Message, medium or audience?

By | July 27, 2020

I received a new-product release from an unknown supplier last week. This is not news. I get them all the time, mostly from offshore. We have a worldwide reputation, and people want to break into the Canadian market.

Kerry Knudsen

Unlike the competition, we base our product-release choices on reader interest and reader value, not as part of an ad program. However, we have to vet releases as to interest and value, so we try to identify the sender and see if they are even in the Canadian market. Usually with the new ones, we are told they don’t have any distribution but would like some, and will certainly advertise if they get enough sales, which is, of course, backward.

In any event, we need to know whether the products are even available in Canada, so I wrote back to get verification. My e-mail was immediately rejected as spam. It was not spam. It was a personal communication from me to the PR firm, with no embedded links and no cc:s or blind cc:s.

Since this happens occasionally, I sent the query again, this time from my gmail account, but got the same, immediate rejection. So I was bemused at being called a spammer by a spammer. Hasn’t life taken on a shaded hue?

Later in the day, I was messaging back and forth with a former advertiser that “decided to go all-digi years ago.”

This one still puzzles me. I study this stuff to death, and I report on findings by marketing and PR agencies, government agencies, results for other magazines – the works – and I can’t figure a rationale that stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s take a look at what I wrote back.

I think we are all aware that the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) has been pretty well abandoned as unenforceable. However, I think it is worth wondering why it came into being in the first place. It came into being, as did similar legislation in the U.S., because unsolicited, invasive, interruptive bulk e-mails irk people right to death.

As the CASL was being debated and since, I have used our November “Readers’ Survey” to poll the market on spam, and I got two answers. First, the readers, your customers, overwhelmingly said they do not want multiple, commercial e-letters bonging their computer and phone inboxes. Secondly, I always get a few supplier-salesmen trying to sneak in and skew the results. This time, it was significantly more, and they were lobbying for more spam – a direct contradiction to the desires of the market.

For example, in 2012 I asked the readers of Wood Industry magazine whether they want publishers to “push” digital content to their mailboxes. Their response was 84.3 percent “No.”

We asked the same question of the same audience in 2019, and the response was 85 percent “No.”

In 2013, we surveyed both markets on their own uses of digital promotion. Of the Coverings (flooring) market 58 percent said they don’t use digital. Of those that do, 59 percent said they don’t know what their ROI is on digital, 21 percent said their ROI is below expectations and four percent said it is “very poor.”

In the same month and year, we pitched the same questions to the Wood Industry market. Of them, 61 percent said they don’t use digital. Of the rest, 60 percent don’t know what their ROI is on digital, 13 percent said their ROI is below expectations and 4 percent said it’s very poor.

Does this mean “digital” is worthless? Not a bit. Of the digital content we send out, 81 percent of respondents say they read the editorial “right away” or “when I get around to it.” This is because each of our e-letters is original, independent content and the readers are accustomed to expecting original, independent content.

We also surveyed the readers on frequency, and 94 percent of them really like the e-letters, and think once a month is just fine. Only 5 percent want it bumped up to twice a month, and only 2 percent want it weekly. Nobody wants it less frequently.

This establishes a fact. Your customers do NOT want to be used as a marketing target for a speed-of-light machine gun. They have told the governments, and the governments have listened. They have told me, and I have listened. In fact, the only people that have not listened are some non-focused marketers and a peso-hungry media that can’t wait to consume tomorrow what it can smell today.

These surveys are a snapshot of what the markets want and expect from “digital,” and it is not dissimilar to print, television, video or radio. People want their time and intelligence respected, and they want an “honest broker in the middle” protecting both from rapacious, driven, movin’-on salesmen.

From time to time I get the argument that spam is somehow new technology. It is not. What may foster this idea of newness is that people think the internet came about in the early ‘90s. By then, things were well advanced. What happened in 1993 was the invention of a little software bit called winsock, or windows socket. This allowed the internet’s Linux code system to integrate with Windows and provided worldwide accessibility, hence the name worldwide web, or www.*.

Back in the days of paper mail, junk mail was roundly despised, and marketers studied every trick to get people to open a sales piece, including to disguise it as something else. When the shysters got hold of the idea of an internet in the mid ‘80s, the explosion of selling e-addresses was immediate and violent, as were legal-, professional- and consumer-level attempts to stop, restrict or regulate it. As a volunteer sysop (system operator) on the old CompuServe digital platform, I was part of the effort to identify, label and restrict spam abuses both inside and outside the system.


Stepping back, the view from my desk begs a question. What motivates publishers to sell, abuse and misrepresent their reader lists? I get it that there is money and that we hire outside agencies to renew or enhance our lists. However, the customer base has made its wishes clear through formal and informal means, as well as in our multiple surveys. They don’t like it.

Also, if you are spamming your own list, what do you do when somebody hits Unsubscribe? If you are obeying any sense of propriety or law, you have to unsubscribe, and have lost the attention of that person, likely forever – especially if you get identified and listed on the recipient’s company’s twit filter.

As I reported before, I was at a conference of the American Society of Business Publications Editors last year, and one of the presenters was a proponent of spam. He said it really doesn’t matter whether they lose some readers, they can make it up by spamming the others twice and – you’ll love this – “the customer (you) will never know.” No wonder publishers have the same social rating as used-car dealers and lawyers.

We bring current, real news of marketing in the digital world. We may be realistic about digital, but we are totally capable in both digital production and database management. We could not send professional-level magazines through a modem – to Siberia, if we wanted to – and have each copy hand-delivered across North America and the world if we were not.

However, we are also in for the long game, and we have to report the bad with the good, and almost all the real reporting on digital is bad. Last Thursday (today, for me), for example, AdAge’s lead story was, “Twitter advertising revenue plummets despite record growth in daily users.” Or yesterday: Adaptive Algorithmic Advertising: Performance Advertising’s New Game Changer. “Advertising’s new game changer? Why, we might ask, does adverting need a new game changer, already again this month? Is there something they aren’t telling you?

I am certain all your digital-spend salesmen can explain how that doesn’t really apply in their cases, but a 19-percent drop in Twitter sales is a 19-percent drop in Twitter sales and a game changer is a game changer. Or not. These are also the same headlines, more-or-less, that preceded the demise of the dot-com market, MySpace, CompuServe, AOL, GEnie and hundreds more “money-for-nuthin’” ventures by the movin’-on set.

We have discussed all this before, but at our roots, humans will pay for and kill for food, sex and information. On the information side, digital has never been able to achieve the status of “credible,” since we allowed people to hide their identities and scan your credit cards.

All this raises the question of why, if the readers don’t like it, do most contemporary publishers push digital when they have no original, independent content to be pushed?

Could it be that they having nothing else to sell, have no audience to protect and can’t generate an audience response? Have they become an unpaid secretary pool for their top-three favourite advertisers, can repurpose new product releases and awards shots or can copy click-bait stories from Google Search and save the costs of reporting?

Let’s be honest. If you are not getting the best ROI on your marketing spend, there can only be three reasons: message, medium or audience.

Digital is not “nothing.” We use it, and we can use it at the highest professional levels. It is unparalleled in speed, but lacking in accuracy and trust from the market. The problem is, magazines were never meant to be fast. They were meant to be informative. Still waters run deep.


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