Keep Your Shirt On! Merge Fields, Subject Lines, Fake Empathy: A Marketer’s Dilemma

In Email Marketing, Ethics in Marketing, Marketing Strategy by Mark CafieroLeave a Comment

Recently while building a series of videos to include in an end-of-month promo email campaign, I found myself wondering about the roles and obligations we have as marketers. It was a subtle dilemma, something that could have easily passed in a fleeting moment without any consideration at all.

The plan was to record three videos that would be delivered in an email campaign over the course of three days, each one building a sense of greater urgency, leading up to a final email in hopes that we’d create an irresistible desire to make that big purchase. Pretty basic.

Upon shooting our second video, the presenter caught himself, realizing that he better change his shirt so that it seemed more like video #2 was actually recorded on day #2. Makes sense. I thought nothing of it, he changed his shirt, and we were recording once again.

For the rest of the day, I had a subtle feeling of frustration that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When this happens, I always enjoy stopping and going for a walk to try to identify the source, and so I did.

As it turns out, it was the shirt that was bothering me.  Well, not the shirt, it wasn’t an ugly sweater (or maybe it was) but really, it was the reason for the shirt. 

I found it comical that our natural intuition was to try to fool our audience into thinking that we were recording separate videos on separate days. Hardly a violation of ethics; what bothered me is that we as a marketing team seemed to always feel inclined to trick our audience in one way or another, all the time. Nothing wildly deceptive, but still…I hated this.

I thought back to one of my favorite college marketing courses, Consumer Behavior. I loved this class because I found it interesting and amusing, the psychology that drives us all to act, whether it’s to open an email with a clever subject line, to click through, to watch a video, and ultimately to make a purchase.

With that, there exists a fine line that marketers, in my opinion, do not spend enough time considering while producing the tactical elements within a strategy or campaign. It’s certainly possible to use our studies in human psychology to maintain an ethical purpose, to intrigue and drive action, and we should all strive for that.

Pressure = Desperation = Really Bad Marketing

After even more thought, I concluded that many marketers have stepped over that line so often, that trickery and subtle manipulation evolved as the norm and even worse, the expectation for some businesses. Or maybe it just felt that way because I was working for a startup that had way too much pressure to reach certain performance metrics. Sometimes pressure leads to desperate measures. Desperate measures leads to really bad marketing.

I’m willing to bet that all of us are locked into at least one marketer’s terrible email drip campaigns at this very moment. It’s interesting to see the lengths that some will go to, to try to convince us all that we’re getting emails from a buddy or a trusted mentor, rather than just get to the point and tell us what they’re selling. 

So why is it that most companies try to resort to such candy coating in their email campaigns while a very small segment keep their communications transparent and genuine?  I feel that the difference boils down to a single objective: short-term wins vs. long-term relationships. This is not to say that short-term campaigns have no place as a part of upstanding marketing strategies. But some companies can get too caught up in gaining quick wins, discounting entirely the idea that short term campaigns can also build long term trust!

The Harsh Consequences of Quick-Win Marketing

When senior level executives start feeling pressure to perform, it usually can be tracked to some very optimistic performance goals promised to investors. This makes for a terrific blog post for another day, as I’ve witnessed businesses who have fell victim to setting themselves up for painful failure by over-promising lofty (largely assumed) performance aspirations.

When businesses become desperate, marketers are almost forced to lose sight of their better intentions. In my opinion, our roles as marketers should be to get back to basics; communicate the overwhelming value that your products and services offer, show how they solve problems, and offer a clear and appealing call to action.

Quick-wins always have a legitimate place in marketing strategies. But when the pressure is on, marketers tend to forget that people generally don’t like being treated like fools. Click bait subject lines and merge field tech once made us feel special, but it has quickly become disingenuous, and we’re all now feeling slightly put-off every time we see our own name in our inbox.

Suddenly the marketing department becomes akin to the terrible DJ at your best friend’s wedding; taking a special, intimate and purposeful event, degrading it into a chicken dance.

Over time, this leads to harsh attitudes and opinions that can quickly throw businesses into a very undesirable bucket, and customers lose all sight of what once were the valuable benefits that you offer.

How to be transparent and effective marketers (and still get those quick wins): The tao of Woo

WooCommerce wins the award in my opinion, where short term wins can be made while not losing that critical sense of integrity.

I don’t remember Woo ever calling me out by name in a subject line or even the email itself. Their messages are short and informative, they remind me of the value that I was attracted to when I first became a customer. They remove all of the distractions that are commonplace in the other drips that target my inbox, and I enjoy receiving their email.

And WooCommerce manages to keep their marketing cool, while driving impactful short-term wins. Two-day sales and promotions arrive regularly enough but not predictively so. I can’t rely on them having a sale at the end of every month, so when they do arrive, I’m quick to open and learn more.

So how can we become more like Woo? I feel like most businesses (smaller startups especially), don’t follow pre-defined guidelines. Just as every business needs to have their core values, marketing teams should strive to have their own.

Every time assets are created, we as marketers need to check off every core value that align with our purpose as a marketing team and our purpose as a business. Let’s be mindful that our audience is always smarter than us. Let’s give them the  credit that they deserve; that they’re smart, savvy, and know their industry more than anyone else. They are not such fools that we can actually trick them into making a purchase, but that we understand their sensitivities and in this, let’s simply remind them of our value and present terrific opportunities to buy now and not later.

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