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Someone offered me $50k not to publish this

The title of this article is a lie and a trick. This article is really about the dangers of marketing to the lowest common denominator.

This is a rant post. The headline I just used to ensnare your attention (thank you for it, by the way, and please bear with me) is just one trademark example of a whole school of sleazy marketing.

That it’s sleazy isn’t news. What you may not know is just how lethally dangerous this type of marketing can be to your business.

Sleazy marketing has always been around. It used to arrive in the form of fliers in our mailbox and horrible billboards. Then the internet came along and changed everything. Funny that.

Suddenly, there were millions of people tentatively exploring this new medium. People started paying attention to this thing called email. Reading these newfangled websites became a thing.

The wizards of sleaze quickly figured out that you could get good mileage out of tactics based on fear, scarcity and hype. 

Articles started getting titled like this one. Emails would read “Read this immediately or miss out!”. The internet began to prey on our hopes that this was a new and wonderful online world – full of magic bullets and the Free Lunch we’ve been waiting for.

These tactics worked well. In fact they still do. They work so well that it’s tempting. It’s very, very tempting to use sleazy tactics to get your emails opened, or have your PR releases get picked up. Hell, I’ve even done it myself.

When the internet was very new and shiny, we all wanted to believe that the Nigerian prince really was going to share his fortune with us. Or, we chuckled and confidently dismissed spam email and then signed up for thousands of dollars of “how to make money online” courses.

The internet is no longer new and shiny. Plus, people are getting smarter.

A whole generation has grown up with the internet. This generation knew what email spam was before laying eyes on a can of the dubious meat stuff.

Slowly the uninformed “masses” (those who respond to sleazy offers) is shrinking as a group.

Some baby boomers are still desperate to believe that the internet is the magic bullet that’ll make their Multi-Level-Make-Passive-Money-Online dreams come true. But faster and faster, people are getting clued up.

They’re also getting fed up with bullshit headlines, email subjects and advertising campaigns. The growing trend in every industry, to embrace transparency/fair-trade/whatever, seems to indicate consumers want to do business with companies with heart.

That much is obvious but it’s really much, much simpler than that.

If you use artificial hype, fear and scarcity to market your business you are targeting to a shrinking audience: The foolish.

By shooting for the lowest common denominator, not only do you simultaneously target a demographic with very little disposable income (consumer debt is a bitch), you’re also in a race against education.

As people become more informed, headlines like the one I used today will start to become less and less effective. Eventually they’ll just be seen as universal red flags indicating “Here be scumbags!” – like the effect the word Nigeria has on your spam filter.

The point of this article is to urge you to market to the most intelligent version of your customer you can imagine.

When your customer is smart, she’s likely to be wealthy. She’s likely to be more discerning. She’s naturally likely to be more loyal to the vendors she does choose to do business with. Don’t be afraid of that, just step up and be one of them.

The stupid, despite breeding like crazy, tend to get smarter as a whole. You can argue education is broken, but do you really want to build a business on the hope that your customers never get the education they deserve?

It doesn’t matter, because those who lack formal education get a huge dosage of street-smarts.

So please, just target the intelligent. It’s a growing market segment.

Sadly, there are still plenty of people who would’ve preferred I not publish this.


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  1. As a guy who gets paid to sell stuff to people, this has been true for me for a while.

    I used to be that guy… Selling to the bottom of the barrel.

    But here’s the thing…

    The people at the bottom are not just dumber, but don’t have as much money to spend.

    When you know who your ideal customer is, it becomes incredibly easy to write marketing messages that they’ll respond to.

    But figuring out who that ideal customer is can often be the real tough spot…

    It’s well worth the effort though.

    (Protip: use forums to see what the smart people are talking about and what problems they have. That’ll give you almost all the info you need to get a good customer profile started)

    Thanks for sharing this, Peter. Love the blog.

    1. This. Exactly this.

      Marketing to the lowest common denominator is actually kinda LAZY, because there are so many other smart ways to get through to very specific, targeted audiences.

      Thanks for stopping by to share your wisdom, brother.

    2. Good tip, Chris — I can use it immediately. Thanks for sharing!

      Peter, I really like how you’re thinking about this.

      My current tactics for weeding out marketing dreck include:

      I delete emails claiming a limited time to do X, unless I already know what it is and already decided I want it. If the limited time is in the subject line, I don’t open the email; I just trash it.
      I usually delete emails with subjects that are extremely hypey, even if I know the author. (Your subject line surprising enough coming from you that I was willing to open the email — but skeptically. And you delivered right in the first line of the post, where you explained that the subject line was a lie.)
      I get off lists of people who bomb me with a lot of hype, especially limited-time-only hype and offers, and especially if they haven’t built a relationship with me first.
      I get off lists of people who send me too much content, or at least filter it into a folder of people who send me too much content so I can skim the subject lines and dump most of it. I would much rather have 1 great email or post once a month (an info drip I can keep up with) than 4 emails a week even if the content is mostly good. These marketers seem to assume I have nothing better to do than keep up with their flood of content. Wrong.
      I get off lists of people who don’t give me much free content before attempting to sell me. I know content varies tremendously in quality, relevancy to what I’m doing, ease of use, timeliness, slant, expertise level, and how the material is presented. Even if everything else works, if it’s presented in a format that doesn’t match how I learn, I’m not going to find it very useful. So I want to test-drive what someone offers and see if it’s a good fit before I spend money buying that person’s product or service.
      I get off the lists of people who act rude to me, even if they deliver good content. Case in point: A few months ago Rich Schefren posted a great free video with Pete Williams about how to generate content really fast. At the time I was very ill, so I decided to watch 15 minutes a night. I was about halfway through the video when they pulled it off the site. After that, I didn’t want to learn from Rich, because it seemed to me he was more concerned with generating artificial urgency so he could sell things than he was with providing me, the prospect, with good content I could use that would inspire me to buy from him. That might be a complete mis-read of the situation… but it turned me off from wanting to buy from him anyway. Just like you talk about in this post, Peter.

      A lot of the marketing courses available currently are along the lines of “Learn to do hype more effectively!” That’s not what I want. It doesn’t feel good to me, and as you point out, it’s not going to attract the customers I want.

      Now I know the current wave of “Buy this awesome thing NOW before it disappears FOREVER!” marketing does work. It has worked on me. I have bought things because of it.

      But frankly, I don’t like it. I’m seeing way too much of it. So much that I am putting more of a premium on MY time, and backing off from people who try to hustle me with arbitrary time limits. (It’s the web. You can leave good content up to market for you basically forever.)

      I want to learn from coaches who are concerned with dealing kindly, generously, and ethically with prospects and customers, because the people who respond to THAT are the people I want to work with. And because a coach who actually does this kind of marketing is much more likely to teach it.

  2. I love this post, Peter. This kind of lowest-common-denominator marketing is what gets marketing such a bad rap and makes so many entrepreneurs hate the very idea of marketing. In Daniel Pink’s latest book, he notes that most people think marketing is pushy and sleazy and manipulative. And sadly, there is still plenty of that type of marketing out there. Some of it is done knowingly, with the intention of preying on our fears and insecurities. Some of it is done simply because it is what people have been taught and it is a reflection of their own fears and insecurities. But a revolution has begun! And those manipulative marketing tactics are less and less effective. And more and more of us are marketing from a place of generosity and service.

  3. Erica,

    Your words are beautiful. And thanks Peter for the article. Spot on.

    I used to do door to door sales and lot’s of people looked at me like I was sleezy. But when anything is done with “the servers heart” it transcends and quickly cuts through stereotypes and assumptions… and the public recognizes it and feels it.

    There is a sliver of society that becomes cynical from being played with by unethical marketers, which is a bit saddening, but we all have our choice I guess.

    This topic has weighed heavy on my mind for some time… I eventually dubbed my self The Transparent Marketeer. Who know knew ethical marketing would become a pioneering practice! Thanks your the good comments and insightful reading.



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