Poisoning the wells

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Today I want to look at a tactic from ancient warfare that’s still in use today: poisoning the wells. In earliest times, to deny an incoming enemy the ability to survive and thrive in an area, a defensive tactics known as poisoning the wells would be used. Corpses (ideally those of people or animals that died of communicable diseases) would be thrown into wells, making them unsafe to use for a long time. At first, this might seem like an act of spite, but it’s an effective way to slow down an enemy, especially in an age before water purification technology or where such technology isn’t available.

wishing well filled with garbage and grass and whatnot

Think about what it takes to purify a well contaminated with corpses. In order to destroy the organic material, you’d effectively need to boil the water in it and destroy all of the contaminants in it, or bury it and dig another one in an alternate location not too close to the poisoned one. Even in modern times, you’d have to use intensive filtering or radiological purification methods to eliminate any contaminants. It’s far more difficult to clean a poisoned well than it is to poison it.

The same thing can occur in marketing and sales. I had a visit recently from an old-school door to door salesman who specialized in selling vacuum cleaners. He did such a bad job selling, using every high pressure tactic in the book, misrepresenting his product every way possible in order to sell it quickly and move on to the next house, that he effectively poisoned the well, creating such a bad impression of his product and his brand that I’d certainly never consider buying it. So bad was he, however, that he poisoned the well for any other salesperson who might be working door-to-door; the chances of me even bothering to answer the door are now close to zero. He managed to poison the well for everyone, not just him and his brand.

This is what we’re facing in the digital marketing space. Look at how many people are publishing articles, blog posts, editorial, and other commentary about how social media is a giant scam, a scheme, a shell game, and little more than a high school popularity contest as a consequence of badly behaving marketers. So many people are doing such a poor job of representing the space that they’re poisoning the well for everyone else. 

Just as it takes a  very long time to recover a poisoned well, so does it take a very long time to re-earn the trust of a prospective customer after they’ve been burned by bad marketing and sales, no matter the product line. What’s troubling in the digital space is that as marketing methods become popular and homogenized, the ability to “dig a new well elsewhere” becomes severely limited.

Many, many practitioners in the SEO world felt the effects of their unethical peers and SEO transformed in a short time from being known as an effective marketing method to becoming one of the sleaziest forms of digital marketing. SEO “experts” cropped up everywhere and there was no way to tell if you were working with one who was legitimate or just a conman.

Social media has reached this point now, with the number of social media experts doing exactly the same thing, with exactly the same consequences to the profession as a whole. That well is being poisoned, and the only options available to practitioners are to find ever-diminishing new customers or to be something else. (hence the number of folks who have transitioned to digital marketers, integrated marketers, etc.)

Is there a solution to the wells being poisoned? The only antidote that I’ve found in the years I’ve been doing this stuff is to cultivate your own audience, your own platform, to become trusted above and beyond whatever the technology or method of the day is, so that in essence your personal name and brand override whatever concerns your audience might have about other practitioners in your space. I’ve worked in SEO, in email marketing, in social media, etc. for years, and in the end, I hope that to you, whatever tools we’re working with, you’ve come to trust my name as being reasonably reliable.

That’s the only antidote I’ve found to well poisoning by others. Be that trusted resource, that name that transcends the flavor of the day, and guard your own well jealously, from others and from your own impulses or short-term needs.

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One response to “Poisoning the wells”

  1. Great point Christopher and I love your analogy. This is true of many professions and mechanisms with social media being a very pervasive one. Ultimately our personal brand and authenticity are what’s left to us to distinguish ourselves and the value we bring to the world.

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