Are headlines declaring the death of things dead?

Please, please, please let it be so

July 17, 2017

What do email, podcasts, infographics, social media, TV, SEO and content marketing have in common? They are important marketing tactics that make a valuable contribution to the bottom line of millions of businesses. The truly amazing thing though, is that they manage to do this despite having been confidently declared ‘dead’ during the last few years. They have mystifying powers from beyond the grave.

There must be a lot of wannabe coroners amongst marketing and technology bloggers – because there’s no other explanation for their competitive urge to declare things deceased. As the examples above show, their track record in diagnosing that a tactic or technology has passed on is actually pretty appalling. So why do people keep doing it?

Marketing’s lemming-like love of disruption

The rise of the ‘such-and-such is dead’ headline is a flipside of marketers’ lemming-like instinct for early adoption. It’s become a survival strategy to declare undying love for any potentially disruptive technology as soon as it shows the first sign of growth: hence VR will unquestionably revolutionise storytelling, live video will be the only form of content people are interested in, chatbots will rewrite our entire experience of the internet. It doesn’t matter that relatively very few people are actually using these technologies so far. Extrapolating massive predictions from tiny sample sets is what you do to prove how forward-thinking you are.

If something new is suddenly all-important, then the logic seems to go, something older must be relatively less important. But ‘relatively less important’ doesn’t really cut it as a click-baited headline, does it? It seems so much more creative and impactful to declare something dead as a doornail and completely pointless, and then wait for the eyeballs to roll your way.

Hence TV is dead, killed by online video despite no online video ad reaching a fraction of the audience that a TV ad does. The Wall Street Journal claimed that email was in fatal decline back in 2009, because people could now communicate via social media so why would they need it? (Ironically, that piece would become the most emailed article of the day) Voice-activated personal assistants are a death sentence for mobile apps, despite the fact that, at this point, only around 0.1% of the world’s population has ever asked Alexa anything.

I enjoy a good confrontational headline as much as the next content marketer – but people seem to forget that controversy only works when you can back it up with a coherent point of view. ‘This is dead’ headlines typically don’t. All they offer are zero-sum, one-technology-to-rule-them-all views of the world that bear little relationship to reality.

Why life after death is so common for marketing platforms

Marketing innovation has a lot of nuance. Our industry doesn’t advance through hype, but through a process of hype wearing off. Once we figure out that a new technology hasn’t killed everything else, we can get on with figuring out what it actually does better than those other living and breathing technologies. It’s profile drops, but it’s very much alive – and it starts delivering properly exciting results.

If a platform or strategy hits a new challenge or a bump in the road, it doesn’t mean it’s finished – it just means we’ll evolve how we use it, almost certainly for the better. Hence SEO, social, content marketing and the rest are all delivering more value today than they arguably ever have.

Columnists raced to declare email dead following that Wall Street Journal feature because were trapped in a ‘monopoly or bust’ mentality: if something’s no longer the only way to achieve an objective, it must be on its way out. Email newsletters, of course, are now one of the most powerful marketing tactics around. They’re not the only way of sending content or brand messages to people – but as a mechanism for building a loyal base of subscribers, they’re pretty awesome.

It’s actually very rare for a marketing tactic or platform to expire. When it happens, it happens quietly, in a forgotten corner with nobody watching, when there’s nothing to be gained by writing shamelessly attention-grabbing headlines about it. When you write such a headline you are therefore, almost by definition, wrong. When people click on the headline they will see that you are wrong, that you have a tendency to get over-excited – and that your writing style isn’t very original. None of these are good things. And that’s why headlines like the one at the top of this piece have to die.