Seth Godin wrote the book on permission marketing — the 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.