This past week, an executive at a high-tech company posted on LinkedIn about the aggressive email marketing a vendor was sending. The post attracted hundreds of blistering indictments of the marketing tactics of high-tech startups. One commenter noted how the difference between on-line bullying and email marketing are increasingly blurred.
Why this uptick in aggressive marketing?
I spent some time surveying the vendor emails I have received over the past few months. While most of these are innocuous, there were quite a few with a notable aggressive tone. Here is an example of an email I just got this past week:
The COVID pandemic and related anxiety are certainly a factor. However, a quick look back through my old messages to pre-pandemic times still produced some aggressive emails.
So what is going on here? Why are high-tech companies using these techniques?
Why So Many Harassing Emails?
I believe there is one obvious reason, and two less obvious ones:
- Desperation for sales
- Lack of messaging discipline
- Weak leadership
Lack of sales is the obvious reason. Marketing and sales teams are under pressure to produce results. This is particularly true of startup companies. When companies are desperate, they resort to desperate measures.
However, only some companies devolve into harassing their prospects when sales are down. This is where leadership and message discipline come into play.
There are a lot of executives (especially in the startup world) who only have a single tool in their leadership toolbox: aggression. I suspect this comes from how they became a leader in the first place; they bullied and shoved their way to the top. Since aggression worked to get them where they are, they use it for everything. When pressured to perform, they become aggressive. When challenged, they become aggressive. When they do not know what to do, they … you get the idea.
Unsurprisingly, aggressive leaders who bully others to get what they want will naturally resort to bullying their prospects into buying their products and services. Aggression begets aggression.
However, we must be careful not to confuse aggression with confidence. It is one thing to show pride in your products or express faith in a team. It is something much darker when you send a zillion emails to people threatening them to reply.
So, how do you avoid descending into harassing marketing? Having dump trucks full of money and not hiring bullies usually does the trick. However, as that is easier said than done, I am going to shove those two issues aside and focus on the third issue: message discipline.
Have you ever actually read some of the emails and marketing content that startups produce? Awful does not describe it sufficiently. It is advanced awful. Recently, I was reading a company’s “Definitive Guide” and got a headache from the eyerolling. Pages of banal platitudes and grandiose claims. The document treated me like I was a complete idiot and incapable of comprehending basic principles of business, cloud computing, security, or breathing. The document was also filled with obvious statements packaged as deep insights. For example, it took this “Definitive Guide” over 200 words to inform me that “losing data can be catastrophic to a company.” Wow. The raccoons eating my garbage know that.
I did not make it past the first page of this guide. Apparently, the audience for this company’s “Definitive Guide” are gullible idiots. Maybe the author belongs in politics rather than high-tech.
This startup, like so many others, is failing to practice a fundamental principle of writing: message discipline. Under pressure to produce content (any content) they are producing material that fails to communicate anything of value. It also reveals their desperation. You cannot trust a desperate person or company.
So, what is message discipline? It is a set of basic writing and communication principles to keep you on target and build a real relationship with a reader. Here are some of those concepts:
Less is More
You could have a product that cures cancer, ends world hunger, and eliminates all forms of human suffering, and people would still not read your 1000-word email, even if you send it to them 50 times.
I just got a spam email today that was 1391 words long. It took a full 6 paragraphs, boasting about the speed of the product, the awards they won, and the amazing track record of their genius leadership. Ugh. So many words, so little said.
No marketing email should be longer than three sentences or about 40 words. If you cannot make your point in three sentences, then it is not worth reading.
Also, if you cannot get your point across in one or two emails, then you never will.
This follows from the brevity suggestion. Most vendor emails spill out everything about a company, its products, benefits, and reference customers. As I said before, nobody reads it. Moreover, ludicrous boastful statements like “we are the premier cloud solution for globally dominant brands” just make you sound ridiculous.
Bright lights attract moths, clever sounds attract curious buyers. Make people want to find out more about your company. To do this, say very little and leave the reader hanging.
The more mystery you create about what you do, the more likely people will come to you asking for more information. That fundamentally alters the dynamic between you and the prospect. When the prospect approaches you wanting information, they are more receptive to your sales pitch.
Quantity of content is not going to compensate for quality. Sending out wave after wave of emails will not generate business right away. Marketing is a slow grind. You need to calm down and play the long game.
- Do not hit your email lists more than once per quarter. Anything more than that is bordering on harassment.
- Opt-out links must be flawless. If a prospect opts out of your marketing platform you have a solemn duty to never email that person ever again in their life. It is never acceptable to get this wrong.
- Change your content frequently. Repetitive content feels harassing since people have seen it before and do not want to see it anymore.
- How about dropping the email blasts entirely? Do they really work? How about blogs? Videos? Or something creative like a mock interview? Creative ideas can be scary (sometimes insane.) Yet, if you do something different, it will stand out. Even if it flops, it will make people notice your company. A good example of this was Zscaler’s booth at RSA a few years back where people smashed firewalls with sledgehammers. It was a wildly creative concept and supremely effective.
- Keep the email painfully brief and direct the reader to meaningful content. Let the reader come to you. A person who clicks a link to read your content is inherently more interested.
Nobody wants to hear your pitch. Maybe that technique worked in 1997. Today’s high-tech buyers are savvier and have more information available to them.
Rather than pitching YOUR product, try discussing THEIR problems. In other words, make your marketing about the customer and not about you. I will eagerly read a “Definitive Guide” that addresses things I am worried about or are causing me difficultly. Yet, the instant that guide strays from discussing the problem to pitching a product, my interest wanes.
Another way to accomplish this is to ask questions and propose some possible answers. Keep those answers generic. Offer the reader good ideas, strategies, and techniques, rather than product talking points.
Who Are You Talking To?
Who do you want to read your content? You must know your audience. What is their job, their experience level, their hopes, their problems, the things that make them laugh, etc. When writing content, visualize this person and write “at” them. Its amazing how much better (and concise) content becomes, when you have a clear idea of who you want to read it.
Show, Don’t Tell
When the time comes to present your product: show, don’t tell. Show me how your product solves a problem. Show me the reports. Show me the data. Show me the screens.
Another way to say this suggestion: do not treat me like an idiot incapable of comprehending your product. If you treat your customers like intelligent people, guess what kind of customers you will attract? (Hint: not gullible idiots.)
Give your audience the freedom to discover why you are better. This has the added benefit of getting people more invested in your products and vision. Which gets to the final item on my list.
Start with Why
As Master Sinek teaches us all: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you want people to be attracted to your products, then you must clearly communicate your vision. Why did you make your product? What greater purpose does your product and company serve?
Content that leads with vision may feel awkward to you because you live and breathe the product every day. However, to a prospect who does not know you, vision is the ideal way to introduce yourself.
In those three sentences I now know what this company believes and what they do. I too believe security is for everybody, so why not give them a call?
Aggressive marketing does not work. For every prospect it attracts it repels many more. With a more intelligent approach, you can up level your communication and attract a savvier (an wealthier) set of customers.
If you want to truly communicate with prospective customers, you must stop thinking about what you want to say and start thinking about what other people want to hear.
Also, a funny thing happens when shift your focus to other people instead of yourself: you acquire additional leadership skills beyond aggression. Skills such as listening, diplomacy, creativity, and empathy arise from reflection and thinking of others.
As for all those emails you receive from vendors, resist the urge to complain on social media about them. That will not stop them. It has the unintended effect of giving them more attention (this is the Streisand Effect.) What will stop them is to ignore them or use your email system to block their address.