The Old Oversell

With falling clickthrough rates and growing impatience in corporate boardrooms for measurable results, a lot of sites have begun a process I call overselling, which can actually damage their effectiveness as marketing tools.

You know an oversell when you see it. On TV it’s the ad that seems 10 times louder than the show it interrupts, and has no sense of humor about itself. In the newspaper it’s the double-page spread from the local department store that separates the front page and the editorials. In your e-mail client it’s spam, and on the street it’s those plastic signs people nail-gun to telephone poles, which I call “street spam.”

On the Web, an oversell is simply a demand that users buy, or give up something of value, before you’ll offer anything of value in return. The result is that your site can lose traffic, and importance, as users simply vote with their mice.

Microsoft’s Slate Magazine finally recognized this recently by dropping its subscription demand. The publication was losing market share to rival Salon, which says it’s now in the black. The New York Times, like many European newspapers, continues to demand that users register before they can get service, allowing the paper to track their behavior and get a better rate from advertisers. But USA Today began turning a profit last year, and now has far more readers, without requiring registration.

Even the smartest companies can make this mistake. Disney.Com constantly throws pop-ups and other sales gimmicks at my 7-year old when he clicks to it, demanding he either buy Disney paraphernalia or the company’s “Daily Blast” service. As a result, my son now spends all his online time at Nickelodeon, where he plays video games that fortify his loyalty to products like “Rugrats” toothpaste.

There’s an important lesson here. It’s service that builds the brand, and a good relationship that drives sales. The demand for a quick Web pay-off can be self-defeating.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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