Should I Pay to Promote Myself Online?

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 29 March 2012 |

You have a creative product to offer the world. You know it’s good. But you face a huge uphill battle alerting mass attention to your work. You could plug yourself on the forums and most likely get accused of spam, or plod around feigning interest in a load of blogs which bore you to death in the hope of enticing the blogosphere, or painstakingly build up a big following on the social media sites, or set up your own website and spend literally months getting to grips with SEO (search engine optimisation)… It’s a hell of a lot of effort, and for many creatively-inclined people, no fun at all.

Alternatively, you could pay someone to promote your work for you. It looks like the answer. Advertising or promotion of your work online comes in a huge range of options, from sizeable and expensive pictorial or flash ads on well-visited websites, down to individual links to your work on small blogs or networking sites, which can cost what seems quite a small sum for a big quota of links…

Will it work? Well, it must do, mustn’t it? I mean, people wouldn’t offer these promotional services if they weren’t effective. Would they?…

Ummm, no and yes. That is; no – it doesn’t inevitably work, and yes – people would, will and do offer these services, whether they’re the remotest bit of use or not. I want to start with an anecdote which might initially look irrelevant, but as you’ll see, it gives a great insight into how much less effective than expected online promotions can be…

This Skanksta virtual organ was initially downloadable only via Pay With a Tweet. But did the promo work?

A while back I actually tried an experiment with a service called Pay With a Tweet. Pay With a Tweet is typically used as an addition to the download process when you’re giving away freebies. In my case, the freebies were virtual musical instruments, for the VST recording environment. Pay With a Tweet stands between your download link and your free content, and prevents the would-be downloader from accessing the freebie until they’ve posted a promotional message either via their Twitter account, or their Facebook account. The idea is that word of your offering spreads much more quickly, because downloaders are essentially forced to publicise it for you.

Obviously, you have to have something people are pretty desperate to get their hands on in order for the system to even stand a chance of working. Otherwise, visitors will conclude that it’s just not worth the hassle. But my virtual instruments had already proved to have pulling power, so it was a viable option. I did have strong reservations about trying Pay With a Tweet – mainly because it discriminates against anyone who isn’t prepared to agree to Twitter or Facebook’s terms. Because I wasn’t prepared to exclude such people, I added a clause which allotted one day a week to standard free downloading. Those who wanted the download immediately could get the freebie by posting a semi-automated tweet. Those who didn’t use Twitter or FB, but who still really wanted the download, would never have longer than a week to wait for a standard free option.

My experiment didn’t last long. Why? Because having downloaders spam my links onto Twitter was actually far less productive and successful than my previous publicity method. Namely, emailing one or two interested and well trusted sites with a ‘release’, asking them to post it (which in the case of freeware they’re happy to do without charge), then letting word of mouth and viral spread do the rest. I found that Pay With a Tweet significantly reduced the number of download attempts per page visit, and that big reduction in number was not even vaguely compensated for by the uptake on the Twitter and Facebook publicity. In fact, traffic from the Twitter and Facebook promos was so minimal as to fall into the category of negligible.

So, what if I’d paid for that publicity? What if, instead of using the power of my own freeware to push those links onto Twitter and Facebook, I’d simply paid a promotional service, say, £100, for a bulk quantity of links on social networking sites? Well, I’m convinced it would have been a complete waste of £100. Remember, my multi-account social networking assault was offering completely free software. That’s pretty much a no-brainer for anyone interested in making music on a PC. But even so, the uptake on the promos was very poor indeed.

So what if I’d instead been trying to sell a book? Or trying to get people to listen to an unknown band? In other words – what if I’d been offering something people are typically far less inclined to countenance as a valid use of their money or time? Would there have been any uptake at all? I genuinely don’t think there would. I’ve seen and closely monitored how viral free software is on the web under its own steam, and my estimate would be that it’s hundreds of times more powerful in attracting attention than unknown creative writing or music.

What I obviously don’t know is how big the Twitter or FB accounts of my Pay With A Tweet downloaders were. Or what proportion of their friends/followers shared their interest in virtual musical instruments. But that's exactly the problem with so many of the smaller online promotions. You don't really know the parameters. A service might be promising you 500 links, but those 500 links may only be seen and noticed by as few as ten people in all. It depends where and how the links are published.

As an indication of how useless some links are, one of my blogs now has over 44,000 backlinks on Wordpress. Sounds infallible doesn’t it? 44,000 links. How can that fail to bring you traffic?… Well, it does fail. That blog gets one or two direct referrals a week from WordPress. The real traffic either comes from regular visitors or the search engines. I’m sure those 44,000 links help persuade Google that the blog’s worth visiting, but in themselves, as a direct means of referral, they’re next to useless. Before I started this article, I could have said to you: “I’ll give you 44,000 links to your content, for £50.” You may well have seriously considered it. It sounds like a bargain. But it doesn’t actually do anything. It’s just bits of HTML sitting around on the web. Most days, not a single human being will click those links. They don’t promote anything. They’re impotent.

Webmaster Tools tells me my blog has 44,262 WordPress backlinks. If I'm lucky, one or two people will visit my blog directly via that vast network of links in the course of a week.

Moving onto bigger and more visible promotions, you might expect things to significantly improve. They don’t. Not much, anyway. Even some of the expensive promotions only occupy a fraction of a single web page. The majority of the page is taken up by content which does not reference your work at all. It’s not at all like a TV ad, where the viewer is presented with a full-screen, coordinated assault on the senses and is forced to assimilate the information because there’s nothing else to see or hear.

I’ll leave the statistical analysis to a forum administrator I saw posting on a help board quite recently. On his forum, the typical uptake on highly visible dedicated promos was about 0.2%. That’s two visitors in a thousand. And that’s the number who are interested enough to investigate – not the number who actually buy or subscribe to the products, which I'd imagine would be markedly fewer.

In the big league, there’s no doubt that online promotions can work and pay big dividends. But smaller, creative people tend to be exploited by online promotion schemes, which, commonly, are hopelessly unrealistic and merely take advantage of the client’s naïvety.

Some typical ways to waste money promoting yourself online would, in my opinion, include…

Paying social networking or blogging sites to promote you directly, such as with Tumblr’s Highlight feature, or the paid StumbleUpon service recommended by

Paying for followers on Twitter or other social networking sites. Never confuse followers with attention – attention cannot be bought on the web. And remember that no service which professes to get you followers will be doing anything you can’t do yourself for free. Unless they’re giving you fake (and therefore pointless) followers from a network of accounts they themselves have set up or ‘bought in’, they’ll just be churning up followers by following for follow-backs. It's cheaper and probably a lot more reliable to do that yourself. There's more on Twitter and churning up followers here.

Paying ‘blog directories’ to get you blog traffic. Even if these directories do get you traffic, it’ll almost invariably be other bloggers (more of whom you could probably attract for free by following/liking and/or blog commenting). Non-bloggers don’t usually search blog directories for content. They don’t even know they’re there. They find their content using Google.

Paying intermediaries to “pitch your music to record company execs”. How many famous bands or artistes, when asked how they got started, say: “Well, we paid some online site to play our tracks to a record company, and the record company gave us a deal.”?… I rest my case.

Paying ‘vanity publishers’ to print, release and promote a book you’ve written.

The above is only a snapshot of the many supposed promotional ‘opportunities’ available in the online world, which are, as I see it, almost certain to be of no real benefit to you whatsoever. Additionally, anyone who professes to be ‘searching’ for writers, artists, musicians, models or similar should be completely ignored. No one has to ‘search’ for any of the above, because the professions are immensely desirable, and any real opportunities are over-subscribed by thousands, sometimes even millions of percent.

The bottom line is that people are not machines, and THEY WILL NOT RESPOND TO A PROMOTION SIMPLY BECAUSE IT’S THERE. The promotion has to be very clever to really pay for itself. Big businesses spend ridiculous amounts of money researching what entices people to respond to a promotion, and even then, the vast, vast majority of those who encounter that promotion still don’t respond.

Consider the TV shopping channels. Thousands and thousands of viewers watching, and some of the most powerful sales tactics you’ll see anywhere in modern business. And yet so often they still struggle to get a meagre five viewers to pick up their phones and pledge to buy what’s being sold. They’re the professionals, with the full force of television at their disposal, and that’s the best they can do. What chance do us creative and really not very business-savvy individuals have if we buy a set of innocuous and virtually invisible links, in places where no one’s really bothering to look?

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.