Dear Marketing: You're Doomed (If You Don't Change)

Marketing pros and the technologists who support them are killing us with irrelevancy and no opt-in. Quit it, or risk the black hole.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

January 29, 2015

7 Min Read

Windows 10: 7 Pressing Questions For Microsoft

Windows 10: 7 Pressing Questions For Microsoft

Windows 10: 7 Pressing Questions For Microsoft (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Working as a CIO and as a technology columnist, I see both technology PR and IT vendor marketing heading in the same, dangerous direction. In summary, those who do not seek ongoing, permission-based connection are doomed to send out perky little missives that get swatted away before they're seen, in an endless robotic arms race between marketers and anti-clutter, attention-defending bots. And lest you get smug that you're in IT and don't have to worry, let me assure you that you do.

The volume of irrelevant tech-related PR pitches that I get is far higher than the IT vendor marketing pitches that I get, but the quantity is rising on the marketing side.

The grim stereotype of IT pros is that we're sworn enemies of vendor marketing, but in fact many IT folks receive pitches with a fairly open mind. If you stick your head in the sand about new tech, you'll learn nothing and have nothing to leverage as a competitive advantage in your business. So, smart practitioners want to receive relevant info, as long as they can control the flow of information.

There are two problems. First, marketers have moved beyond the magic of mass email lists to the robotic and automated world of CRM, where "blind" (meaning without any indication of interest or permission) follow-up and "relationship-building" messages abound. (Leading me to want to shout: I DON'T HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU. STOP PRETENDING THAT WE DO.)

Second, there are more tools than ever before to reach out to more contacts than ever before. There are those in the marketing world who reason, "More is better, right?" Wrong.

We live in an age of over-communication, where we have to spend hours digging through hundreds of emails a day. To add insult to injury, if you dare to send back a well-meaning "I'm sorry, this isn't relevant" response, you get at least two more messages back from that person and cement yourself as "someone who responded!" It's blood in the water to an algorithm that will simply target you for another attack.

To make matters worse, marketers and PR folks understand how overwhelmed IT pros are (one recent Tweet: "The average IT buyer filters through 3,000 messages a day."), and, sadly, strategize about ways to amp up the volume -- not how to get smarter or more relevant.

Increasing the volume won't and can't work. Like many email-overloaded folks, I subscribe not only to anti-spam, but to an email organization service called Sanebox. One of the key features is the "Sane Black Hole." When you move an email to this folder, you will never see an email from the sender again. Ever.

Starting to catch on?

These types of anti-clutter tools don't spell anything good for willy-nilly marketers. As a tech journalist, I don't respond to completely irrelevant pitches. (Hey, IT and workplace guy, check out these fashion accessories!) Instead, I black-hole them. I'm not as harsh about IT product pitches because they're not (yet) as irrelevant, but I predict that day will come.

Harsh, you say? Survival, I say. And others do, too.

Marketing, wake up. You know better than anyone that nobody can respond to marketing's "call to action" if they never get it. So, stop doing stuff that makes people want to black-hole you.

What this means to IT
Last I checked, most of us are IT leaders for an organization that needs marketing. So, IT needs to wake up, too. We're the ones, presumably, that craft the systems that marketing uses. So if our marketing folks are going down the wrong road, we need to help redirect them.

To be fair, many, many marketers are smart and get all this. I learned everything that I'm about to tell you from smart marketers. So here are some basic rules that will help you catch marketing before they harm themselves.

Opt-in is king
Someone who has opted in to your marketing will respond in a far, far better way than someone who is prisoner to your email robot. As a practical matter, sometimes opt-in is implied, as in, "I'm listed as a contributing editor for InformationWeek, with my contact email address listed on the website, so it's reasonable to assume that I want to hear about products and services that are relevant to what I write about." More about relevancy in a moment.

Even when opt-in is implied, you are better off confirming interest every once in a while. Even when opt-in is explicit, you still want to be careful. "I signed up for a 10% off coupon, and YOU'RE EMAILING ME EVERY DAY?"

Prisoners, a.k.a. the unwilling, will eventually revolt.

Be nuanced
When someone signs up for that 10% off for a box of cookies, sure, they've agreed to let you send them more bakery offers. But that clearly doesn't mean that they want to hear about your company's shoe division.

One great example of permission gone awry and a lack of nuance is that of elementary and secondary school notification systems. Just about every school system in America now has one of those systems that can reach out and send a phone call, text, and email to thousands of families within an hour or two. They originally signed all the parents up so that they could get in touch in case of a lockdown, weather closures, and other time-sensitive and important information. Done! Opt-in wasn't a problem: Who wouldn't want to hear about urgent information about your child's well-being?

[Windows 10: 7 Questions we have for Microsoft]

Fast forward a few months after implementation. Resource-starved schools have figured out that they can use this contact system to advertise bake sales and other fund-raisers. Foul ball! This is not what you got permission for, and is the way to create prisoners who revolt -- that is, with instant hang-ups and even caller-ID block.

Keep your promises
If someone unsubscribes, make sure that the technology works and that the un-subscription happens. I have now unsubscribed from United's Mileage Plus program twice in a row. Not exactly a way to get me in a good mood about United.

Here's how to do it right. Even my anti-clutter service, SaneBox, classified its own newsletter properly, into my "Sane News" folder. Although I'm sure it was tempting, since they control the robots, and they want customers to see the newsletter, SaneBox did NOT spam me by putting it directly into my inbox.

Learn about modern marketing
It's incumbent upon any IT leader to understand that marketing and IT systems are forever forward joined at the hip.

The good news is that there are so many venues to learn about modern marketing, and there are so many thought leaders who are willing to share their thoughts. Seth Godin, Ann Handley of Marketing Profs, and the good folks at Copyblogger are all good resources when you're starting.

Finally, look outside of enterprise-targeted resources to learn. Don't turn your nose up at resources intended for bloggers (such as List Building for Bloggers). Yes, they're intended for a different audience, but they contain valuable marketing information for a digital age.

After all, where do you think all of this new marketing sensibility came from? The big-blast, mass-marketing people? No.

We're going to learn about the future from the people who created it. And that, my friends, is why our organizations need us, because learning dramatically new things, making sense of them, and helping others understand them is what IT pros are really good at.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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