I will preface this by saying—if you like to engage with the Internet via email only, signing up for every mailing list you come across might be a great way to bypass having to read news websites, or find things with search engines. Just kick back in a dark room with a nice 9600 baud modem and read through the recent happenings while each progressive JPEG loads like a transmission from Jupiter.
Some people might actually have a dedicated email address they use for all of the enormously useful email that pours in, and perhaps they are closer to reaching enlightenment than me. In the meantime, I’d like to describe why this technique has peaked in usefulness and will be trailing off exponentially (not really exponentially, but it’s a fun term to use for things that need to disappear fast) at least until some startup creates a machine learning algorithm that only reads crappy mailing list spam to extract meaningful content (please don’t actually build this—build something useful).
As anyone who knows me would know, two of the guiding thoughts that are causing me to have an almost Pi-esque breakdown are isomorphism and signal-to-noise ratios in modern society. I’m torn, because I have written chapters on these ideas, but have a different plan in mind for the distribution of that content, so in the meantime, I’ll give you a preview of why this is so deeply important.
Isomorphism, in this niche usage, is the concept that some things begin to look similar over time. You could compare it to evolutionary similarity in preferential patterns that nature tends to favor for one reason or another. It’s one of the reasons why successful things start to look the same over time, and can be found everywhere from startup logos to the way successful web platforms are designed to harness widely adopted user interface patterns. In our case, I want to focus on the reason optimizing your website or blog to collect visitor emails for your mailing list became popular, and why it is now both shortsighted and annoying.
Adding a form to your website to collect emails was hailed by marketers as the primary way to engage users who are no longer viewing your website—reeling them in like a largemouth bass on a sunny summer day. The problem here is that people often look at a user’s experience on a website too granularly—in that, they think of how to optimize the experience from the moment a user loads their website, and get them hooked as quickly as possible. This is a very bad way to think about user experience design, because to actually understand your user, you have to think about the context, and how your measly web visit fits into the plethora of information that inundates them—including the various large corporations also fighting for their eyeballs.
Marketers are way too narrowly focused on this, since it can increase readership (at least it used to). Which can lead to the inevitable clickbait blog article titled, “how I increased my mailing list signups by 5000%—and recently won a noble peace prize,” or similar. Everyone who wants to create a popular blog and feel valued then scrambles to install a MailChimp form to collect emails, thinking that if they get the emails, then they’ll be able to reach people. The data alone suggests that a very small subset of total email users will actually view each email, and when they do, figuring out what they viewed and why, including analyzing trackbacks, recurrent views, social shares, and a myriad of other variables is borderline data science at this point. Sure, I personally enjoy it, but most people will be very disappointed to know that “hey, guess what, most people don’t want your spam emails.” Don’t even get me started on the trend of harvesting the email addresses from your LinkedIn contacts (I still receive regular emails because of this)—always a good first impression.
Yes, you will sometimes come across the random and highly prized super user, someone who actually aligns with your thinking and can help critique, improve, and share your content in the pursuit of a higher vision (like making the world a better place), but finding these types of users is hard, and many times—random. Social media is a great way to do this, but like all things that can be exploited, social media strategists exist by the thousands now, too. Everyone is suddenly an “expert,” and teasing out what expertise means is a complicated enough matter for another post, altogether.
Since every blog wants your email, what the hell is the end game? Well for the blogger themselves, it’s a few things:
- Having a lot of people on your mailing list feels good … it feels like people care about you and want you to exist, like the sun is shining a little brighter and life is suddenly starting to make sense—and, primarily, because it’s a tasty metric you can use to show off to new visitors—so you can hook them too. “Look, I have 300,000 fake emails on my mailing list, why don’t you add your fake email (that’s dedicated to spam) so I can further my narcissistic digital conquest and eventually write a book about it?”
- Emails are valuable. It’s yet another piece of data marketers can harness to try and quantify value. If 300,000 people sign up to my mailing list, I must be doing something right, right? Not necessarily. Most blogs will use an incentive to get people to sign up, which is some freebie in exchange for your email. The added benefit to this technique is that you have to use a working email that you can then check for the download link to the freebie, so the blogger knows they have an email they can at least claim is valid. This may work for a lot of people, but if your blog is targeting smart techie types (like mine), good luck. Maybe they’ll use a disposable email that deletes itself after a few minutes, or perhaps they’ll just sit in loathing at the sheer thought of being manipulated—never to return (my blog readers apparently also live in caves, like me). The freebie giveaway technique is more of a gray pattern than a dark pattern, because the intent isn’t necessarily malicious. The blogger is giving away something that is potentially valuable, and the least the viewer can do is give them something valuable in return—their email. It’s a win-win.
- Market quantification. The best case for harvesting emails is to use this demographic data to pitch other entities and try and prove the market. The blogger might be trying to write for a bigger blog, or news outlet, and having this data really strengthens their case in terms of validating why their ideas are worthwhile to their target demographic. This along with a large social media following and impressive web traffic creates the trifecta of tasty to any outlet that wants to crank out content that’s almost guaranteed to live up to their brand’s hype.
So, we know why people want emails, but this completely fails to address why someone would even send out an email. I hate spam, deeply, and have tried every technique available to ensure that every time my iPhone dings that it’s something worth moving my finger across a small screen to check. I mean, can you imagine pulling your phone out of your pocket only to find that it’s spam?
If every website asks for a user’s email, the likelihood of getting the email drops by some function of the total websites they’ve visited, their willingness to give a fake vs. real email account, and maybe the way their feeling that day (I’m not going to try and model this yet, this is just a rant). If one website in every ten that I’ve visited asked for my email, and they had a worthwhile freebie related to my interests, maybe I would give them a spam email (if I was a normal person). Now that everyone is doing it, I find it offensive, poorly thought out, and in many cases, annoying.
Modern audience development is a war of metrics—so bloggers are willing to employ all kinds of tactics to succeed, when in the end, the lack of tactical overexertion may be more appealing. What a breath of fresh air to visit a blog where someone doesn’t ask for my email every time I scroll down the page 1200 pixels—or remind me of the benefit of whatever the hell else they are trying to sell before I close the tab and go back to Reddit. Think like a real user, from your target demographic. My visitors use ad blockers, browse on mobile almost half the time, won’t wait for more than two seconds to load a page, and have a very low tolerance for pseudoscience or empty marketing promises—and I love them for it. I would rather engage people through some other format than try and trick them into a conversation or click, and I think that’s the way the blogosphere will shift in the coming years—utilitarian refinement. Sips his sparking water. Ahh.
I predict (and am working towards this with my blog) that people will begin to prefer inverse examples of this isomorphism—meaning—blogs with incredibly clean and simple designs focused on rich and well through-out content; designed to convey something interesting, and not some re-hash of an overly exaggerated story with manipulative headline design (speaking of which, remind me if I start doing this—it’s so alluring).
Content is king, and the ability to access said content is the throne.
Nick is the Founder & CEO of MetaSensor, a venture-backed internet of things startup located in Silicon Valley, and a Behavioural Product Designer at Duke's Center for Advanced Hindsight (with Dan Ariely et al.). | Read Full Bio »
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