Last week I did something really embarrassing. I unwittingly became a spammer. Oh gods of marketing, social media, and E-mail forgive me. I knew not what that click would do. I should have dug deeper. I should have checked references. I should have …
But I didn’t, and with one innocent click, I indirectly sent a mass of automated emails with the subject line, “Are you taking on new clients?” Ewww.
This is the story of what happened, where I think the company in question went wildly wrong (resulting in a giant FAIL), and the super important moral to this B2B fable.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It all began when a LinkedIn colleague (acquaintance, really) sent me an invite to a site called Referral Key which has been touted by respectable publications like The Boston Business Journal as a “new, fast growing networking website” that helps “small businesses build powerful referral networks online.” The site was polished and professional and I had five minutes to kill, so I thought “what the hell” and created an account. Who wouldn’t like a few more referrals?
Shortly after joining, I received the following automated email with the subject line, “Christopher Ott has sent you a Private Brief…” The link in the email took me to a message page on Referral Key which included a link to a 59-second video entitled “Turn your LinkedIn contacts into referral resources in 20 seconds.” It looked easy – import your contacts with a few clicks. What the video failed to disclose is that when you import your colleagues, Referral Key blasts an automated E-mail message to each of your LinkedIn contacts.
I know Referral Key sent these emails because I began to get responses from my contacts. Some of them thought it was a personal message and replied to let me know they were actually too busy to accept referrals. Some emailed to ask if the message was spam. Some simply joined (for which they were rewarded with another auto-gen E-mail which (oh, the shame!) asked them to visit my profile and rate my services). Most troubling of all were the people who didn’t respond at all. I can only hope that the auto-gen email died a quick and deserving death in their spam folders. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are some folks (people who don’t know me personally, but who were kind enough to connect with me on LinkedIn) who received the message and thought, “What a jerk.”
I would like to apologize to each and every one of my LinkedIn contacts. I am not a jerk. I’m just a person who made the mistake of assuming that I would get fair warning before a bunch of emails were sent in my name.
I am not the first to write about this. Chris Reimer of Rizzo Tees and Leslie Hughes of Punch Media have both blogged about similar experiences. In both cases, Chris Ott, Director of Social Media and Technology at Referral Key, responded to their posts either in the comments or via E-mail. While I appreciate the fact that Mr. Ott jumped into the fray, I have to say that I found his responses wanting. They gave me the impression that Referral Key felt these people – both seemingly intelligent and web savvy folks – just didn’t use the tools correctly, that their situation was a case of user error.
In the same way that the customer is always right, so is the user. If you have multiple users running into the same issue – guess what? – there’s a problem with your user experience.
I don’t doubt that Referral Key’s importation function has, as Mr. Ott pointed out in his responses, the same customization and opt-out features as “any other site.” The problem is that the actual experience leaves me feeling like that’s a half-truth. Those features may exist, but they were not a prominent part of the process I went through. The process I went through did not, as far as I saw, even alert me to the fact that an E-mail would be sent, never mind give me the option to change the text or choose which contacts to send to. Having read several other posts on this topic, it sounds like the link to these options may be located at the very bottom of the page, which – if you have a robust list of LinkedIn contacts – can require a lot of scrolling to reach.
The bottom line
With all the high-profile privacy issues surrounding sites like Facebook, I’m shocked that any company would play it so loose with their users’ most valuable asset – their network. The fact that the requisite functions and small type are all there does not make up for the fact that they exist in stealth mode. In his response to Leslie Hughes, Mr. Ott stated, “We do not get any benefit from you emailing 10 thousand people if you don’t know them. We’d rather you get 5 trusted colleagues if that’s what you prefer.” Because of the way Referral Key handled the import process, I’m having trouble buying that. They do, in fact, get a benefit from you emailing 10 thousand people – the potential for more folks like me clicking the invite link and joining their network.
The moral of the story? Contaminate the integrity of your user experience and people will doubt your motives.
No one likes to feel like they’ve been tricked.
Don’t just cover the bases with the requisite legal copy and opt-out buttons. Be honest. Be straightforward. Be above board every step of the way. Eliminate hidden agendas. Avoid gray areas. Be obvious to a fault.
In the long run, this kind of transparency will help you build credibility, gain trust, and inspire loyalty.
If Mr. Ott and Referral Key actually believe that five trusted colleagues are more valuable than ten thousand people they don’t know, I think they would agree with me.
About the Author: Jamie is a freelance strategist, teacher, and copywriter who partners with solo entrepreneurs to define and market their brands. Her specialties include brand development, social media strategy, and content marketing. Enjoy more of her posts, visit her site at Suddenly Marketing, or drop her an email.
More posts by Jamie.