Trolls, huh. What are they good for?

15 Aug 2017  |  Geoff Copps 
Trolls, huh. What are they good for?

As crazy as it seems, there are valuable marketing lessons to be learned from the world of internet trolling, writes Geoff Copps

We need to talk about trolling.

Last week a colleague of mine, M, posted an article on LinkedIn. The piece was generous-spirited, well-intentioned. It was picked up in the way these things are, and disseminated across the world via the virtual connections within and beyond M’s personal network.

The next day M came over to my desk. Together we reviewed the comments the article had garnered.

The piece was instantly popular and had picked up a large following overnight. Most of the comments were friendly and supportive. There were, though, some stinkers.

These included personal addresses (‘you are a hack’, ‘time to get over yourself’) and stock-phrase insults (‘what a load of baloney’). They included jibes issued in a trumped-up language designed to be provocative ('feminism is cancer'). Some comments were hurtful; others were frankly baffling. M was variously accused of being a ‘Pyjama Boy’ (?) and ‘a dangerous ideologue’ participating in ‘a toxic cult’.

In the mix there were also exclamations of apparently genuine dismay (‘Oh dear lord’) and feeling (often delivered in a SHOUTY tone). The article’s supporters also demonstrated this rich capacity for emotion.

I recount this anecdote not by way of complaint. M is well capable of taking care of himself. Nor do I wish to make light of other cases in which trolls have been guilty of serious and harmful abuse (as I write I see Mary Beard is getting another pasting from strangers for her views on Roman Britain).

But perhaps this incident can in some small way be instructive.

Most of the literature on ‘trolling’ focuses on the real headline-makers: those anonymous wind-up merchants who hound others from platform to platform, in a kind of internet blood sport.

That’s not how it is in this case. In the above example, these people - the ones doing the trolling - weren't anonymous. They used their real names and had accessible professional profiles on the platform. They were normal people. It was just what was flowing from their typing fingers that at times made them seem unhinged.

One of the things you will notice about the online comments from this particular species of troll is the conspicuous errors. Take this example, grabbed directly from beneath M’s article:

“You got called.out [sic] on bogus information your [sic] either knew was BS and peddled to push your agenda... or you were to [sic] incompetent to check your data before publishing. Dont [sic] care either way because it was bogus data and the readers need to be away [sic] of it.”

Nearly all trolling comments contain errors of this kind (try looking at random on any forum or social network). These errors are often held up as evidence of the basic stupidity of the commenter.

But rarely is this true. Look again: the errors aren’t matters of basic grammar or literacy. They usually involve little more than a missing word or misplaced punctuation mark. They seem to stem not from ignorance, but from haste or impulsiveness that causes the writer to sacrifice all thought of accuracy at the altar of voicing their opinion.

It's as if they are so overtaken by emotion, so stirred to act, that a strictly rational way of thinking fails them. They just can’t get involved quickly enough. And they almost invariably come back for more.

Now think about those last three sentences. Taken out of context, am I not describing something close to the contemporary marketing world’s idea of a model consumer?

If it tells us anything, this case of trolling highlights the strength of feeling that digital content environments can unleash. From this example two things are clear.

Firstly, people in these environments can be stirred to surprisingly intense emotions (both positive and negative). Secondly, these people are willing to engage and respond in ways in which they wouldn’t necessarily be willing in other situations - at a town hall forum, say, or around a coffee table with friends. This latter point seems to be true even for online platforms where one’s identity is easily discoverable.

These ideas cannot fail to be of interest to communications professionals. All we need to do, then, is to work out how fully to harness their potential - beyond what has so far been achieved through the efforts of digital marketers.

But, err, how?

One of the lessons I take from the industry today is that digital brand advertising does best - both commercially and in a consumer-facing sense - when it apes the formats of proven off-line media (the example of video pre-roll comes to mind). This feels like too much of a coincidence. Might it not be our own lack of imagination that is stymying the possibilities for advertising?

We need to continue to develop new approaches and formats to help fully realise the emotional potential of digital content for brands. We have seen how the fullest expressions of emotion on the internet are stimulated by issues and stories close to people’s hearts.

Tapping into such issues can be a high-risk strategy. But plenty of brands have made a good job of engaging consumers in this way (the oft-cited example of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign being the obvious example; on a not dissimilar theme, Nike’s ‘We Own The Night’ and Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ also deserve a mention).

‘Narrative strategies’ are another powerful way communicating with people in digital environments in an emotive way. Currently, many of the most ambitious and weirdly compelling stories lie outside the ambit of marketers and brands - lurking beyond the pale in hidden corners of the internet.

They surface from time to time, inspiring people to do stupid things, like flinging themselves off buildings in winged skinsuits, joining radical groups, or ranting about three-letter non-issues (JFK, UFOs, etc).

Marketers would also do well to keep an eye on developments outside the world of business. I recently attended the Postgraduate Summer Show 2017 at the Camberwell College of Arts, London, where I was treated to a range of works using VR technology. Free of commercial imperatives, artists were able to explore the full potential of these new digital platforms.

As with all steps forward, things start with a shift in mind set. In our case, this may mean reassessing how we allocate digital budgets.

In a series of studies, since 2007 Les Binet and Peter Field have made it their mission to address what they see as an imbalance in marketing budgets. Binet and Field caution against the current vogue for activity aimed solely at achieving short term ROI and delivered at the expense of brand advertising that achieves long-term sales growth.

Drawing on evidence from the UK IPA’s databank of effectiveness case studies, this summer they have reissued their clarion call to the industry, pointing out that the imbalance is now more pronounced than ever, and warning of the damage that this state of affairs could wreak on brands’ future.*

It is the internet that is largely responsible for the pivot towards sale activation over brand building measures. Yet digital marketing should not be pigeon-holed. For we have seen that the internet can do emotion. It can, by extension, do brand advertising.

The strength of feeling towards content that we see among trolls and supporters alike is a reminder of how digital marketing has far to go in the emotive brand-building space.

We can and must be more ambitious. We mustn’t obsess about tactics over narratives. We must continue to strive to unlock the emotive power of digital environments.

*Les Binet and Peter Field, 'Media in Focus - Marketing effectiveness in the digital era' (June 2017)

Geoff Copps is head of research at IPG Mediabrands UK


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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 15 Aug 2017
“3/10, must try harder. ;c)
In all seriousness though, a genuinely thought-provoking and insightful piece. The modern world involves a lot of labelling of things: "alt-right", "trolls", even "health and safety", or "politicians". And it's often used as a shortcut for things we don't like or disapprove of, to write them off and avoid having to think further or try to understand them. So we can label people as trolls as a way of saying they're right-wing, unpleasant, unintelligent, foul-mouthed etc. But as you say, they're not (always), and the peculiar dynamics of the internet encourage normal, intelligent people ("consumers") to say things online that can put them in this bucket. There's definitely a wellspring of genuine insight there for any marketer or researcher who delves more deeply into the nature of trolling.”



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