Marketing to the 90%

By Gerry McGovern

There is money to be made in fooling people because we are all foolish at least some of the time. Examples abound. “Free” still works and smiling faces have a powerful pull (at least offline). In the 2013 German election campaign for Angela Merkel, for example, there were lots of pictures of smiling, happy average Germans. She won easily. Smiling faces did not win the election but they did help reinforce trustworthiness and empathy for the average voter.

Probably about 10% of us are very gullible and the rest of us are gullible (or greedy) 10% of the time. That’s a very big market. But there’s another market that’s even bigger, the 90% who are becoming more and more cynical and immune to traditional marketing. Those who hardly see ads anymore and whose eyes glaze over when they see smiling faces.

annoyed.pngThis is particularly the case on the Web where for years we have noticed an increase in impatience, skepticism and cynicism. There is a new type of better educated, confident customer out there today and if they think you’re trying to fool them they’ll go elsewhere. This customer is peercentered rather than brand- or organization-centered. In other words, they look to their peers—people like them—for advice and guidance, rather than to brands, religious figures, politicians or CEOs.

The problem—and challenge—is often best reflected in how organizations think about their current customers versus how they think about their new or potential customers. Often, organizations neglect their current customer and heavily incentivize potential customers.

Marketers need to overcome their obsession with short-term thinking about new customers and instead focus on building long-term relationships with existing ones. Content professionals need to overcome their obsession with content and obsess instead about the people who need their content.

If you’re a marketer, do you care more about new customers or existing ones? If you’re a content professional, do you care more about your content or the people who use it? Do you care more about what happens next quarter or about what happens in two years’ time? Are you more interested in building marketing campaigns or in building customer relationships? Are you more interested in writing content or in seeing how it’s used?

Many marketers would say that they’d like to focus more on current customers rather than campaigns but that organizational objectives and culture don’t allow that. A great many organizations view customers as prey. Something to catch using clever, stealthy techniques. Nothing makes most content professionals happier than talking about writing, about producing multimedia, about the art of things. The customer of the content is generally a distant, vague figure, sometimes wrapped up in a persona that was invented in a workshop.”

That approach might have worked reasonably well in the age of the Stupid Customer. But we are not in that age anymore. We are now in the age of the Clever Customer. The socially connected, cynical, impatient, skeptical, value-conscious customer. This customer is much less likely to fall into a swoon when they see smiling faces on your website. When they read your high-energy ‘we care’ marketing content they are much more likely to smirk cynically. ”

Many marketers and content professionals refuse to accept this major societal shift from an organization-centric, content-centric universe to a customer-centric peer-centric one. While on the one hand they wonder why customers aren’t loyal anymore, on the other they build campaigns and write content to actively annoy and irritate them.

“The web has seemingly evolved into something that actively antagonises people,” Andy Beaumont, technical director at @albionlondon wrote in late 2013. He was commenting on websites that force you to register before they let you see what you’re looking for.

Andy thinks analytics are largely to blame. “This is what happens when analytics make decisions for you,” he writes. “Analytics only tell you part of the story. Analytics will tell you that you got more “conversions”. Analytics will show you rising graphs and bigger numbers. You will show these to your boss or your client.”

The problem is these numbers don’t give the whole picture. You might have people spending a long time reading your content. But what does that mean? You might get a 1 percent conversion or click thru rate. Maybe you got ten percent. Maybe even more. But what you also need to find out is:

  1. Did the people who signed up or clicked genuinely want to do that?
  2. What about the 90% who didn’t? Who are they and what impression of you did they have when they left your site? Are your conversion strategies making you look like a spammer to the 90%?

subscribe.pngAndy Beaumont has an answer to the first question. He’s done a lot of observations of ordinary people using the Web. When they come to a website requesting that they register in some way before they can get to the link they clicked on, most get annoyed. Also, a “significant portion of them believe that they must do what the box is begging them for in order to close the overlay. These people (remember, they’re people, not “conversions”), are signing up to a newsletter they don’t want. They’re then going to be irritated by it for several months until they work out how to unsubscribe from it. The analytics guru you brought in is walking away with a chunk of your money, in exchange for having pissed off a whole bunch of existing and potential customers.

I’ve been examining web analytics since the 1990s and I’ve seen lots and lots of awful decisions made with them. There is a Cult of Volume that seems to permeate much of the discipline.

Humans become numbers and once that happens there’s no room for empathy. Things are done because they ‘convert’. Whether that conversion was annoying or not is rarely investigated.

“The Internet has lately upped its count of roadblocks and dead ends: obligatory e-mail subscription forms, Facebook page “like” prompts, and pages that masquerade as informational only to be a page full of ads,” writes Casey Johnston for Ars Technica.

“Just as spam is effective because the cost of producing it is practically zero and hence any positive effect is a net positive, asking to install an app costs little other than our annoyance,” she continues. “But a relationship built on the backs of people who agree to install an app because they are hoodwinked into thinking it’s the only way—or fill out an e-mail form because they don’t realize they don’t have to—isn’t going to last.”

Let’s say you’re a single man in a bar and you see a beautiful woman. You walk up to her, smile, she smiles back. You say a few words and then offer to buy her a drink. She says okay, then you pause and inform her that before you buy her a drink she has to give you her phone number. How successful do you think you’re going to be? 99 times out of 100 that sort of approach won’t work. On the Web we don’t see that 99% of people who turn away in disgust. Your conversion guru will boast about a 1% conversion rate. Is that something to boast about?

click-here.pngLinks are the DNA of the Web. They are what make the network the network. “The Internet has, for the most part, my trust that when I click on something, it will take me where it says it will go,” Casey Johnston writes. Links are signposts. Links are promises. But if most links were married they’d be heading for divorce. Because for one reason or another many links don’t keep their promises. If you want to build long-term relationships with your customers, keep your promises. Write links that are short, simple, clear and truthful. Don’t put any hidden obstacles in the way between the click and destination.

According to Andy Beaumont, “The Web is dumbing down as the fight for attention hots up.” Those who fight for attention on the Web are on a slippery slope, a race to the bottom. That’s because the Web is one of the worst possible places to try and get attention; unless, of course, your business model is to trick or spam people.

There are always people out there to be fooled but fooling people is not a good longterm strategy. There will always be crazes and hypes and a small few will get rich quickly. However, whether for an organization, brand or individual, some basic rules still apply: If you want to do well over the long-term you have to think long-term and that means—first and foremost—thinking about and focusing on the customers you have.

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More reading

The Value of Content, Andy Beaumont
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