By Jonathan Crossfield published February 11, 2015

Don’t Believe the Hype: What Ello Really Means for Content Marketers

Grid of FacePrint magazines being what they are, I pitched the idea of writing about the invitation-only, ad-free social network, Ello, at the beginning of October 2014. This was not long after both mainstream media and various online marketing communities achieved peak Ello hype. At the height of the noise, Ello was apparently generating 4,000 requests an hour and there was even a black market for invites on eBay.

Meanwhile, the interwebs were full of repetitive articles pontificating about whether Ello could be the one to finally knock Facebook from the No. 1 spot in the social media charts.

But when I sat down to write in November, the shine had faded. By the time you read this, Ello may already be in the back of a car, pleading with a moodily lit Rod Steiger: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class.  I coulda been a contender. I could have been the new Facebook, instead of another Diaspora … which is what I am. Let’s face it.”

The Ello manifesto

Ello’s hype was more about its anti-advertising, pro-privacy manifesto than the actual platform. “Virtually every other social network is run by advertisers,” it said. “You’re the product that’s being bought and sold.”

Ello’s message continued, “Collecting and selling your personal data, reading your posts to your friends, and mapping your social connections for profit is both creepy and unethical. Under the guise of offering a ‘free’ service, users pay a high price for intrusive advertising and lack of privacy.

“We also think ads are tacky; that they insult our intelligence, and that we’re better without them.”

Creepy. Unethical. Intrusive. Tacky.


The manifesto was the trash talk before the fight, turning on a show for the audience. As such, it was a ball of PR wrapped around a spurious argument. It not only picked a fight with advertisers and marketers, it also threw down the glove to Facebook and any other network that uses targeted advertising as a business model.

Trouble is, I think Ello overstated the problem and therefore overreached in trying to land a punch. And this may be why it landed on the mat before the first-round bell was rung.

Is Ello anti-marketing?

You’d have more luck keeping flies off a dead cat than marketers off a new social media platform. So I certainly wasn’t surprised to find most of the early adopters in my network were other marketers, community managers, and social media practitioners.

Yes, my network is a skewed sample. But Ello’s manifesto certainly didn’t deter the usual suspects from looking under the hood and debating the merits and limitations of the platform (usually on other platforms). However, does Ello’s manifesto mean that these marketers are not welcome?

Not even close.

Paul Budnitz is the founder of Ello. He owns a bike shop. Budnitz Bicycles has an Ello profile showcasing its latest products. The posts use large and stylish images coupled with almost surreal copy before wrapping up with an “order-today”-style call to action.

So what’s going on here?

Ello might be anti-advertising, but it’s clearly not anti-marketing – particularly if the content is stylish and interesting enough to fit in with the celebration of creativity and design that Ello aspires to be. Otherwise Budnitz and the manifesto would be obnoxiously hypocritical.

I believe Budnitz and Ello have made a distinction between the value of branded content designed for interested users to discover and traditional advertising that seeks to interrupt the user. The intention appears to be for marketing to be pulled toward the user via relevance and genuine interest instead of pushed at them via an advertising framework targeted by user data.

So, content marketing then.

This is merely my interpretation. It’s far too early to see how other businesses may use Ello, and most are probably too nervous to try after the manifesto appeared to smack down the industry. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll have more examples to consider.

Maybe not.

Ethics aren’t enough

While sign-ups have been high, many users are just not sticking around. To be subjective for a moment, there’s virtually no one in my entire network still posting to Ello, including those who habitually post every thought they have to every available network. Most people appear to have given up after a couple of obligatory “thanks for the invite” and “just checking this new thing out” updates.

There are only so many social networks an individual can integrate into his or her daily routine. We might experiment with them all, but most of us will only use one to three networks on a regular basis. So for people to change from their preferred networks, the alternative has to be better. And while some minority groups may value the freedoms and privacy afforded by Ello, many other users may not see the poor user-experience and stripped-back platform as an adequate replacement. At least not yet. The reality is that Ello isn’t ready for a punt at the title. It’s too green, too underdeveloped; all bluster with little actual weight.

I’m not rushing to Ello

Unsurprisingly, I’m guessing that Ello will not be the downfall of Facebook. Like Diaspora before it, I see Ello as an idealistic statement more than a fully formed platform. Take the manifesto away, and all that’s left is a terrible user experience and some questionable font choices.

It’s still in open beta and there’s a long list of features in development, so I can only hope the team behind Ello will improve the user experience and design considerably. But right now Ello is the electric car of the social media family – striving for a better world, but still far too impractical for the average driver.

Ello may be far from a Facebook killer, but it is a warning to social media marketers. The shift toward social media advertising in recent years has changed the game, and this is tempting many marketers to view social media platforms as more traditional media-buying channels.

Remember when Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube didn’t have advertising programs? Social was about conversations and relationships, gathering feedback, and joining the community. The platforms were listening posts, and places to share good content, ask questions, respond to concerns, and – you know – network. It’s extremely important that we don’t lose sight of those goals by chasing algorithms and crunching data. Social still has to have something worthwhile to offer in return for audience attention.

We need to produce social media content and develop strategies that rely more on discovery than advertising for distribution. Yes, sometimes advertising is needed to get the ball rolling. However, we should always aim for our content to reach more of the right people by appearing naturally as shares within their social media streams. We need to complement, not interrupt, the habits of our customers. And, above all, we need to be confident that they want us there.

Ello is a reminder that the best content marketing shouldn’t rely too heavily on advertising to drive the numbers. Our content should always pack a big enough punch to draw a crowd.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Image courtesy of CCO magazine

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

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  • Pedro Silva

    Very nice!
    I’m from Brazil and always accompany your blog congratulations.

  • Rebecca Lehmann

    I had already forgotten that Ello existed, honestly.

    • Kimota

      …which I knew was a risk when I started the article months ago. Hence the ‘get out of jail free’ card in the opening. As it is, the prediction pretty much came to pass. Techcrunch recently reported “Ello Pretends It’s Not Over With Video and Music Launch”, while just yesterday Vice asked “Who’s Still Using Ello?” with a pretty scary graph demonstrating our peak hype and then sudden lack of interest soon after.

  • Peter Dorfman

    Does anyone use Ello for anything?

    • Kimota

      Probably not anymore, no.

      • why so serious

        That is quite an assumption. People get too in depth and overthink things. Ello never wanted to compete with facebook anyways. I use Soundcloud for music, Facebook for long distance friends/family, and Ello for some creativity to open the mind.
        I use Ello almost everyday, with most of the people i follow posting new things all the time, so it is definitely used for something, depends what you want out of it. TWell if the peak is over, great, because then the people who really wanted to be there would be there and not just to follow the crowd. I did enjoy your article however and you did put things into perspective for me. So thanks.

  • Do what, now?

    I’ve never even heard of Ello and I’m so tech I spent my youth building AOL Punters in Visual Basic..

  • rogercparker

    Dear Jonathan:
    Excellent analysis and build to the memorable last line, “the best content marketing shouldn’t rely too heavily on advertising to drive the numbers. Our content should always pack a big enough punch to draw a crowd.”
    Great reminder.

    • Kimota

      I always find it sad that the reminder is necessary. But the tendency, among agencies in particular, is to always fall back into those old advertising models. The result is an uncomfortable hybrid between content and advertising that often fails at both.

  • Serious Vanity

    Thank you for this perspective! There’s an element to it that reminds me a little of Seth Godin’s “triiibes” network a few years back, like suddenly there was this exclusive club where everyone with any creativity or point of view was hiding, and you *might* get invited into the tree house with them. But after getting in (with both of them), I’m just not quite sure what to do.

    • Kimota

      Ha! P{retty much summed up my experience of Triiibes there too.

  • globalcopywrite

    Hi Jonathan,

    Your point about our ability to manage more than a couple networks really resonates with me. I love Twitter and have a good network on LinkedIn. I’m less enamoured with Facebook but find it useful for keeping in touch with friends and family that don’t live in close proximity. When Google+ started, anyone with an appreciation for SEO knew they had to be there. We were forced to adopt another social platform by the big gorilla every digital marketer works to keep happy. And it pissed a lot of us off. After several years, it hasn’t proven to be much of a social network but necessary for search rankings.

    So, when Ello came along with an invitation to build yet another new network in an arguably nicer neighbourhood, I didn’t bite. I couldn’t bite. I have mature networks in other places and don’t have any intention of starting over.

    • Kimota

      Absolutely. I struggle to keep up with all the networks and naturally gravitate to only 2-3 by default. (Twitter will always remain my first love). The rest I have to carve out time to investigate and interact with for the sake of my work, but if I wasn’t working in this industry I’d happily close those accounts tomorrow.

  • Rob TheGenie Toth

    No ad revenue. No business. No point in discussing it.

    They either sell ads, run affiliate offers, run internal offers (how is any of that different from the “anti-commercial” stance they take?), sell the data or take up collections like Wikipedia.

    Somewhere in that lofty (and somewhat childish) fantasy that is their mission statement… dollars need to come into the equation. Unless the crew is run by forever-volunteers on a zero-cost infrastructure.

    Or they plan to be “all hype and PR” but stay small……. which seems to be the current mode of operation.

    Twitter, LI, FB all did something smart. They build a network and community FIRST and then ran ads. Yes. But the “monetizing” had to happen. Because, business.

  • Matt LaClear

    Good stuff Jonathan. How are they planning on turning a profit down the road? I sense a just kidding moment when the break down and start pumping ads into the news feeds.

    • Kimota

      Sure, they have venture capital now, but that VC is contingent on them NOT going down the advertising route. So I too was wondering how they plan to find a loophole in the usual business model that no one else has ever discovered.

      Either the audience is the product to be sold to advertisers or the network is the product to be sold to the audience.

      • Emily King

        They initially said something along the lines of selling features to users. So you would get a basic level of free service and then if you want certain extras you’d have to pay for it.

        Not heard otherwise since The Guardian wrote on it:

      • Matt LaClear

        Good point. I’d like to get into the heads of the venture capitalists funding the site to find out how they expect to receive a return on their investment if the only reason they are investing is because of the anti-advertising route.

  • Barry Dennis

    There are only 24 hours a day. If you consider the average “User’s” schedule, how much time is available for Social, and specifically the very best Content? There must be a better mousetrap concept than using the widest “net.”