Cost of Overdoing It: Marketing’s Glaring Problem

pfl logoMarketers have been cranking up the volume of emails, banners ads, and social posts they deliver. These tools are cheap or free, so why not, right?

Unfortunately, return on investment (ROI) metrics don’t capture the cost of flooding audiences with digital fluff. Conditioning people to unsubscribe from email lists and block ads is costly for our entire industry. Let’s give this cost a name and measure it. How about COI: cost (of) overdoing it.

Enough, thank you

What do I mean by overdoing it? One estimate says that an average American was exposed to 500 advertisements per day in the 1970s and saw 5,000 daily by 2006 – that is, before the iPhone arrived and social networking exploded. As the volume of advertisements has grown, so has the backlash.

Adblocking costs the global advertising industry $75 billion annually, and more than a quarter of Americans now use an adblocker. It’s not just banners being blocked. There’s to mass unsubscribe from email lists; SaneBox (my personal favorite) to filter out marketing newsletters; News Feed Eradicator to block out Facebook’s advertising stream; Freedom to block the entire Internet if all else fails.

Adweek notes that a study by Choozle, a marketing platform, had to exclude 53 percent of the participants for using adblockers. Of the remaining participants, only seven percent viewed online ads positively.

Email is hardly better. An Adobe Report found that although 70 percent of marketers use email for promotions, only eight percent of consumers are “very satisfied” with them. Put differently, if you gave Adobe your email address to download that report, you’d have 92 percent odds of not being “very satisfied” with the resulting emails.

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Who’s doing the work?

How do we unscramble this contradiction in which marketers deliver more and more of what their audiences dislike?

Anything underpriced is overconsumed, and publishing digital information is ridiculously cheap. In 1971, the computer scientist and psychologist Herbert Simon spotted the problem with underpricing information. In a speech at Carnegie Mellon University he said, “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

It’s a well-known quote. What he added soon after is often missed, “In an information-rich world, most of the cost of information is the cost incurred by the recipient. It is not enough to know how much it costs to produce and transmit information; we must also know how much it costs, in terms of scarce attention, to receive it.”

In other words, one content marketer is unlikely to expend more time than the 50,000 people who read her email. If the email is fluffy — likely if the marketer must write tons of promotional emails — it costs readers in productivity, time, distraction, and energy. ROI metrics miss that cost, but COI doesn’t.

Gambling $7.5 million

I doubt that marketers want to perpetuate an attention arms race or waste people’s time, but they may not see alternatives. If all my competitors are cranking up the volume, how do I not? Maybe COI can change our perspective on this dilemma.

A Salesforce study found that the average B2B company’s email database has 50,000 individuals. A company spends an average of $150 to acquire each address, so they’re worth $7.5 million.

If over-blasting this audience scares away one subscriber, the COI is $150, not counting the opportunity cost. If you drive away 100 audience members, the COI is $15,000 at minimum.

So, you spent $150 for an audience member. Each superfluous email is like going back to that person and saying, “Are you sure you wanted this? Really? Still sure? How about now? The unsubscribe button is right there…” Although you might spend little to send an unnecessary email, you’re gambling $7.5 million when you do.

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Changing the odds

My argument is that attention isn’t neutral — it can have a positive or negative value. When we crank up the volume of marketing too high, we risk dividing attention by a negative value. We may pay the cost of overdoing it.

People do not crave more digital marketing and in fact, spend money to block it out. Yet marketers keep piling on the cheap communications, as if annoying an audience were free.

It takes courage to resist this norm, to leave digital inundation to competitors. But marketers who have the nerve to be unconventional win outsized victories.

Take direct mail for example — an old, analog and suddenly novel marketing tactic in today’s digital world. Forrester Research recently issued a report saying that B2B buyers are overwhelmed by cheap and easy digital engagement – and that direct mail cuts through the content clutter and sparks more conversations. Sending something ‘tactile’ in the mail makes an emotional connection and creates an experience for the recipient. (In full disclosure, this is one of the things my company PFL does.)

Marketers who go analog with direct mail or physical gifts will spend more dollars per interaction. But not only do those strategies actually work, they require that marketers price information fairly – for themselves and for their audience.

Marketing doesn’t need to ditch digital. We can choose to provide information worth knowing and moments worth having. To get there, we must cut the fluff and stop overdoing it.

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