Webspam 2.0 – The power of numbers

There’s a timeworn story about an 80-year-old man, Old Joe, who regularly goes to dances in his town. Even though he’s old and wizened, whenever Joe sees an attractive young woman sitting alone, he asks her to dance. Most of them merely smile and shake their heads or say ‘no’, but every once in a while one of them says ‘yes’, and he gets to dance with a pretty girl.

While they dance Old Joe entertains her with charming stories. Towards the end of the dance, he asks the young woman if she’ll sleep with him. Most of them merely smile and shake their heads or say ‘no’, but every once in a while one of them says ‘yes’, and goes home with him.

Whenever he manages to sleep with an attractive young woman Old Joe always asks her to marry him. Again, most merely smile and shake their heads or say ‘no’, but just once one of them said ‘yes’. And that was how the 80-year-old Joe found himself an attractive young bride.

This old tale is beloved of sales trainers and people who like to post uplifting moral tales on the Internet. It’s supposed to convey the deeper truth that persistence is the most important quality in achieving your goal, that “winners never quit and quitters never win.”

This idea also seems to underlie the boundless faith that many internet marketing people have in spam emails. Somewhere out there, they think, are the people who want to buy our product or service, we’ve got to keep plugging away until we connect with them. And if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

And – perhaps the most compelling argument of all – there are three billion people using the internet . It doesn’t matter if most of our emails are deleted unopened – we only need to get through to a tiny fraction of one per cent of this massive audience and our fortune is made, just like Old Joe in search of a bride.

I’ve got some bad news for web marketers who think like this and the email barons whose foreign holidays they pay for. The persistent 80-year-old Joe exists only in imagination. It’s true that there are a few 80-year-old millionaires married to Hollywood starlets – but it wasn’t their persistence that did the trick, it was their wealth coupled with low life expectancy. Sadly, there’s no persistent old geezer with a happy smile on his face.

And the same is true for email marketing. If you have a crap product or service and a crass sales story, it really doesn’t matter how many millions of prospects you spam, your messages are not going to land, and even if they do, they’re not going to be acted on.

And so we have Webspam 2.0. Those seeking to sell over the net have discovered the hard way that there are no attractive young brides for them out there, so the conmen (and conwomen) who make a living selling pickaxes to miners have moved their story on to new pastures. Now it’s all about building a ‘sales funnel’ – using autoresponder services to plague prospects not with one piece of spam but with many pieces of spam, until their sales resistance is worn down and they finally crack.

What the pickaxe salesmen fail to tell their customers is that there are two inescapable facts that limit the effectiveness of web marketing. The first is that the average overall click through rate is as low as 0.1 per cent – depending on product, price and other factors. That’s one person in a thousand.

The second is that conversion rates also tend to be very low. The best conversion rate from a retail site is the 4 per cent that Amazon achieve – but you’d have to be as clever as Amazon – and spend as much money as Amazon on split testing and design – to match anything like this.

The average Joe is more likely to get something closer to 0.1 per cent again, which means that Average Joe will make a sale to every one millionth person he spams. You don’t need an Apple Watch to calculate that the returns from your campaign are unlikely even to cover your costs, let alone provide a return on investment.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about email marketing is the boundless faith that its perpetrators have in the power of numbers, even though their own experience should tell them that faith is misplaced. The one question they fail to ask themselves is: “Have I ever bought a product or service by clicking on an unsolicited email?”

The real-world figures show that the answer in 99.99 per cent of cases is “No”.

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