Cash or credibility – The ethical dilemma

by James Duthie on June 2, 2008

The Internet is still a relatively new tool in the marketing mix. Sure… it’s been commercialised for over a decade, but it’s a mere baby when compared to TV, radio and print. As a result there’s a LOT of business people (and even marketing people) with more dollars than Internet marketing sense. So they come to us for help. They come to us with their problems… and their grand ideas. The only problem in this equation is sometimes their ideas really suck. So what happens when they’re not willing to deviate from their totally sucky plans…? Do we take their cash and implement a plan we know won’t work? Or do we take an ethical stance and tell them to take their ideas elsewhere…?

I came across an ethical dilemma of this nature last week. A current client requested a meeting. The client runs a computer chain selling laptops and other hardware. He has a database of 40,000 members and uses our email marketing software to send a weekly email to his database. He typically promotes a couple of heavily discounted items in the weekly email and sees good sales every time. Everyone’s happy! Until our meeting last week… You see our laptop selling friend has had a bright idea… If the weekly email works so well, why not send it every day…

Say what…?!?!

Yes, I know it’s not spam… yes, I know they’ve opted-in. But it won’t stay that way for long Mr computer salesman. How often do you think someone wants to buy one of your computers…? Every day…?

I could think of a thousand reasons why his idea completely sucks:

  1. He’ll burn through his list within a month.
  2. He spent a lot of good money building that email list.
  3. Current customers are worth far more than new ones. Do you really want to lose them?
  4. Increases in sales will be offset by increased marketing spend to replenish the list.
  5. Consumers don’t care if it’s technically not spam. They’ll still push that spam button if you annoy them.
  6. He may damage his email reputation and reduce his deliverability.
  7. His customers can’t change the email frequency if it starts to piss them off.
  8. Etc. etc… you get my point

Our main problem is that our client has already made up his mind. He’s going to do this regardless of our best advice. And if we don’t do it for him he’ll take his business elsewhere… Hence our ethical dilemma. Because despite the complete suckiness of his idea, it’s absolutely fantastic for our business. His change in email frequency would multiply the email volume by five. Instead of sending 40,000 emails a week, he’d be sending 200,000. And that means a big ching ching for our cash register.

Of course, that is an incredibly short term view of the situation. After all, the size of the list is certain to diminish once he starts mailing it every day. But the irony of the situation is that if that happens, we may profit even further from the exercise. Who’s he going to turn to when he needs some help topping up his list again…? Us.

So what is a man to do…? Allow a client to make poor decision that will cost him money, but benefit our agency? Or stand firm based on our principles of ethical marketing and business practices? I’m on the stand firm side. A number of people in my agency aren’t. The decision is still yet to be made.

So I ask you… what would you do…?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete June 2, 2008 at 8:51 am

If I were you, I’d make it quite clear to the client why you feel it isn’t a good idea, but if that’s what they chose to do, then go ahead and do what they ask.

If it miraculously works-out and the client ends-up selling 5x more, then you’ll continue to make 5x more money from them and everyone wins.

If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve kept the open relationship with the client and on top of that, he’s well aware that you advised him it was a bad idea and he’ll trust you even more when he wants to try his next crap idea.

But that’s just my 2c

James Duthie June 2, 2008 at 11:42 am

I think that’s the likely approach Pete. There’s only so much we can do when he refuses to listen to our advice. But it still feels a little unethical to me… Money talks I suppose.

Ken Jones June 2, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Maybe you could suggest a split test of the new email schedule.

Divide the list and send one group the daily shots, while keeping the other half on the original weekly shots.

Quantify what, if any, effect the change has. Does the new group show a marked increase in the take up of offers? Do more people end up opting out of recieving the mails?

Give your client the option of having a trial period where you can assess the effectiveness of his plan. If it works then you can switch the whole list over. If it doesn’t then at least he hasn’t burnt all 40,000 subscribers.

He’s a businessman, numbers and dollar signs will say a lot more to him than the ethical quandries of “that guy from the digital marketing agency” ever could.

Besides, I know how much you love your statistics, this gives you an excuse to crunch some numbers ;-)

Matt June 2, 2008 at 8:09 pm

I agree with Ken,

Testing, measuring and analyzing the open-rates, click-rates, unsubscribes, etc. is a crucial element of a successful e-mail marketing campaign.

A/B test the two campaigns for a few weeks. How can he disagree with the numbers? If he still wants to convert the whole list to a daily frequency, even after you’re evidence presents itself, then I guess you have to let him dig his own grave!

Keep up the good work,


James Duthie June 3, 2008 at 3:40 am

@ Ken & Matt – Thanks for the input. And of course I am totally embarassed that the thought never crossed my mind. It’s email marketing 101 people… :) A testing process would protect a portion of his database and demonstrate we were willing to at least give his idea a go. Looks like we have our solution.

Ken Jones June 3, 2008 at 10:15 am

@ Matt – Thanks for the back up mate.

@ James – Good luck with the test dude. You know it makes sense. Gives you and the client the best of both worlds.
Just promise you’ll try to fight the urge to do the I-told-you-so-dance when the group on daily email all unsubscribe :-P

James Duthie June 4, 2008 at 12:27 am

Rest assured Ken that I am such an awful dancer that an I-told-you-so-dance is completely out of the question :)

Marsello Oentoro June 4, 2008 at 1:57 am

Interesting topic, business people sometimes do not translate into sensible marketers, especially once greed takes over. But they would normally listen to past examples as to why a certain email marketing campaign would fail, if you would be wise enough to attach figures to the argument.

James Duthie June 5, 2008 at 4:08 am

@ Marsello – You are correct. Numbers resonate with most business people. The challenge is finding a documented case study, because we have never made such a switch with a client before.

Jenn Osborne June 8, 2008 at 8:21 pm

I love this post! I think every Internet Marketer has been in this position where a client is dead set on doing something that makes no sense.

With some clients you have to take a stand – otherwise they’ll try to micro- manage you. But other times it’s just a situation where the client is stubborn and has to learn that it’s a bad idea for themselves. That’s where testing is a great solution. I’ve never had a client refuse to do a test. And once they see the data they can see for themselves that the idea wasn’t a good one.

Great post James!

James Duthie June 10, 2008 at 11:08 am

Thanks for the input Jenn. I’m sure you’ve seen it a few times over at SEP. In our case the client is indeed stubborn. But testing has been the agreed outcome. So I guess it’s the best out of a bad situation.

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