Do You Really Want What Marketers Say You Want As Readers?

With thanks to Anne R. Allen

The latest trend in online marketing is building a “personal relationship” with customers and readers. Sending newsy emails about your fab summer vacation isn’t enough anymore. Now you have to ask them about their fab summer vacations.

This is supposed to let readers know you really care about them.

Does it?

Speaking as a reader, that would be a…not so much.

I read lots of books. Do I want all those authors clogging my inbox, trying to be my BFF? Nope. Not even if it’s Margaret Atwood. If she really cares about me, she’ll write another book, not have a virtual assistant send me a faux-friendly email.

As an author, it all makes me want to cry. How can a working author find time to be pen pals with thousands of readers—even with robotic help?

As a customer, I feel bullied. I don’t even get a say in whether I want a personal relationship. I’m especially irked with authors and vendors who try to get up close and personal even before I decide to buy a book or service.

Maybe it’s the Manners Doctor in me, but I think people should be properly introduced before they ask personal questions. Too much, too soon doesn’t make me feel befriended. It makes me feel bulldozed.

In this current marketing scenario, the author/vendor offers a bribe, like a free ebook (called a “reader magnet”) in exchange for a potential customer’s information. (And recently many vendors have dropped the freebie, and the “magnet” is simply the privilege of entering a website.)

Once they’ve got your deets, they’ll hammer you into a “personal” relationship with their robots whether you want it or not.

The Invasive Auto-Response Email

The plan goes like this: once you’re on the hook, the author or vendor sends an immediate automated email that asks friendly questions like:

  • What books do you read?
  • Where do you live?
  • What do you like to do?
  • Yoga? And when are your classes?
  • Oh, so you’re out of the house on Tuesday evenings between 7 and 9?
  • Where do you keep your valuables?

Kidding aside, not everybody feels warm and fuzzy when asked personal questions by complete strangers. The line between “friendly” and “invasion of privacy” can be a thin one. When you cross it, you are going to have less than positive results.

I have recommended several blogs and websites to our blog readers—and some have encountered this kind of invasive marketing. The readers were not pleased. When I told the site owners this wasn’t winning them any friends, they said they hadn’t had any complaints.

Of course they hadn’t. The potential customers can’t get on the site to complain. They’re locked out unless they give up all their personal information.

The person who hears the complaints is ME.

I can’t help wondering if any of the marketing gurus have noticed that Facebook just got fined $5 billion dollars for invading users’ privacy. Privacy-invading is not a good business plan these days, even if you’re not selling data to the highest bidder. $5 billion may be pocket change to Mr. Zuckerberg, but it might make a hole in the budget of the average author.

And what happened to asking permission? This is the era of #MeToo.

Your Blind Date Arrives with a Moving Van: Beware Dark Pattern Marketing.

If you thought that first email was invasive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

There’ll be more. And more.  A robot (or frazzled author) will send you generic, condescending platitudes in response to the data they’ve mined from you. And more questions.

Remember these newly-minted “fans” aren’t even customers yet. Maybe they don’t read books in your genre or need your services. But marketers say now that the target has been conned out of personal information and sent a bunch of annoying emails, the “conversions” (that’s jargon for “sales”) will happen automatically

They don’t have a clue that at this point the potential customers are more interested in escaping with their lives than buying stuff.

And somehow unsubscribing takes weeks, if it happens at all. (I still get emails addressed to “Dear Unsubscribe Me You Morons.”)

And unsubscribers are also subjected to a major guilt trip. “Where did we go wrong?” one site asks if you try to leave. Or you have to hit a button that says: “I’m not interested in becoming a published author,” or “I prefer to remain ignorant.”

This “Dark Pattern Marketing” strategy is everywhere. Manipulate, bully, and pile on the guilt.

It’s as if you said “maybe” to a blind date with a friend’s cousin. But before you can even talk about where to go for coffee, the cousin has moved into your apartment with three Rottweilers and is rebuilding a motorcycle engine in your living room. When you ask him to leave, he shows you the cast on his broken leg. He can’t even walk!

If you kick him out, you’re a Bad Person.

Then Things get Stalkery.

But wait, there’s more!

After a week or two of daily invasive questions and condescending advice, you get an astonishing missive complaining that you haven’t been to their website in 13.3 days! Have you forgotten you’re BFFs? Guess you don’t want to have a nice life, do you? Are you sick or something? Well, you can’t be that sick, since you ordered Chinese last night. And you know how MSG triggers your asthma…

Not that they’re stalking you or anything.

I’m not making this up. I’ve had several emails like this from authors and author services recently. Obviously they’re working from the same marketing playbook. Which was apparently composed while watching Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

Here’s one I got last week, exactly 2 weeks after I accepted the “bribe” of being allowed to visit the site:

“Did you forget about us? I noticed you’ve been inactive for some time, so I thought I’d reach out to see if I can be of any assistance. Did you experience any problems on my site? Or are you just not ready to start working with professionals?”

Meow. Passive-aggressive much?

Does a whiny, clingy, stalkery email make you run to a website and buy something right that minute? Shower the author or company with money and five star reviews?

Personally, my first thought was, OMG this company must be about to go under. Total desperation. Don’t do business with them!

Would This Marketing Work in the Real-World Marketplace?

Can you imagine walking into a brick and mortar bookstore and encountering this kind of behavior?

Say you want to find out if a shop has a new title by a favorite author. So you try to peek in the window.

A guard blocks your view and demands your name and address.

When you’re finally allowed inside, your data goes to a perky author who follows you around asking what you like to do and where you live and offers to come over that night with a nice kale salad, since you obviously don’t eat right or have any friends. And…why do you want to buy that book? Why not buy my book? Oh, you read it? Then where’s the review? Did you hate it? Or are you just lazy? Are you trying to ruin my life?

I think I’d run out the door screaming. How about you?

Most Readers are Introverts

Okay, maybe this kind of marketing works for selling widgets or pumpkin spice underwear or something. Maybe some customers really are ignorant, friendless losers sitting like an abandoned toy on some cobwebby nursery shelf—pining for an advertiser to fill the empty inboxes of their tattered souls.

But I don’t believe for a minute all this time-consuming nonsense will endear an author to readers, no matter how many sleepless nights the author spends ruining her health trying to have a personal relationship with them.

Most of my friends are readers, and most of them aren’t all that eager to get palsy-walsy with strangers—whether they’re authors or not—when there are books to be read.

In fact, I know quite a few who prefer to shop at supermarkets with self-checkout lines so they don’t have to talk to anybody and can get back to their books as soon as possible.

Or better yet, they order from Amazon so they don’t have to interact with people at all.

Have any of these marketers noticed that Amazon does pretty well for itself in the selling-stuff department? Why not copy the Zon’s easy-peasy one-click selling instead of all this creepy invasion of privacy?

Here’s the thing: most avid readers are introverts.

Introverts don’t need constant attention to feel special.

They can feel special all by themselves.

Please. That would be now. Go Away. I’m reading.

Why Is Online Marketing Immune to the Golden Rule?

Assuming all members of a target demographic are the same is the first mistake of these marketers. The second is thinking that customers are sub-human targets to be conned and preyed upon, so the Golden Rule does not apply.

Online marketing has had the same business model from the beginning. Give the target a freebie, and once they’re hooked, make them pay more and more for the same experience.

Con, lie, bait-and-switch—whatever draws them in. Then own them.

Like a drug dealer.

It’s no-empathy advertising. The marketer is the predator and the customer is prey.

Pretending to be somebody’s instant BFF is still predatory, especially when you’ve bullied them out of their email address.

Seth Grodin says Online Marketing Needs to Change.

I’m glad to see that marketing guru Seth Grodin agrees with me. He’s got a new book out saying that online marketing needs to change its ways.  He says, “Truly powerful marketing is grounded in empathy, generosity, and emotional labour.”

Not bullying and gimmicks and gaming the algorithms.

Online advertising needs to move beyond predatory behavior. I believe it’s possible to sell books and services without being a bully or a con.

What readers want is to be left alone unless they initiate contact. If you hear from a reader, then by all means be as kind and welcoming to them as you would like them to be to you. Form a real personal relationship, not a phony, forced one.

Golden-Rule them to pieces.

Now that’s good marketing.

What Readers Want.

One of the more annoying articles on this “personal relationship” marketing strategy suggested that authors need to communicate with one-on-one emails in order to “find out what readers want.”

But there’s another way to find out what readers want: look at what they buy.

Anybody who thinks authors should spend 16 hours a day finding out what readers want via pen-pal has no idea what it means to be a writer.

Here’s an idea: why don’t we write what’s in our hearts and then find readers with similar hearts and market to them: our peers, not “targets” we treat as inferiors?

What about respecting our readers’ time? And our own?

I happen to think authors have better things to do than have fake relationships with 1000s of readers.

Like, oh, maybe….writing books.

Or maybe they could start a blog where they could interact with the readers who want to interact.

As a reader, I’d rather read books by my favorite authors than creepy, prying emails from them (or their robot assistants.)

I wish I could tell those marketers what readers want—what they really, really want—even more than time-wasting faux personal relationships.

It’s…BOOKS!  Good ones.

Let’s go write some.

Marketing fads are short-lived. But a great book is forever.

by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) August 18, 2019