Gaming The Ethics Of Social Media

Is gaming the New York Times bestseller list smart or not?

by Jason Falls |

You will know you’ve graduated beyond the superficiality of social media marketing when you shed the “social media” label from your thinking. Certainly, I’ve built a nice reputation by talking a lot about social media in the last few years. But social media is a small part of what will drive customers to buy or try, think or say.

In our book, No Bullshit Social Media, Erik Deckers and I playfully talk about the hippies and tree-huggers — the social media purists — who think social media success is best measured by how warm and fuzzy your warm and fuzzies are, and how many times you get to sing “Kumbaya” with your customers. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with warm and fuzzy or “Kumbaya,” but neither make social media marketing successful.

Another thing the purists are married to is an unrealistic ethical positioning. For instance, instead of embracing advertising as an integral part of a marketing plan, they tend to insult it as if ads are not effective at all. They call email marketers spammers and look down their noses at people who still spend money on Pay-Per-Click and online media campaigns.

And god forbid you actually take out an ad on Facebook?! Sacrilege.

At the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s conference in Las Vegas last week, B.J. Mendelson, author of Social Media is Bullshit, and Dave Kerpen, author of Likable Socia Media, had a debate over whether or not social media was, indeed, bullshit. In the discussion it surfaced that some authors, including Kerpen, had achieved New York Times Bestseller status by paying a public relations firm to buy the book in bulk and accordance with known data points for the list, effectively gaming the system to get their respective books featured.

The purists were aghast, I’m sure. The notion that a book made the list through means other than honest promotion, sales and public response will turn a lovely, placid social media purist into a vehement, spite-spitting monster faster than you can hit a “Like” button.

But let’s level-set here: While it may not be something people yell to their neighbors, it is generally known among authors of business books that the NYT Bestseller list is game-able. There are PR firms that openly sell the service of engineering such feats. There are concentrated, generally week-long, promotions upon launch that hopefully coincide with Amazon’s pre-orders posting to BookScan, add in some strategic bulk purchases in various markets and tah-da! Best-seller.

While not something some authors want to participate in from either a cost or ethics perspective, it’s there, it happens and while it may not be 100% fair, I dare you to find a list anywhere that is. If an algorithm goes into producing it, it can and will be gamed, particularly if someone’s income or ego depends on said lists.

The only tragedies exist in knowing the publishers themselves never invested the time or energy to figure out how to game the system to their advantage, and the New York Times doesn’t better police the practice.

Sure, there’s an ethical question at play for the author. You’d better be transparent about the activity (to my knowledge, Kerpen has been) but some will discredit you for trying it in the first place. Others will take the high road, but if someone approached you tomorrow and said, “For $12,000, I can create data points that will drive a 15% increase in sales to your business,” you’d pull out the check book if the math was right. A book on the best-seller list means higher speaking fees, more book sales, higher advances for the next book and the like.

We’re in the business of making our products look good. Gaming that list makes the product (book or author) look good. From a marketing perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

Mendelson takes advantage of this in his argument. If gaming the system gets your book on the best-seller list, then you didn’t sell it using social media like you claim. And if there are any such authors out there fooling themselves or their audiences into thinking that social media is the only way they built themselves and their business, then Mendelson is right to call them out.

But I don’t think we should get hung up on whether or not social media contributed X or Y percent to an author’s sales, a business’s profits or the growth of a brand. We are marketers, not social media marketers. If it takes a direct mail piece, an ad campaign or a public relations push to get eyeballs on our product, service or marketing; if it takes something not defined as social media to help our social media work; then it is responsible for us to pursue it.

We are not serving our brands or businesses by making our social media work. We are serving our brands and businesses by making our marketing work.

And that often takes more than one tactic or channel.

Note: I have never participated in gaming any system, that I know of, including trying to engineer either of my books to any best-seller list. Just a personal choice to date. It’s certainly something I might consider down the road, however. 


About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).