But beyond that, here’s the real kicker: it treats the audience as intelligent consumers.

Consider this commercial by Kotex (which is probably one of the earliest adopters of meta-marketing):

The whole hook of the ad is that it’s not patronizing its audience, but rather mocking the ads of its competitors, which do patronize the audience.

And that’s the true value of meta-marketing: by acknowledging its own content and purpose, it’s effectively saying, “Look, we’re both adults. You know I’m trying to sell you something, so I’m not going to pretend like I’m not.”

Think about why I received that email from Dollar Shave Club in the first place: because I opted into their mailing list. I’m obviously interested in their products. They have no reason to treat me as someone who’s not interested. They’ve already sold me, so why would they give me a sales pitch again?

See, unsurprisingly, people like to be treated as smart, informed consumers.

This is a universal truth, but it’s particularly salient in the current age of social media and mass information networks.

Nowadays, anyone with an Internet connection has access to the sum total of human knowledge and artistic output.

And with so much information being right at our fingertips, it’s understandably made people feel more intelligent (whether that feeling is based in reality… is a whole other story!)

So now, more than ever, the average consumer hates being treated as uninformed and unintelligent.

They click on a blog that promises “free advice on x, y and z,” only to find that they need to enter their email address to finish the article. That doesn’t just make them frustrated — it makes them feel lied to.

Anyone who’s ever been lied to knows how hard it is to trust that person ever again — what makes you think digital marketing is any different?

How to Use Meta-Marketing

This is a concept that will be fleshed out more in the coming years, but it will pay off to be an early adopter.

As a word of caution, it ought to be said that meta-marketing appears to be particularly effective with brands that target Millennials and Generation Z, i.e. the demographic that grew up with the Internet, smartphones and social media.

This makes sense, of course. If meta-marketing is a direct result of the Internet age, then it would be most effective on the people who’ve been immersed in the Internet from day one.

And of course, it’s not as if you can just write off all your other marketing efforts, anyway.

Meta-marketing is a supplement, but not a replacement.

Inbound marketing still makes sense. Traditional marketing still makes sense.

The goal of inbound marketing is to inform, and of course people need to be informed.

The goal of traditional marketing is to get noticed, and of course you need people to notice your brand.

But what’s the payoff of informing, of getting noticed, if your target audience feels like you’re not being transparent with your offer?

Remember, too, how quickly people tend to make decisions nowadays. They’re shown millions of ads on Facebook and Instagram on a daily basis. Take too long with your sales pitch and they’ll just move onto the next offer.

The value of meta-marketing is that is circumvents the sales pitch altogether. It cuts out the middle man and says, “Here’s what I’m offering. I know you want it – so here it is in full daylight for all to see.”

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