The Evolution Of Submission Marketing

by Jason Falls |

The first social media conference I ever attended was a two-day festival on how to game Digg. Okay, it wasn’t officially advertised as such, but it seemed like every discussion on- or off-stage circled around to how one could accumulate enough votes to get on the front page and crash your website’s servers from the impending explosion of traffic. Granted, this was 2007 and “social media marketing” meant getting on the front page of Digg.

For several months after, I played on submission sites (known then as “social news”) trying to figure out the secrets and ins and outs. What I learned — or at least convinced myself of — was that while these communities were supposed to be news filters for the average user, they were essentially overrun with black hatters and paid submitters who ruined the purpose. The sites were supposed to be where one could submit and then vote for the top stories of the day along with other users so the site’s front page would become a democratically chosen top stories listing. Instead, they were about 50 percent that and 50 percent stories that someone gamed the algorithm to get their site or client’s site in the coveted top 10.

Brent Csutoras illustrates how to Digg
Image by Jason Falls via Flickr

Just like Google’s search algorithm, the comparison code that dictated what stories ranked where on sites like Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, Mixx and more was susceptible to manipulation. For every page rank 7 back link I can proactively seek through PR or linkbuilding techniques, I can also ask 50-60 people to go thumb-up my post at the right times after my submission to better my chances of pay dirt.

Over the years (nay, months), paid submitters became the ace-in-the-hole for some digital marketers. Whether you were an ad/pr guy or gal trying to impress your client with pageviews and unique visitors or an SEO hack hoping to engineer some cheap bookmarks or even lucky backlinks, finding a top influencer on the social news sites who would submit your content for a fee was the dark secret of the web.

I say dark secret because no paid submitters would admit to doing it for fear the communities they submitted to would excommunicate them. Other top submitters would swear it wasn’t happening, but were mostly full of shit, ignorant or both. But finding a submitter to help you was nearly impossible. Perhaps being a straight-shooter and honest to a fault worked against me, but I flat asked six of the such animals one simple question, “How much?” and got the run around. I knew they were doing it, but I suppose they thought I would out them. (For the record, I wouldn’t. I’m honest, but I’m also loyal and consider that a breech of integrity.)

A few months later, mid-2009 if you will, there then became some level of acceptance this was happening. While identification of the newly coined, “submission marketers,” was still under the table, if you asked someone in the know, they could hook you up with someone to help. But the submitters were smart. They would only do it if they had some sort of control or input into your content and if they thought the content was strong enough on its own to warrant submitting and voting.

It was almost legit.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to the front page. People started realizing one of the core usefulness features of Twitter: If you followed the right people, you could find good content.

Sure, the social news sites still have a leg up on how they aggregate and present information. Twitter can be a cacophony of noise if you don’t know where to look. But sharing content today has become social capital, not capital capital. Can you trust the old Diggers for good content? If your tastes match theirs, sure. But the secret voting circles, paid submitters and system gaming behind the scenes that makes the hat many people wear there at least gray, if not black. Follow the right person on Twitter, Facebook, or even a good Tumblr or Posterous blog and you’ve got great content filtration with less chance of paid placement. And because the ethical discussions around social media matured (and the FTC intervened), when you do have paid placement, you have disclosure.

Don’t think at some point the FTC isn’t going to level their sights on paid social news submitters. All you “top Diggers” out there should think that through.

While I don’t think Digg and its ilk are going away, I think there’s something to be said for the fact that, at least according to Compete.com, Digg’s traffic is down almost 2 million unique visitors per month since this time last year. While it is unfair to compare Digg to Twitter, the microblogging site doesn’t have the same trending data. And the common thread of why people use Twitter has emerged to include at or near the top: to find value and content in other people’s Tweets.

So has submission marketing evolved to the point that the genuine folks just build followings on Twitter and the pay for play kids still know who Kevin Rose is? Will the submission sites continue to gradually lose steam as people find more relevant content from true friends on networks build more on trust, not good headline writing?

I’m thinking so. You?

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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).