Coming on Too Strong?

As we return from a post-Valentine’s Day weekend rested and relaxed (ahem), it’s worth looking back at last week to see how marketers comported themselves. Beginning in early February, my inbox began accumulating little hints about the upcoming festivities. Offers for Valentine’s cards and amorous holiday trips trickled in on a regular basis. By the second week in February, a veritable tsunami was unleashed. I couldn’t go near my inbox without being bombarded with pitches for roses, chocolate, or, more poignantly, matchmaking services.

Although the torrent is to be expected at major holiday times, it was disheartening to see much of the muck came from companies I thought I knew. The airlines that send the e-fares I like so much now wanted to ply me with romantic weekend getaways. Bookstores reminded me it was not too late to send something to a special someone. And just in case I had been living in a cave, every credit card company in existence felt the need to jog my memory about Valentine’s Day and the desirability of sending a gift.

To be fair, I had opted in to many of these companies’ marketing programs. In exchange for newsletters and other timely materials, I had agreed to accept communications that might be of interest to me. Of course, you are usually lured into that contract with promises of offers and information that would have some fleeting connection to the topic you were originally interested in. Just because I’ve given permission doesn’t mean marketers have to open the spigot.

How much is enough? That simple question has plagued marketers for ages. Though it is tempting — often irresistible — to thrust a tidal wave of communications at a customer, at some point it’s oppressive. Add the lure of cheap email marketing campaigns, and you have a situation that can no longer be ignored.

Unlike out-and-out spammers, who seem to court contempt, respectable marketers’ balancing act is more delicate. Yes, they want to increase sales. Yes, they want to stay close to customers and remain top of mind. But at what cost?

When does a company go from being an aggressive marketer to being a pest? Perhaps that question can only be answered by the recipient. One person’s spam is another person’s treasure. That answer makes it far too easy on the marketers. Spray-and-pray email campaigns may seem like a good idea, especially in a down market with elusive profits. But such tactics have long-term consequences.

The specious argument made by some marketers is that no one counts the number of snail-mail advertisements they receive, so why is that burden unfairly foisted on online marketers? That same mentality suggests that pop-up ads are no more annoying than television commercials. These marketers, seemingly driven by their stock options’ declining value and bleak prospects for employment if they are laid off, need a reality check.

Online and offline marketing are different. Hopefully, that simple declarative sentence will eventually sink in. We can save the subtleties of that argument for another article. Suffice it to say marketers ignore that distinction at their peril. Even assuming (which I do not) the same tactics apply in both worlds, an overarching cardinal rule of any marketing plan is: Never Alienate the Customer.

Conventional wisdom suggests weekly communications from a marketer are, by and large, acceptable to the average consumer. That rough rule of thumb can vary widely, depending on the product and the time of year. At least it sets some parameters. Does a typical customer really need daily Valentine’s Day reminders from a single company? Surely not. Yet that’s precisely what they got.

Let’s keep in mind the end game here is to connect with the consumer. Companies take great pains to craft enticing offers and nurture relationships with their customers. All that is put at risk by overzealous marketing. In a highly competitive environment, someone else invariably can do it better, faster, or cheaper. If you want your customers to stick with you during the tough times, it doesn’t pay to cross the line between trusted friend and pain-in-the-inbox.

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