The Indianapolis Star thinks you’re dumb. As evidence, I present this display ad that ran on its website a few weeks ago.

indystar

For the most part, this is your typical hackneyed pop-up display ad. The word unlock creates the illusion of value. The word ideas oversells what is really just a “things to do” list. The giant blue type screams desperately for your attention.

The ad could have stopped there. But no: Someone at The Star reached into his big bag of dumb marketing gimmicks and pulled out two buttons—a bright blue one reading “Yes, of course” and a gloomy, gray one reading, “No, I don’t like summer.”

You may have encountered this tactic online before. The formula is simple: Phrase your pitch as a question, and offer two responses: one that results in a conversion, and one that backs the user into a accepting a negative statement as his own—in this case, “I don’t like summer.” The simple-minded thinking behind this, of course, is that everybody likes summer, so the user will have no choice but to answer, “Yes, of course.”

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “Who’s stupid enough to fall for that?” And if you’re like Gannett (The Star’s parent company), your answer would be: “Our readers.”

I should mention I’m a former Star employee (I left voluntarily in 2008 to pursue a career in advertising). I had a Twitter conversation with another former Star employee who has experience in conversion rate optimization, and he called the tactic “shortsighted” but “brutally effective.”

Brutal is a good word, if a little dramatic. Because what The Star is doing, essentially, is pinning its user up against a metaphorical wall: “Either view our content, or own these feelings that you don’t actually feel.” It’s a cheap way to get people to do what you want. But hey, it works!

At what cost, though? If you’re The Indianapolis Star, are those extra clicks worth antagonizing your audience? And what, also, about the quality of the audience you are converting? I don’t need data to tell you that people who fall for something so transparently manipulative are, ahem, not the swiftest ships in the Queen’s fleet. Do those kinds of customers really warrant the effort? After all, aren’t your customers a reflection of your brand?

Maybe for Gannett, to whom every click means a tiny uptick in advertising dollars, conversions trump all. But that, as my Twitter friend said, sure sounds shortsighted. This tactic makes The Indianapolis Star look cheap and mercenary—not the kind of organization I want to patronize. And I, by the way, am exactly the kind of person The Star should be pursuing: I care about the news and I believe quality journalism is critical to a healthy city.

My advice to The Star? Don’t sacrifice your brand for a few extra clicks from people who can be cowed into viewing your promoted content by suggesting that they “hate summer.” It’s not worth it.

Or is it? I’m no digital strategist, after all. Lucky for me, there’s one who sits on the other side of the wall here at the Well Done HQ. What do you think, Abby?

Abby:

Well thanks for asking, Matt. I’m delighted to see my colleagues thinking so critically about subjects as near and dear to my heart as conversion rate optimization.

At the core of marketing is persuasion. Digital marketing not only gives us the ability to track and measure the success of our persuasion techniques, but to have a persuasive conversation with our audience, rather than simply deliver a speech. Which, I think we’d all agree, is always more effective.

While I can’t argue with you about this tactic being annoying, if not insulting, what I’m interested in is whether it works. There’s a good amount of data suggesting that the pop-up or exit overlay that prompted you to shake your fist at The Star really is more effective than not.

One food blogger earned 1,375% more subscribers within eight months of implementing one of these guys—an overlay had a conversion rate of 5.5% while a sidebar signup converted at only 0.4%.

But plenty of pop-ups simply enable you to opt in but don’t try to make you feel like an idiot for not wanting to download some lousy guide or subscribe to an e-newsletter. Why not just use those? Turns out a lot of people do actually fall for this crap. A study by ConversionXL shows that the pushier version of an opt-out gained 34% more email signups than a simple “No, thanks.” That’s pretty significant, if you ask me.

Here are the conversion rates for different versions of the copy:

stats

I think it’s safe to say that this tactic generally works pretty well. But here’s where I think The Star missed the mark. Their opt-out copy is “No, I don’t like summer.” This option doesn’t present a consequence of not choosing to download; it just put words in their audience’s mouth. Every good example I’ve seen of this conversion tactic involves clearly explaining a consequence for inaction:

  • “No, I don’t like free stuff.”
  • “No, I have enough traffic.”
  • “No, discounts aren’t my thing.”

All of these examples tell a visitor what they won’t be getting if they don’t proceed—free stuff, more traffic, and discounts—and I think that’s part of why they work on a psychological level. The Star just accuses people of not liking summer, but doesn’t tell them they’re actually going to miss anything by not getting this guide. Summer’s here for everybody, not just suckers.

I obviously don’t have any data on the conversion rates for the Summer Fun Guide. Maybe they’re racking up all the conversions, all day long. But I think we still end up at Matt’s more important question: At what cost?

Yes, this tactic may be highly effective. But it’s also highly irritating. There are sites and scenarios where something like this is a little more appropriate (although still annoying), like the food blog and marketing tech sites we looked at—even ecommerce, where people expect to be sold to at every turn. But masking an email collection with the promise of a silly guide on a site that’s supposed to be a source for legitimate journalism? Even I’m not convinced.