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Predictive Spam or Predictive Revenue

spamAbout 50 times a day, I get an email with an innocuous subject line like “Wanted to Circle Back David” or “Lunch Tomorrow?” (these are the first two I found this morning in my inbox).

Given that these appear to be from people that I’ve apparently talked to or know, I open the email (in marketing terms, I contribute to the “open rate”). It’s only after I start to read the content that I realized I’ve been duped; these emails are spam in sheep’s clothing.

For example, the woman inviting me to “lunch tomorrow” is selling contact information appending and is based in Vancouver, Washington – a short two-hour flight away for our lunch date. The man circling back is selling an “automated communication” software to – you guessed it – enable me to create annoying emails just like the one he just sent. His pitch is here:

Repetition is the key to connecting with busy, important people like yourself.

Most salespeople stop after the 1st or 2nd touch.

When often the 5th or 8th touch leads to the most replies.

The key to our system is that we use a global workforce & technology to create smarter automated communication, for often less than an entry level wage minus the expensive benefit costs.

I can create a sample prospecting plan for no charge, if you have time next week to collaborate?

Yes, apparently spamming someone eight times is the golden ticket to success!

You might be tempted to believe this pitch – after all, if thousands of people are using deceptive subject lines and multiple “touches” as part of their email marketing plan, it must be working, right? The answer partly depends on timing and partly on your target audience. If your audience is “any business”, then I suppose that this strategy might work. This is a game of large numbers, so if you simply increase your delivery rate, open rate, and response rate, the odds are that you will drive more sales in the end.

If you are trying to sell an expensive or complicated product (think enterprise B2B) or reach “busy, important people,” then this this approach is destined for failure. How can you expect to build rapport with an executive when your initial communication is an outright deception?

I was first introduced to the concept of testing different “faux personalized” messages and then sending out the most effective ones at scale via Aaron Ross’ excellent book Predictable Revenue. The technique was quite successful for Ross, as he used it to scale SalesForce’s inside sales team to the point that it allegedly drove $100 million in revenue for the company.

It seems that I’m not the only one who read the book. Indeed, an unintended consequence of Ross’ success evangelizing his technique is the over-use and misuse of his principles. A recent blog post on his Web site warns that “95% of salespeople” make major mistakes with cold emails, which can result in “a declining open rate and in extreme cases, a tarnished reputation.” And this leads us to the second determinant of success: timing. When Ross was perfecting his predictable revenue methodology at SalesForce, he hadn’t written his book and consequently no one was mimicking his approach. Today, tens of thousands of Predictable Revenue readers are sending – and often spamming – the world with faux personalized messages.

The result is a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation, where “individuals acting independently and rationally according to each’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource.” The common resource at risk today is the trust of email recipients. Every day that I receive another 50 trick emails from people I don’t know trying to convince me that I do know them, my level of suspicion is raised. These days, unless I recognize the name of the sender, I just assume that the email is spam. Do I read it just in case? Sure – but there’s no way I’m actually going to respond to the email.

Getting back to those mistakes that 95% of salespeople make, one of the top four according to Ross’ blog is an “overproduced tone.” As the blog notes:

Make your email authentic. Email templates that look too fancy or overly modern end up just feeling fake and impersonal. The last thing you’d ever want is for someone to consider your email spam. This is why it’s really important to ensure your email feels human, not like something mass-produced.

This, however, is the problem – the more “human” the email feels today, the more I’m apt to conclude that it is spam. In some respects, I think I’m more responsive to emails that are clearly bulk email marketing messages – at least the sender is being honest about wanting to sell something to someone they don’t know!

The bottom line is that good marketing – be it cold emails, Google AdWords, or a roadside billboard – needs to be both authentic and original. Authentic in the sense that you begin your relationship with a customer in a way that is truthful about your brand and forthright in your attentions. Original in the sense of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow – creating advertising that stands out from the crowd. What worked for Aaron Ross ten years ago may not work for you today, because it’s no longer a purple cow and the tragedy of the commons has raised the suspicions of respondents. There are great testing and scaling lessons to be had from Ross’ book, but imitation alone is unlikely to replicate success.

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