What Is “Edgy” Marketing, Anyway, And Why Does It Disgust Us?

Companies have been trying and failing at “edgy marketing” since before 2009, and the concept itself peaked in popularity somewhere around 2013. If you run a search query on the very concept of edgy marketing, you’re returned twice as many failures as you are successes. So why is it that “edginess” still intrudes upon our marketing content? It would seem as though while creating edgy content died out, creating “content with edge” did not.

But it should. It really, really should.

dictionary-698538_1280A Matter of Definition: Let’s Define “Edgy”

What is edgy, anyway? Today, it’s considered some sort of “secret sauce” that you just layer onto something to make it punchier, brighter and more exciting. “Edgy” can mean almost anything to a client. Shorter. Bolder. Livelier. Funnier. Angrier.

Basically, just better. In fact, when most clients say they want their copy to be edgier, what they’re really saying is that it’s boring right now. And that could be for any number of things that have nothing to do with its Edge Factor.

But let’s define what edge really means to a marketer. Edge is a combination of things: silly, irreverent, blunt and direct. An edgy campaign doesn’t necessarily have to be an offensive campaign, but many are “mainstream” offensive: being a little rude to the customer, being blunt about profit goals or being overly obvious about a product’s marketing. Most of the problems with edgy marketing occur when the marketers cross too firmly over to “offensive.”

bubble-19329_1280Edgy is Easy — Facts are Hard

Edgy marketing is appealing because it’s usually easy. It appeals to our baser needs. Instead of creating a 6,000 word white paper about olfactory instincts and hormones, you can just create a splash page that says “You Smell! Buy Our Soap!”

But to backtrack on that, creating just any edgy marketing campaign is easy — creating a good one is very hard. And that’s why it fell out of favor almost as quickly as it came into it.

A trend with a rise and fall similar to clickbait, edgy marketing really only worked when it was unique and new. Once the market became absolutely inundated with edgy, bizarre and offensive ads, the consumer started turning away. The whole appeal of edgy advertising was that advertisers were saying things that advertisers weren’t supposed to say. Once everyone was doing it, what was the point?

It was no longer a small marketing rebellion; it was the status quo.

human-733478_1280A Generation That’s Out-of-Touch With Itself

You always run into problems when marketers try to appeal to a demographic that they can’t possibly relate to or understand. But what if they can’t understand their own demographic? Not much can really be said about “millennials” as a whole — this generation is a diverse group that’s mostly typified by its sheer terror of taking out loans and credit.

And for some reason when you’re wearing the marketing hat, everything just goes haywire. You can excuse it when it’s large advertising agencies; it’s people who are ten, twenty or thirty years older than the focus group. But when people are trying to advertise to their peers and wildly hitting off mark — what’s going on?

Well, that’s a case of client blindness: when you focus so much on what the client is thinking and feeling that you forget that the client may be very much like yourself. You’re thinking too much about “Well, these guys will find it funny,” and not asking yourself “Wait — do I find this funny?”

And that’s a real problem. The best content creators are often the ones who are able to really connect in an honest and open way to their clients. Not the ones who are just looking for a cheap emotional appeal.

accidental-slip-542551_1280But Let’s Get Back to the Epic Fails

You can and should cringe a little. In fact, you can also cringe at the word cringe, or worst yet, cringeworthy. We’ve explained why edgy marketing is still popular and why it fails, but not why it’s so absolutely disgusting when it does. In fact, it’s almost a little embarrassing.

You feel a little embarrassed for them.

An edgy campaign that fails has misunderstood the product’s role in your life so significantly that it’s just sad. They think that their service is so special that you would allow them to abuse you (“you’re dumb if you don’t drink this!”), or that you’re so stupid that you’ll buy into an obvious ploy (“drink this, it doesn’t totally suck”). They’ve completely misinterpreted you. 

And that’s like, the one job they had.

And sometimes it’s a little too spot on. Edgy advertising targets the immature. And we were all immature once. So, for those who have matured, it only reminds us of a time when we might have bought into that lazy advertising and been proud to do it. The last thing you want to do, as a marketer, is to trigger memories of awkward high school years. Unless you’re selling something to awkward high school people.

Most companies today don’t set out with the goal of creating an “edgy” campaign, they simply keep trying to add “edge” to their content to create something more compelling. But really, all that does is dumb the content down: it elevates base, emotional appeals, while reducing actual value. If balance is lost, the content loses its integrity.

Consider all of the companies that have tried and failed at “edgy marketing” a cautionary tale; trying to toe the line between memorable and offensive usually isn’t worth the trouble. That doesn’t mean that your content shouldn’t have personality, but that personality doesn’t have to come at the cost of respect for your audience.

Four Ways Digital Marketers Are Distracting From Their Own Content

Your content is important, but you palso have a lot of other things going on. Marketing goals, affiliate advertising, content promotions — all of these things may be competing separately for your user’s attention. And when too much is going on at once, the actual goal of your site and your content could get lost in the shuffle. Some of the strategies web marketers are using today to grab their user’s attention may actually be actively working against them.

pollMid-Content Prompts

Have you ever been asked to fill out a poll to reveal a website’s content? Even worse, to reveal the latter half of an article that you were already reading? More to the point: Did you even answer the question honestly? Not only is this method of data collection aggravating, it’s also worse than useless. Most people will just mindlessly click buttons in an effort to get the poll off their screen. Some will undoubtedly just back out of the page entirely out of irritation. Any monetization provided by this method is probably negligible when taking the hit to user engagement into account.

You might also wonder how this is useful at all — after all, it’s not like the website has any of your demographic information. Well, that’s where a more unsavory element comes in. The vast majority of these polls are conducted as part of a monetization scheme from Google Consumer Reports. In other words, they don’t need demographic data because they already have it — through Google. And Google likely doesn’t care that their data is fuzzed because they probably take into account extreme margins for error. Which they can do, because of their extraordinarily large reach and sample size.

hrefExtraneous Links

In the early days of search engine optimization, outbound links were discouraged entirely. Anything that led a visitor out of your site was discouraged, except for ads. Many webmasters opened necessary outbound links in new windows — weirdly, HubSpot was still suggesting this method in 2012 even though users absolutely abhor it. Regardless, that’s all changed. Today, marketers focus on links with high authority, hoping that sending users to high authority websites will increase their own reputation and will provide a better experience for the user. But extraneous and excessive links can still hurt, if only by sending the user somewhere else entirely when they’re still in the middle of consuming your content.

Some marketers attempt to avoid this issue by adding sources at the bottom of their page rather than linking them naturally within the text. But this method can backfire, too. A curious reader won’t continue reading the article; they will instead scroll down and click on the source link. Having done this, they may or may not resume reading from where they were. They may not even be able to find where they left off. Either way, it’s usually best to limit links to one or two per two hundred words.

playvideoAutomatically Playing Videos

Videos are great. Video advertising is great. But video advertising can be harmful if it’s not expected. And it can be even worse if it’s unwanted. The theory behind starting a video automatically is that it grabs the user’s attention, but it is far more likely that it will lead them to closing the window and looking for a less obtrusive link. This is especially true if the video that automatically plays has nothing to do with the content that they’re looking for, or if the video plays too loud.

Some demographics do respond well to an automatically playing video, even if it is a fairly narrow spectrum. But even so, you should at very least make it easy for a user to shut it off. Otherwise they might try, fail and leave. Triggering the video through some action, such as by scrolling down, can also reduce the “irritation” effect of an automatically playing video; at that point, the user is at least certain to be focusing on the content.

wordsworstConfusing UI Elements

Advertisers love packing things into small spaces. After all, you only have a certain amount of time to capture the interest of the user. So why not just throw everything at the screen and see what sticks? But white space is extremely important. A cluttered design with too much going on at once will almost always distract the reader. It may even lead to them failing to convert or being unable to find essential elements such as social sharing buttons. An extremely difficult to navigate user interface could even lead a reader to abandoning the site entirely.

It can be tempting to get clever with website design in order to attract attention. And it does work, to some extent — though there are some trends that need to go. But your content always needs to come first.

There’s really just one golden rule: let the reader read. If the user can’t find the information they want, they’re going to get frustrated and leave. You should always avoid tactics that are going to get in the way of content consumption. A poll is fine — at the end of an article. A video is fine — if the user has the option to play it on their own. Links are great if they don’t get overwhelming and UI elements should always support rather than obfuscate content.