Harassment marketing

Seth Godin wrote the book on permission marketingthe privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. You know, like a mailing list.

Marketers have turned this on its head with a new kind of marketing: harassment marketing. Those are marketing messages that consumers are afraid to turn off.

What is harassment marketing?

Here’s my definition:

Harassment marketing is a marketing technique that takes advantage of a customer relationship to send a stream of messages, secure in the knowledge that the customer won’t turn them off for fear of missing an important transactional message buried in the marketing stream.

Let’s look at some examples.

  • CVS Pharmacy repeatedly sends text messages reminding you to renew prescriptions, or find out more about those prescriptions — even when you’ve archived those prescriptions and are no longer renewing them. But as a consumer, you still want to get reminders when a new prescription is ready, so you don’t send the “STOP” reply that would turn off the text messages altogether.
  • Spectrum, the cable company, sends you weekly direct mail encouraging you to sign up for new services. The mailers are disguised to look like bills. You open them — and don’t ask to get off the mailing list — because you still want to get your cable bill.
  • Amazon sends an email every two weeks asking if you want to switch your account to “Business-only pricing.” But you don’t opt out of the emails, because you still want emails regarding actual Amazon orders shipping and arriving.
  • Your health insurer calls you with automated reminders about screenings and robo-surveys about recent visits.
  • Your doctor’s office uses the MyChart channel normally reserved for personal health messages, like test results and doctors’ responses to questions, to remind you of things like paid support groups and availability of various services they offer.
  • Airbnb sends your phone notifications of messages from people you’re renting from. It also sends notifications for various other Airbnb services it wants you to subscribe to, and reminders about trips you started investigating and never completed.
  • You sign up for a newsletter from a political party. You start getting daily fundraising reminders. When you attempt to opt out of the emails, you find out that they’ve shared your email with other affiliated groups who are still emailing you. You want to opt out of all the fundraising, but still get the newsletter. (Both American major parties do this.)
  • A media company you subscribe to sends you daily news updates, interspersed with solicitations to buy more expensive subscriptions from them.
  • A free app (for example, AllTrails.com) sends you a constant stream of notifications of what you’ll get if you upgrade to the paid version.

I could go on, but there’s no need to. I’m pretty sure that you’ve experienced this, been annoyed by it, and given up on figuring out what to do because you don’t want to inadvertently shut down messages that might be important.

Why marketers do this

Once you sign up for something — anything — from a company, you are a customer. Since you’ve signed up, you’ve already moved past the first few stages of the marketing funnel — awareness, consideration, and conversion. You are valuable.

Marketers measure their success, in part, by the number of people on their email (or direct mail, or text message) list — the number of people they can address in these channels.

As an existing customer, not only are you more likely to respond to messages since you know the company, you are less likely to ask to get off the list because you are using the same channel for essential messages, such as delivery notifications, bills, or test results.

So the marketer takes advantage of this to send you the maximum possible number of marketing messages. This keeps all their numbers — list size, frequency of messages, number of clicks (some of which may be inadvertent or even attempts to get off lists), and responses — high. If 1000 people get annoyed, 950 people stay on the list, 3 people buy or upgrade, and 2 people complain, that looks to the marketer like a big win.

Customers can sometimes get off the list

Unlike most people, I have attempted to get off some of these lists while retaining messages that matter.

Sometimes that worked. I found out that Amazon has a separate business email list (which I’m only on because I used a business credit card to buy stuff). When I clicked to opt out, I found out I could opt out of only Amazon business messages.

I contacted my doctor’s office about the abuse of MyChart. It’s a small practice, and I know the people who run it. They listened and said they would think about it, but didn’t change their behavior. When I moved to a new state, they kept sending me messages. When I called to request to be removed since I don’t live there any more, they finally stopped.

I checked the settings that CVS uses to send notifications and opted out of the notifications for prescription renewals. But they ignored that and kept sending me those notifications.

But let’s be frank. Most people won’t do this. It’s too much effort. And the marketers are counting on that.

And even if you choose to attempt to get off such lists while retaining notifications for important transactions, why should you have to? Why, having become a customer, should the burden be on you to figure out how to navigate the marketer’s permission framework?

This is an abuse of trust. Customers shouldn’t have to work hard to solve problems created by marketers.

What marketers should do

Marketing of this kind destroys the growth of positive customer relationships. It’s like having a friend who’s always yammering in your ear. At some point you think, do I really like this person? Is it worth it?

Take a close look at who does this. Cable companies. Newspapers. Health insurers. Amazon. Drugstores that hold your prescriptions. These are all people it would be a pain in the ass to leave — they’re either a monopoly, or have you locked up in a long-term relationship. They’re not actually like friends. They’re like the most annoying members of your family, because no matter how much they harass you, it’s really hard to leave them. And they know it.

Even so, I have hopes that marketers will recognize the costs of harassment marketing and take steps to improve.

They should voluntarily label their opt-outs to make it clear you can opt out of marketing. For example, include an email link that says “Unsubscribe from marketing emails only” (and not in tiny light grey type, either). Yes, the unsubscribe rate would go up. But do you really want to make people annoyed at you just to keep the size of your list bigger?

Industry associations for marketers, like the Direct Mail Association and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, should create rules to encourage this sort of responsible behavior for marketers.

And vendors of marketing tools, like Adobe and Salesforce and HubSpot, should create default options in their tools that encourage these sorts of intelligent opt-outs.

Marketers already have a bad reputation. Let’s cut down on the harassment marketing so that reputation has a chance to improve, even marginally.

Have you been a victim of harassment marketing? Were you part of a harassment marketing operation and want to come clean? I’m eager to hear your experiences.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. It is absolutely an abuse of trust. These companies know exactly what they’re doing.

    As for solutions, I create email rules to automatically route certain types of messages to the trash. It’s a work-in-progress. I’m annoyed that I have to do this.

  2. Methods like these demean the buyer and diminish the seller. Plenty of marketers, including the ones with whom I work every day, believe in building long-term relationships through respectful practices and relevant content. I blame harassment marketing on sociopathic MBAs who want results today regardless of what happens tomorrow.

  3. My favorite is when I keep getting digital ads showing me the shoes I bought last month.

    Marketers know that frequency often makes a sale, and even nonprofits want to make sure they stay “top of mind”…

    Interesting to read your post today, Josh. I literally just filled out a form to stop receiving direct mail for the lady we bought our house from a couple of years ago (who died in January). I’m tired of sending her mail back to the P.O. marked “Deceased” only to have them re-deliver it for me to toss. Legally, I’m not supposed to toss other’s mail, and the P.O. should be able to recognize what is advertising and just toss it — our tax dollars at work.

    1. Having worked in subscription processing and direct mail in past lives, I believe the USPS only forwards first-class mail, so go ahead and recycle the rest. Also, don’t mark it deceased; mark it “RTS-not at this address,” but don’t bother unless it has “return service requested*” on it or looks personal. (RTS=return to sender) Deceased isn’t a special category.
      *Direct mail costs money, no sensible marketer wants to waste it on bad addresses.

  4. Americas Test Kitchen kept sending me spam.
    No unsubscribe option.
    4 times I logged into the account which I could not delete and requested account deletion.
    No luck. In Gmail it goes into the Spam Folder.

    G mail Settings:
    Filters and Blocked Addresses: Enter the address you want blocked and select: Delete it.
    It will never show up in the Spam Folder.

    In Free Hotmail, I get the most unsolicited pornographic, phishing, scamming messages.
    You can select them and mark them all as phishing.
    Weirdly it takes 3 rounds of selection and deletion to get rid of them permanently.

    I am always pitched to upgrade to a premium account.
    In fact you need to mouse past the free trial button and select log in.
    In the other mail section the pitch to upgrade has to be selected and deleted.

    BTW Thank you

    Writing Without Bullshit is like the Flu Vaccine,
    Yearly shot and Yearly Reread Required.
    I got rid of most passive sentences.

    Blogs are greats.

    Lowe’s Blog reflected my experience on the commercial end.
    I spent the most part of a day setting up a commercial account
    to buy a specific power tool advertised on the website.

    I kept getting non committal back ordered
    updates from Commercial Customer Service.

    This went on for weeks.

    I finally called the US arm of the German manufacture
    and was told that the tool was no longer imported into the US.

    Months later the tool was still offered on Loews’ website.

    Best, Joaquin

  5. Also, making any donations through activist sites like ActBlue will get you solicitations from politicians all over, not just those running in races you can actually vote on, so you end up playing unsub whack-a-mole.

    I’ve worked in email marketing and organizational newsletters. Not providing an unsubscribe option is a violation of the CAN-SPAM law. You can certainly mark it spam in your mail program – if enough people do that it hurts the sender’s mail server’s reputation and its email deliverability. They don’t want that. The Direct Marketing Association website has opt-out lists and info on how to report and complain bad direct marketing behavior.

    CAN-SPAM allows you mass email anyone who has a “business relationship” with you, which means pretty much any kind of contact, but an opt-out is required. And if you have another contact with them, you’re back on their list. (The EU law, GDPR is much stricter.) Effective email marketers realize that engagement – open and click rates – are much more important than list size, and should be happy when people who aren’t engaged opt out.

    CAN-SPAM dates from the dawn of email marketing in the 1990s and probably ought to be updated to limit the use of customer and subscriber lists for cross-marketing. (Good luck with that.)

  6. I like the term harassment marketing as a focusing phrase. It certainly got my attention.

    It’s not necessarily marketing or the organization as a whole working to insure you can’t escape their marketing. (Sometimes, yes… it’s in their DNA, which often appears in many other bad practices)

    But… I’ve done enough consulting with large organizations that have a serious data management problem that it’s clear there’s no one issue.

    Severe “dis-integration” (rather than integration) is all too common between the systems that “own” specific slices of your data and how they are controlled.

    Marketers and un-customized marketing systems can’t enforce the communications that you do or don’t want to receive, if the data can’t flow to controls for both the company and the client to set appropriately.

    Without a team, and ideally an executive position that REALLY owns the issue of the total customer experience, the nature of siloed work in large organizations makes it almost impossible to solve this issue.

    Personally, I like untangling that spaghetti.

    Following communication flows throughout the lifecycle, and finding what systems own what, is maddening while you’re up to your neck in it, but so so satisfying when you’ve redesigned the back-end and front-end for a more customer-focused solution.

    In the meantime, once dis-integration has become the norm, it’s really difficult to unwind and integrate a big picture.

  7. An outlet mall I have frequented pre-covid continues to send me spam, in spite of several requests to be taken off their list, and in spite of the fact that for two years of that time, I couldn’t cross the border to go visit it anyway!

  8. Sirius XM radio. I subscribed for years before Sirius and XM became one company. Since then they have become a greedy regular radio station(s) from commercial free music to commercials and then added DJ’s that are some times washed up musicians that talk about themselves. Then they wanted more money. I canceled my service and I automatically went to the top of their pile for marketing we want you back. I logged in and said do not call or email, then the mailings. I called and they marked my closed account do not mail email or call. that lasted 30 days. Im on my fourth time calling now and wrote to them again.
    I am changing my efforts now to this where I will find as many as these areas and start sharing my
    experience with them. I know there are many more that cancelled due to the changes they have made to increase revenue and decrease service.