Over fifteen years building websites and helping small businesses with their marketing, I’ve noticed a very consistent trend: time and again, they express their vehement hatred for email marketing tactics. They have had it with pushy emails, annoying popups, etc. And yet, online marketers push this stuff as the panacea that is going to save your business. They hate it so much that it is sometimes hard to convince them that they might want to be a slightly more forward in their own marketing efforts.

My clients’ disdain for email marketing at large is remarkable, and widespread. They are “normal people” who want to treat people well, and make a decent living. And they are offended by the tactics that are generally taught by online marketers.

This may reflect some bias in terms of the people I hang out with and the kinds of clients I like to help—possibly, but I don’t know. Such a wide variety of people I talk to are clearly traumatized by the number of pushy, aggressive emails they receive.

This includes a searing resentment of those annoying pop-up boxes that have become so ubiquitous when visiting a website for the first time. “Sign up for my newsletter and get plenty of recipes!“ Or plenty of notes, ideas, or whatever. Why would I want recipes from you or tips or what have you, when I just came to your page for the first time, I’ve been on your website for a total of 14 seconds, and now you’re slamming me in the face with this obnoxious pushy pop-up that gets in the way of me accomplishing my task? Personally, when this happens—even when the contact looks very good—I will simply close the tab in question and move on. I don’t have time to litter my life with this kind of nonsense, or the people who peddle it.

No, this heavy negative reaction I see among almost everyone I talk to colloquially is in stark contrast to the recommendations of the so-called experts, who will tell you to send out email after email and slam people in the face as soon as they get to your website.

It’s popular nowadays for marketers to say things like, “I didn’t think it would work either, but pop-ups work!“ Or, “send more emails, make more money.“ What could account for this glaring dissonance between the marketers’ advice, and the glaringly negative reactions I see to it in real life? The logic put forth by these online gurus tends to be of this kind: sure—you might alienate a few people, but this is a cost of doing business; you do want to make money, don’t you? just put the pop-up in, make it appear after five seconds, watch the dollar bills roll in. And the visitors who react negatively to it are just a statistical anomaly.

But this highlights a critical zone where the Guru Industrial Complex suffers from tremendous level of copycat syndrome, an over-reliance on analytics, and a disinterest in connecting with real people to see how they feel about a marketing tactic. It can be easy to look at your analytics and say: yes—we strong-armed a small percentage of our visitors into subscribing to our email list. Great! Now we can overload them with emails, and a certain percentage of those will “convert”.

But if you’re not trying to sell quickie products with no relationship, presumably you should care about the large swath of people you have now alienated by this type of obnoxious behavior. Those do not show up on your analytics. If we convert 3%, we don’t want to ask, “what were the other 97% thinking, and why did they leave?” Furthermore, our analytics may not be smart enough to track visitors over time, to notice the advantages of a months- or years-long relationship building cycle that could end up being far more valuable.

I’ve been reading Ray Dalio’s Principles: Life and Work lately. One of his principles is, weigh second- and third-order consequences. The idea is that many behaviors that are tempting to engage in have appealing first-order consequences (such as eating another piece of cake), but negative second-order consequences (such as gaining weight). Conversely, many good things are harder to do at first, but have great second- and third-order consequences.

I think spammy marketing tactics such as pushy email popups and over-aggressive emails are a perfect example of something that has appealing first-order consequences: you can see your conversions bump up, initially. But what if the second-order consequences are alienating all the people who didn’t respond, and the third-order consequences are that those people never become loyal customers? I think these short-term analytical tactics need to be weighed against their harder-to-measure after-effects. Conversely, building relationships may take more work up front, just as building up friendships may take more work than strong-arming people in your life to do things for you. But over time, the consequences down the line are going to be much better for everyone.

One of the big things we are trying to convey to people at Essential 3, is to trust your instincts as human beings, as a good measure of your behavior when you engage in marketing. Real marketing should be about kindness, decency, and giving valuable things to people who want them. If you don’t like being accosted by strangers when you leave the supermarket, maybe don’t throw a popup in front of people’s faces the moment they come to your website. Trust the common sense you use in your life as a good barometer of how you treat people online. Basically, use the golden rule—behave towards people in your marketing in ways that you would treat them offline, and in ways that give you the most pleasant and helpful experience online. Ultimately, you will make a lot more friends. And in so doing, you will, ultimately, create much greater success.

What do you think? Are you as annoyed by pushy popups and email campaigns as I am and as my clients are? Or do you have another take? Let me know!

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  1. Ginger April 18, 2021 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Yes, I’m annoyed beyond belief at pop-ups. Especially the ones that continue to pop up even *after* I subscribe. How inequitable is that?! I signed up for the email yiu wanted me to sign up for and you are brutally continuing the onslaught of pleas for me to sign up. When will cookies actually start assisting the internet viewer, I ask?
    As a marketer, I, too, have to encourage my clients to use email marketing. After all that is the best channel with which to deliver content to a client. But it is up to us marketers to encourage people to do it responsibly.

  2. Chris Burbridge April 28, 2021 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    Yeah. Part of our message is that if we don’t get a handle on this as an industry, people are just going to tune it out! In fact, I think this has already happened substantially—but we still have time to build it back!

    Perhaps part of it is to create a set of standards. We’ve been playing with the idea of an Email Marketing Pledge, that marketers could sign on to. In this way, you could start to build up a standard…

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The Guru Industrial Complex - With Kathryn Gorges
Money Machines Build Monsters... If Left Unbalanced