Marketing deceit is a terrible strategy

This week’s mail brought a pastel greeting-card envelope with no return address or stamp. Was it a surprise confession from a secret admirer? A warm thought from a dear friend? I rushed to slit it open.

And there I found an internet provider’s latest pitch, ingeniously disguised as a greeting card.

Was I amused? Touched? Flattered? Wowed by the creativity? Tickled this prospective vendor was so witty?

Actually, no. I was repulsed. Absolutely disgusted that this huge company thought tricking someone into believing they had received a personal message from a friend was a brilliant strategy for pushing their latest deal.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive!” wrote Walter Scott back in the 16th century, and Sir Walter’s admonition to avoid deceit remains valid, especially for marketers.

I’ve noticed an increase in deceptive marketing “strategies” from otherwise-respectable companies, particularity in the mail (despite its low-tech vibe, direct mail remains a powerful tool). Sometimes they mail businesslike letters with no return address. Or they use type and imagery suggesting their missive is some sort of government notice. I also see fake invoices.

I recognize what they’re trying to do. They assume you’ll ignore something clearly labeled as coming from their offices or an obvious presentation of an offer. They believe you’re more likely to open a mystery envelope. Fact is, you are. Curiosity and mystery are powerful drivers.

But when you do give in to curiosity, their approach crumbles. You probably won’t respond with, “what clever folks … I’d love to send all my business their way.” Nope, I’m convinced you’ll react exactly as Ralphie did in “A Christmas Story” when he decoded his long-awaited secret message from Little Orphan Annie: “A crummy commercial?”

In my past life, I promoted one of the nation’s largest motor clubs through direct-mail solicitations. The company wisely tracked the response of every effort and shared pieces and their results with their stable of vendors. That way, we’d see what worked and what fell flat. Know what we learned? The more overt the marketing message, the greater the response. Efforts that tried to fool the recipients into thinking they had received a personal message or hid the fact that they were solicitations were consistently the worst performers.

I understand why. People don’t like to be deceived. We don’t mind a little bit of exaggeration or hyperbole when someone is trying to sell something. We may even chuckle about it. But we never want to do business with someone who is trying to trick us.

You don’t have the time or resources to personally approach every prospect for your products or services, so you use direct mail, emails, your website, social media, and other channels to start conversations. Those materials stand in your place, trying to establish positive relationships and create the right first impressions. When you use deception, you create the impression you’re a liar who cannot be trusted.

Yes, being upfront with the purpose of your message may reduce the number of recipients who read it. However, those who do will have a healthy curiosity about and genuine interest in what you offer. When they open your envelope, it’s a sign they’re open to your sales message and could become a customer.

Compare that to the folks you set out to deceive. They may open your offer, but they’re less likely to respond, and more likely to remember you in negative ways. It’s one more reason honestly truly is the best policy, especially when it comes to marketing.