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What we can learn from spam

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Written by: Stefan Ferguson
The French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand once said: “Beauty in art is often nothing more than ugliness subdued”.

If we want to understand beauty in our art – the art of marketing – knowing what makes it ugly, and how to subdue that ugliness, is essential.

Success is really little more than the flipside of failure. If you can learn how to avoid failure then, assuming your goal is not mediocrity, you’ve learnt how to be successful. The first step, of course, is knowing how to spot crappy work. In this arena, there’s no better teacher than spam.

Spam is the constant, omnipresent reminder of how not to do your job. It encapsulates everything that is repulsive, manipulative, and feeble about digital. It’s the epitome of valueless marketing and the best possible teacher for us.

Let’s take a trawl through the dark underbelly of marketing and see what nuggets of truth we can dredge up.

You didn’t even manage to reach me

Perhaps the cardinal sin in marketing is a failure to let me know that you exist. No matter how great or how god awful your message is, it’s all for nought if I never see it. Whether we’re in PPC, content marketing, email, or all of the above, an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of our channels’ distribution mechanisms is the cornerstone of success. Get caught in a filter and we’ve wasted everybody’s resources.

I didn’t ask for this

Whoever told you that I wanted to hear from you? It’s not just that your unsolicited advances are intrusive and illegal. You’re actively making me uncomfortable by threatening my autonomy. If I’m going to buy anything, it’s going to be my choice, not yours.

I’ve seen all this before

Diamonds are valuable for one reason and one reason alone; they’re rare. If you want them you’re going to have to work hard to get them. Due to some weird trick of the human brain, this makes us want them even more.

When your ad looks like every ad that’s gone before, you immediately label yourself as low value. Your ‘Exclusive offer just for [me]’ isn’t as exclusive as you think.

Standing out in marketing isn’t just useful, it’s essential.

It’s all about you, isn’t it?

It’s lovely that you have ‘New hotels now open’. It’s just that I wasn’t planning on travelling anywhere near them. What do you expect? That I’ll go all the way to Rotherham just to try out your new hotel? I’m sure it’s identical to all your other hotels anyway.

You started this conversation. If you want me to be a part of it I need to know what’s in it for me.

I don’t believe you

It’s lovely to think that you can ‘Solve all [my] IRS debt problems instantly’. I’d really like to think that too.

However, well…it’s simply not true, is it?

Do you want to know how I know that? Because if I have debt problems, chances are I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to fix them. If there was a way to make them disappear I would have found it by now. The people I trust would have told me already. Or I would have worked it out for myself. I’m smarter than you think, you know.

Spam marketing always looks to appeal to the most gullible – the lowest common denominator. But I have faith in people. I’m fairly sure there are very few audiences in the world naive enough to believe you. And even if they do, they probably haven’t got a lot of disposable income.

Good marketers never underestimate their audience. Value propositions have to be powerful, but relatable.

You’re just not smart enough to understand me

I guess on some level everyone wants to ‘Achieve a stronger sexual life!’, right? It’s a fairly generic statement after all. It’s just that the problems I really worry about are far bigger than that. Sexual problems might be causing me some degree of pain but, in the long run, they’re secondary to the lack of intimacy in my life, or my inability to fully express myself.

You’re not speaking to what I really want in life. Things like personal growth, a sense of belonging, peace and security – these are things that let me sleep with a warm fuzzy feeling at night. When you try to reduce me to my most base emotions I can spot it immediately, and it’s kinda offensive.

You just look…cheap

Enough with the icons already. I know that you want to get my attention, but it makes you look gaudy – like a cheap Christmas tree. The spelling mistakes don’t help either.

Phew! That was cathartic. As well as blowing off a little steam, hopefully, we’ve uncovered some gems of understanding that help us make a campaign really work. By knowing what not to do we should have a better idea of what might work next time around. Good luck!