The Perils of Exploiting Pop Culture to Sell Unrelated Things Online

Steve: “Guys. GUYS!  I’ve got it. The perfect piece of link bait for 2013!  Okay, okay so you know how everyone will be talking about the Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4 this Holiday season?  What if we did an infographic that explores the personality differences between an Xbox and a PS4 gamer?  It’ll be totally rad and super-timely!  We’ll have design make some funny doodles of stereotypical Xboxers and we’ll give statistics on how much each gives to charity and how likely they are to have children and what kind of cars they drive... and...”

Sarah: “Steve...”

Steve: [breathless] “What?!”

Sarah: “Steve, we sell home insurance.”

If we’re honest with ourselves I think most online marketers have been guilty of the same thoughts that Steve had above.  It’s a tale as old as advertising: Companies understandably want to hop on the pop-culture train to money-town.  In the offline world corporations pay celebrities to endorse their products or feature Pokemon toys in kid’s meals believing that the mere association of the two unrelated brands will turn into mutually beneficial hype.

Pop-culture exploitation online isn’t so different.  In fact it’s considerably more prevalent as the barriers to entry are low and the potential successes are quite high.  You’re familiar with the content I’m alluding to: Guides, Infographics and Blog Posts on your favorite TV shows, movies, and franchises written by a carpet cleaning service business or hosted on a car insurance company blog.  Content that strains with every fiber of its being to be relevant to both the pop culture icon it’s highlighting as well as the completely irrelevant business interest of the author.

Double Facepalm

So while the idea of alluding to a popular social icon in an effort to sell unrelated things online isn’t always a bad one, I’ve a few tips that might help you avoid the double facepalm (see above).

While I haven’t done any actual consumer research on the matter I feel confident in placing a figure of roughly “96.2% shit” on the overall quality of these pieces with a standard deviation of plus or minus 1.3% shit.  Most fans of this or that are genuinely insulted by poorly crafted link-bait in any form let alone content that trods upon the sacred realms of the likes of Middle Earth or Westeros.  Even non-fans can usually see the attempt as foolish and reaching from a mile away.  These are the people who will be sharing and linking to your content.

This isn’t to say that pop-culture referential content can’t be done well.  I believe that it can. The following are some of the pitfalls to consider before creating a piece of content targeted at one fanbase or another.

Keep it relevant

This one may be the most difficult to execute but it’s also the most important. If your concept strains too much for relevance the entire idea, however polished, will end up feeling forced and disingenuous.  Think long and hard about a way that will actually work for your niche.  Selling knives?  A guide to the daggers of Middle Earth makes some real sense.  Selling office equipment?  That dagger guide doesn’t really work, does it?  You’re much more likely to get links from those fan blogs if you’re on topic and an authority figure on the subject you’re dabbling in.

I realize that some niches are more difficult than others but it may just mean you’ll need to drop the idea of hitting up “Lord of the Rings” all together.  Office equipment, eh?  Sure, The Hobbit is coming out this season but couldn’t you find a bit more relevance with a retrospective of “The Office” or a database of every “That’s What She Said” moment on the show?  Why not order up a 3D printer and give away some pop-culture nick nack templates?

Regardless of the search volume around “The Avengers’ or ‘Justin Bieber’ you’ll catch more links and shares by coming up with a relevant piece, anyway.  And hey, if it’s super-relevant you might even get some qualified, converting visitors out of the deal.

Timing Timing Timing

Timing_is_everything38So you’ve come up with the perfect segway into pop culture for your brand.  You’re still going to need to decide when to launch this thing.  Generally I’d say sooner is better than later in a given hype-cycle.  Other companies may be thinking about creating similar content and you definitely don’t want to come out after them.  Plus the beginning or premiere of a movie, show or book series is usually the height of it’s popularity.  Webmasters also weary of companies contacting them to ”let them know“ about their latest content push.  But every situation is different so take some time to try and determine the optimal launch date for your piece.  Be ready early so that you can make changes with the winds of pop.

”What X Taught me about Y“

Just don’t.  It rarely works well and at this point it’s about as original as a Top Ten list.  I think Samuel Hulick puts it best.

Make sure it hasn’t been done before

Me too, me too!“  That’s what you sound like right now.  Sure, that’s exactly what you’re thinking when you decided to undertake this endeavor but you needn’t let everyone else know that.  At the very least search around to make sure this idea hasn’t been done before.  ”A guide to the houses of Game of Thrones“ HAS been done before.  Please, no more.  Even if you end up creating something marginally better you won’t have as much luck with editors who’ve already been pitched on this concept a time or two.

The only thing worse than a lame idea is a lame idea done multiple times.  Not to say that the above Game of Thrones guides are ”lame“.  But by the 4th or 5th iteration almost no amount of spin on the concept could get me to link.

Not familiar with the subject matter yourself? Find someone who is!

Not familiar with Harry Potter?  Why are you developing content around it?  Find someone on your staff who can advise.  Or better still reach out to influential fan bloggers (ego bait, links!) for input or pay them to proofread the document (most will probably do this freely and willingly).  If the piece is created by a marketing/sales team with no love or in-depth knowledge of the subject matter— it will show... in a bad way.  If you’re struggling to find an expert you could also go more broad with your pop culture references with a classy tool like this TV series recommendation engine.


You will never rank for [POP CULTURE KEYWORD]

Some marketers seem to be under the impression that they’ll come up in Google for ”Batman“ or ”SpongeBob SquarePants“ if they run a successful campaign.  While it’s possible that you’ll rank for some long-tail, low volume terms, your ‘digital marketing blog’ will never rank for ‘Captain America’.  And in the end that traffic won’t convert anyhow (see below) so you’ll mostly just be wasting your own bandwidth and artificially lowering your site-wide conversion rate.

Link Relevancy Matters

irrelevancyThere’s some debate in the SEO community over whether Google considers ”link relevancy“ as a ranking factor.  I, for one, stand firmly in the ”Hell yes it does“ camp.  Why would a link from ”“ to ”“ be worth as much as a link from ”“ to ”“?  Even if all domain authorities are equal surely Google understands something about the linking page and its content.  If not, Google: I’m officially patenting ”link relevance as a ranking factor“ today.  Contact me for details.

But aside from the above point link relevancy matters for several, proveable reasons as well.  I mentioned convertible traffic in the previous item (need I say more?).  Expanding upon that though you’re talking about potential new customers, influencers, readers and brand loyalists who may visit your site again in the future if the link handover is perfectly relevant.

Pop-culture oriented or not your goal should be to create content that snaps up relevant links.

In the End: It Better Be Fu$ing Cool

220px-Cool_as_Ice_posterWhen all is said and done sometimes pure epicness can overcome any or all of the above. Before you launch make sure that you’re not the only person or set of persons that think that your new thing is cool.  Show it to impartial sources.  Reach out to potential linkers and ask them if they’d be willing to share something like what you’re creating.  You could even bring them into the development process and assure a link from them and their network of friendly, on-topic blogs.

Everyone is out there making killer content centered around pop culture these days.  From Game of Thrones to Bravo Housewives to Star Trek. Today you need to be truly awesome to stand out.

I hope some of the above is helpful for those looking to take advantage of the unpredictable waves of cultural sensation.

Have something to add?  An example of good or bad content?  Or maybe you just want to disagree with any of the above.   Feel free to leave me a comment below and I’ll respond in kind.

Jacob Klein

Jacob Klein

Jacob spent the first 18 years of his life in the Columbia River basin of Washington State. In order to escape the confines of this rural existence he developed a healthy love affair with technology, especially preferring to explore the outside...   read more

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  1. Good post, Jacob. I guess the general theme is relevancy. I can't say I've tried to tap into pop culture that much, though I did once write a blog around X Factor with modest results.

    reply >
    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      Yeah I think part of the problem is that "bad stuff CAN work" sometimes. It just encourages others to follow suit or continue what they're doing.

      I guess I'd just argue that your campaign would be even MORE successful by sticking to more relevant topics and appearing genuine.

  2. "Before you launch make sure that you’re not the only person or set of persons that think that your new thing is cool. " I wrote a piece and made a reference to Scott Bakula and the TV show Quantum Leap , a person on our staff read it and asked if Quantum Leaping was a real thing.... I realized my reference was not only not clear enough but also extraordinarily dated. That said, nice post Jacob !

    reply >
    • Haha, that's a funny story.

      Some of those throwback references would actually work great but I think they'd need to be back in the news again to work well. For example using Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might work if a new movie was on the horizon. But above all you'd need them to be relevant (pizza or sewer-drainage or martial arts training might make sense for TMNT).

      Maybe they'll make a Quantum leap movie some day. Don't throw that blog post away just yet!

      Thanks for the reply.

  3. Relevancy is important for sure, but every now and then you need to throw in some pop culture to show some of your demographics you keep up with more than just your business or organization. But don't go crazy with this.

    reply >
    • Don't get me wrong I think the content can "stretch" a tiny bit to get there. But the more you strain for relevancy the more you need to really nail that final "In the End..." tip I mention above.

  4. Trenton Erker

    I love the meme and think you're right on with in you "What X taught me about Y" section. I see way too many top "10 lists/10 things you need to know about" and they tend to be just as generic as the title haha.

    reply >
  5. Going to totally agree with 90% of the above Jacob (me too, me too!) - but I'd also say that the traffic that comes from talking about what your target market is interested in is worth the question marks coming from link relevancy.

    Nobody wants to read about office equipment, like you say; but people looking to buy office equipment are interested in things other than staplers. I would be writing content on things like productivity; technology; even Mad Men, as long as it's relevant to the client's activity. I think the issue with relevancy comes from sites that publish about Game of Thrones and have a completely different demographic.

    You see this tactic from Distilled all the time (YouTube business hub, incredible work). How much rebranding of clients is involved when you guys do cool stuff like that? Or do you try to work around the client's current strategy (or lack of)?

    reply >
    • Sounds like you have the right mentality, Stephen.

      I think you need to look at the demographics of your audience and then the demographics "once-removed" of those who might enter your funnel via the sites that might link to your 'thing'.

      As you say (and I say above) the userbase doesn't have to match up 1:1 but you'll have more success as you approach that ratio.

  6. I completely agree that relevancy is so important. If your industry does not involve pop culture I think you should not be using pop culture references. I personally do not even try to use pop culture in my work. Great post, Thanks for sharing.

    reply >
    • Haha well I wouldn't put it so black-and-whitely as that but at the end of the day it's a judgement call. Does it pass the sniff test from someone who isn't on your staff? Does it feel like a weak promo piece that's going to offend the fans who would actually be linking to you?

      But yes sometimes you might just have to think of another idea and let the pop-culture train roll on by.

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