Don't Be A Weasel

A couple of weeks back I expressed my fears about a deluge of offline direct marketers hitting the online world all at the same time.

There’s nothing really wrong with direct marketers coming online. Far from it. Unless they don’t pause to learn that you can’t bring all your offline experience to the web unchanged. One offline practice that can devastate an online list is being a weasel. That is to say, tricking people into thinking what you want them to think. Here’s an offline example:

In tiny print: If you hold the winning number. In HUGE print: You have just won $35 million!!!!!!!!

That’s being a big weasel. But being a little weasel is even more common.

Example: Sign up today and get one month free!

Trouble is, it’s a negative option. If you don’t cancel before the end of the month, we’ll start billing you and hope you never notice.

Example: Send for your free gift today!

After which you will be obliged to spend at least $x over the next 12 months.

Being a weasel offline really does work. It has worked for decades. Direct marketers have tested it. Customers are aware of it and appear to tolerate it. There are a zillion statistics to support that approach.

Which is kind of weird because a lot of the time these are the same people who log on to the Internet with a whole separate set of expectations and standards.

Here’s an online example of being a weasel:

“You are receiving this message because at some time you asked for blah blah or bla bla or you purchased a blah blah. This is not Spam.”


That’s being a weasel — and a Spammer. That’s trying to distort the customer’s actual perceptions and knowledge to your own advantage. Well, if you’re new to online direct marketing and you try this approach, good luck to you. Why are people online so intolerant of this weasely approach?

Because of the history of unsolicited email. You just have to check out the history. And that won’t take you long because we’re only talking about a few years here.

Way back in the mists of online time, before the world wide web, there were email and bulletin boards. No commercial stuff. Just very, very early adopters communicating with one another — and never dreaming of trying to sell stuff.

Then came the Spammers. And they flooded everyone with crude, intrusive promotions — frequently. As a result, Spammers created a huge sensitivity to unsolicited email and more broadly, to being “weaseled.” Offline, your audiences may not even notice the game you’re playing. Online they probably will.

And they won’t forgive you.

I just had a thought. Over a year ago, I wrote an article about an imaginary award called the Fork in the Head Award. A few weeks later, the web site was born.

Now I think someone should come up with the WeaselFree Award. It can be awarded to online direct marketing and direct sales sites that set a higher standard and refuse to indulge in any kind of weasely behavior.

I can see it now. TRUSTe. VeriSign. WeaselFree.

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