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Testing designed to annoy customers

Regular readers know that “do it wrong quickly” is my way of telling marketers to test, test, and test again. Most of the risks associated with mistakes in off-line media are not present on the Web, so we should not fear “letting fly” with ideas that can be quickly corrected and reshaped. But there are exceptions, and I wanted you share one with you.


Before Christmas, I stopped into a major retailer’s brick-and-mortar store to purchase a gift for one of my kids. At the register, I was asked if I’d like to obtain a free card that entitled me to a discount for future purchases. That sounded good, and it was free, so I said yes. I was asked to provide my e-mail address, which I thought was OK, so I did.
I started to receive e-mails (several a week) from this company, each one with an offer for a 10-20% discount on a particular product. That’s not exactly what I thought I was signing up for—I thought I was getting a chance at a discount on what I wanted to buy, not on what they wanted to sell, but I let it go.
Then, last week, I got a more official-looking e-mail that informed me that to start receiving my discounts (OK, now we’re talking) I have to register my card online. That seemed a bit odd because they already have my e-mail address, but I decided to go ahead. When I clicked the link, I was subjected to a dozen-question survey about my interests. I was starting to feel like this was overkill, but I went along. (At this point, it’s possible that my professional curiosity about what kind of marketing campaign this is began to overwhelm my usual consumer defenses, because I think a lot of people would have dropped out here.) I wondered if my survey answers might be used so they could provide more targeted e-mail offers in the future, but they never told me that, so I am still left wondering.
After spending several minutes answering the survey, I finally got to the end. I was ready to find out about these great discounts that I now qualified for. Well, don’t hold your breath on this one.
I was presented with a screen requesting that I choose between three very similar discounts: 20% off one $100 purchase, 10% off one $50 purchase, and some other offer I don’t even remember now. I don’t remember it because it was a lot like the first two offers. It was confusing, to say the least. I mean, I hadn’t shown up at their door ready to buy something. It was as if someone called you on the phone out of the blue and said, “How much do you want to buy from me?”
But that wasn’t the worst part. Every single discount offer expired within 15 days. To me, they were worthless. I had no intention of buying anything from this company that quickly. Why not give some percentage off my next purchase, whenever that is? Then, I might remember the company the next time I needed what they sell. I could even print out a coupon that reminded me. Or when I presented the card at retail or used my e-mail address in an on-line purchase, the company could remember I get a discount. Nothing but good will from these approaches, but instead I was frustrated.
Instead of choosing one of these similar and unwelcome offers, I sent an e-mail to the company telling them that their discount offers were unimpressive and that I felt that I had been taken advantage of just to beef up their market research. The reply I got shocked me:

We welcome your comments, as we rely on feedback from customers to improve on the services we provide for the program.
[Clueless Company] has been developing a variety of offers in our e-mails as we seek to provide the best services and most relevant offers for our customers. Our best way to learn about which offers are most valued and used is to apply a common marketing practice that involves running a variety of test offers to better gauge our customers’ interests among several offers. We then compare responses from the different groups and customize weekly newsletters to better fit the customers personal preferences and interests.
Please be assured that we will continue to offer a wide variety of coupons, including those that can be used on any item.
Thanks for choosing [Clueless Company]. Please feel free to contact us if you have any other questions.

My eyes! Cover my eyes!
So you’re blaming the idea of offer testing for this? Geez. How about understanding that your test is idiotic because it does not take into account what your customer is doing and what they are motivated by? How about realizing that offering three choices that are largely interchangeable doesn’t tell you anything? How about admitting that you are just pumping up your market research without offering anything of value?
And I started to wonder if underneath all the fancy talk about listening to our customers, that some of us still don’t get it. We still don’t realize that customers are not stupid and that we have to give value in return for their time and information, or else we damage our brands.
I have no intention of shopping at [Clueless Company] right now. They annoyed me. There’s no good reason to ever annoy your customer while testing something. The information you get is not more important than the relationship.
Your ostensible reason for testing is not merely to get information but to be able to use that information to make customers happy. If the test itself ticks people off, then what exactly are you accomplishing?
Now I know I could have had a far more provocative and link-baiting post by naming [Clueless Company] and providing screen shots and the name of the twit who condescended to explain offer testing to me, but my goal isn’t to embarrass anyone. My goal is to help my readers take a close look at testing to see if you might be annoying your customers.
Let’s keep in mind that the goal in everything we do is to increase our sales through better relationships with customers, which comes through satisfying rather than annoying them. As important as offer testing is, it is merely a means to an end. Don’t screw up on the point of the whole thing.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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