The internet marketer's guide to the apocalypse

Ian Lurie

In which I wax philosophical while discussing zombies, specialization and people who reek of cigarettes.

This town needs an asteroid. Marketers are specializing our industry to death.

Setting the stage: Stinky cigarette guy

A few years ago, a guy who reeked of cigarette smoke handed me a smudged business card. He handed it to me right after telling me I was ‘not bad at SEO’ but that ‘any time I need expert help’ I can ‘give him a ring’.

I didn’t burn the card. Nor did I shove the still-burning embers down his throat while yelling “HOW’S THIS FOR A RING YOU IGNORANT GIT”. Why? Because of his title, as written on the card:

Semantic SEO search analyst

Yes, you read it correctly. He’s a semantic search engine optimization search analyst.

I was stunned by his niche-fu. He’d created an entire industry that folded in on itself: A black hole of stupidity that no client could escape.

Specializing ourselves to death

Specialization is everything: You can’t be ‘an SEO’ any more. Noooooo. You have to be a semantic SEO search analyst. There aren’t any writers; there are content marketers, as if marketing using words is revolutionary.

Web designers? Nope. Web experience developers. Web UX specialists. HTML User Interface Designers.

Marketers? Uh-uh. Social media experts. Twitter gurus. Facebook optimizers.

Somewhere, someone specializes in writing the first line of Adwords ads. You know it’s true.

Where it comes from

Some folks think this is about a drive for efficiency: Focus on what you do best, outsource everything else.

I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

Over-specialization is also great camouflage for shallow knowledge. If you want to sell the crap out of a second-rate vegetable peeler, re-label it a turnip twaddler (stolen from Berkeley Breathed) and sell it to turnip fiends. If you want to sell the crap out of second-rate SEO service, re-label it ‘semantic’ whatever and sell it to folks impressed by big words.

Create a new niche and you create a micro-market that, at least for a little while, is your very own. If there are enough suckers consumers who want your ‘unique, new approach’, you’re in business.

Why this spells your doom

In any post-apocalypse story, the generalists survive, and the specialists die. Horribly.

Think about it. When the zombies/asteroids/swarms of killer insects arrive, the park ranger survives. So does the handyman. The lawyer? Not so much.

Marketing has its own civilization-enders: The Great Recession. The recession of 2001. The arrival of the internet. The arrival of television.

Every time, the specialists get eaten, because they don’t actually know marketing. They know how to buy TV time. They know how to write a sales letter. They know how to spam blogs and get a #1 ranking for ‘cheap cialis for sale’. But they don’t understand how it all works, or why. So they lack any knowledge or skill they can transfer from one specialty to another.

Now, we’ve got:

  • SEOs who can’t build a web site
  • Mobile app consultants who have no idea what a call to action looks like
  • Designers who can’t write a single line of HTML
  • Developers who have no idea how to use a database
  • Writers who can’t enter an article into WordPress

They’re all marketing zombie food. Fossil fuels waiting to happen. Darwin bait.

I, for one, welcome our insect overlords

I have no plan. I have no idea how to fix any of this. Instead, I look forward to the next marketing Extinction Event. I’ll get a few months where I can stop using phrases like ‘content marketing’ and ‘social media audience acquisition’, and just say ‘marketing’.

More important, our clients will briefly get decent service from people who know how to sell stories and products, not catch phrases and recycled concepts.

Or, I’ll go quietly into extinction with all the other oversized dinosaurs.

See you on the other side.

Other stuff

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Specialization becomes more and more deadly the higher up a chain of management you go–if the boss doesn’t know at least a little about a ton of things, his or decisions have a much higher potential of sucking.
    As an example, a large Utah-based web development company recently imploded because the management team really only knew how to sell. They didn’t really know how much work it took to put together a website or how to manage their large, diverse, distributed work force. As soon as the people they sold services to finally caught up with them, they ditched the whole mess and left all their clients and employees holding the bag.

  2. A wise man once told me, “specialization is the art of knowing more and more about less and less, until you know nothing at all.”
    This post is definitely an expansion of that good advice, and definitely something I’ll keep in mind as I navigate through the twists and turns of my career!

  3. When I was in college I worked at a restaurant and the dish washers decided they were sanitary engineers and asked for a raise. I laughed so hard at this attempt but it sure stuck with me.
    I think in the current fast paced world and with the practically free business card printing you can re-brand yourself into any niche in a day. I personally carry 4 sets of business cards and depending on who I’m pitching I pull out the most effective card. I’ve actually handed out different business cards to 2 different people in the same elevator and sold them both different services.
    Its easier to sell a niche and its easier to make a living if you specialize… in everything 🙂

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