San Francisco, 6:25pm
Designers gather for after-hour meetups across several modern-looking buildings across San Francisco in the SoMa, Financial District, and Market Street neighborhoods. Meetups in the Bay Area tend to happen after hours, either in coworking spaces or at the corporate offices of tech companies. Turnstyle, badge, refreshments, networking, talks, and more networking.
Having spent the last few years living and working in Silicon Valley, I have had a chance to join a considerable number of design and tech meetups across the Bay Area — where these industries are particularly active. A simple search on meetup.com will return at least 20 different events to choose from each week. Topics, ranging from Artificial Intelligence to Augmented Reality are peppered with the same buzzwords you can see on the homepage of FastCompany or The Verge on any given day.
Often my meetup experiences were less than inspiring. With overly ambitious topics and fear-inducing titles, these gatherings proved to be little more than a series of startup pitches camouflaged as thought leadership topics.
The more fruitful discussions, usually scheduled for the end of the evening, often never happened. Companies would get so caught up in talking about themselves that they would run out of time, every time. This means walking away with no profound discussion and no engaged Q&A.
On the way home from one of these lackluster events Caio Braga and I took a deeper look at the situation, wondering why these events were so unfulfilling. We felt like we had been duped, once again, into believing that these talks were going to dive deeper into the proposed topics instead of focusing on selling their company’s services.
Turns out the problem was not the meetups themselves.
Self-promotion at scale
The places where designers “meet” online are not any different. If you have been following design communities online you might have noticed how often content marketing is disguised as community content, quite similar to the bait-and-switch real-world meetups we have attended. These companies often use fear-inducing clickbait headlines and hidden agendas to try to sell products, services, or ideas.
While designers tend to be skeptical of magic formulas — we’re decidedly suspicious of self-help gurus, magic diets, or miraculous career advice — we have a surprisingly high tolerance for formulaic solutions when it comes to design. We can’t resist a list of “The 5 UX Mistakes You Are Probably Making Right Now”, or “The 5 Sketch Plugins to Get the Promotion You Deserve”. We fall for it every time.
Our impostor syndrome shows. We click.
There’s a reason companies have been investing in content marketing so aggressively over the past few years. They want clicks, they want to build relevance in search results, and they want to be positioned as thought leaders in topics such as UX, prototyping, and design.
The result is an increasing number of articles heavy with buzzwords, links to free e-books, and click-bait headlines that help companies pull traffic to their sites.
If you look closely, you’ll see the same approach being used not only by companies but by designers as well. We often repeat that very same formula to attract attention and clicks to our portfolios, to our articles, to our personal brand.
The content we share, under the microscope
For a month, Caio and I decided to look at the most popular design forums (like DesignerNews, WebDesignerNews, StackExchange UX, and Reddit UserExperience) and design newsletters (like Sidebar, Product Weekly, UX Curator, and UX Collective), and make a comprehensive list of links that were shared by both the community and its curators.
We then investigated, for each of the links collected, how tactical the content is, how deep it dives into a certain topic, and most importantly: who is behind the links.
The results were quite shocking:
- 77% self-promoters. The person who posts the link has personal or professional connection with its creator — they have either written the post themselves or work at the company that has created it. Honestly, we’re guilty of this one, too. “Look at this amazing article!” says the person who actually wrote the article.
- 47% skin in the game. Either the person or the company they work for offers professional services related to the topic. They offer consultancy, they want to be positioned as thought leaders in that vertical, or somehow their business benefits from how much traction that story gets. “How to build chatbots the right way”, says the company who offers bot development services.
- 21% shameless. Almost one in each five links turns out to be the first step of a conversion funnel. The destination website contains an explicit call-to-action to buy a book, pay for a course, or purchase tickets for an event. In some cases the transaction is not monetary, but involves lead generation. “Enter your email to download our free design e-book”, says the company who will spam you for the rest of your days.
But where does self-promotion come from?
Historically, our ability to talk about our own work (a.k.a. “self-promotion”) comes from a place of survival. For a long time, designers have been the minority in their companies. We’ve had to fight hard for attention at all levels, constantly explaining what Design does and how it can help other internal teams, to setting budgets that would allow design teams to grow and improve our practice, to claiming a “seat at the table” through the ability to participate in strategic conversations within the organization.
The problem is that we’ve gotten too good at it. To the point a good share of design content found online today needs to be taken with a grain of skepticism.
If you’re interested in seeing the full results of our investigation: