Originally published November 20, 2015

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At KMWorld 2015 I had the privilege of presenting 16 KM Myths Debunked (you can watch the video), in which the first myth is “Push it.” This prompted a tweet which included “P.S. — I disagree with #1.” This post will elaborate on the problem with pushing information.

What to Avoid

Marketing communications teams, leaders, and anyone wanting to communicate information are interested in getting their target audiences to receive, understand, and remember their messages. The ways they attempt to get these messages out include:

  1. Publicity — we need to let everyone know about our message using every possible channel
  2. Advertising — we want people to click on our ad to get more information
  3. Banners — we need to have our message at the top of every page of our intranet so it will catch everyone’s attention
  4. Widespread posts — we should post our message in every forum, discussion board, and enterprise social network (ESN) group
  5. Email — we should send out an email to everyone

An example of using email to push out communications is a regular newsletter that is sent to everyone in an organization, without their having subscribed to it or having any way to unsubscribe. It is very unlikely that most recipients will ever read these newsletters, and many people will be annoyed by receiving something they didn’t request and have no way of stopping. Fancy formatting, slick templates, stock images — none of this will matter to people who scan their inboxes looking for emails that require action.

Another email example is sending unwanted notifications to users of an application, such as an ESN. A representative of one vendor stated “we’ve generally found that (involuntary) notifications tend to drive higher engagement overall.” ESN users tend to have a different view. Here is a recent message I received: “I want to turn on email notifications per group, without receiving unwanted messages. To me, this single horrible “feature” was the largest force against adoption. When we launched the ESN, everyone I talked to went in and killed email notifications right away because they were tired of hearing about things of no relevance to them.” If communications are being automatically directed by rule to a junk folder, then there is no point in sending them.

It’s paradoxical that most people complain that they receive too much email, their inboxes are overflowing, and that they don’t want to receive any more. But these same people think nothing of sending out unwanted messages to others, based on their belief that what they have to say is important.

Most advertising is ignored. We can tune out online ads without even noticing them. To overcome this, some sites force us to go through initial ad screens, display annoying pop-up content, force us to watch short videos (e.g., YouTube), or disable the fast forward function (e.g., CBS on-demand shows). Does anyone want to see any of this content?

Web site banners, spinning images, and other attempts at grabbing our attention are also ignored. And the assumption that everyone starts by visiting a home page, where prime site real estate is fought over, is naïve. People bookmark whatever starting page they find the most useful, and this is seldom the corporate intranet home page. And if the same ads are replicated on all intranet pages, people will tune those out, too.

What do you do with junk mail that is delivered to your home via the postal service? Do you take time to read it? You probably dump it straight in the recycling bin.

What about telemarketing calls? Those who have caller ID for their phones won’t even bother answering. Jerry Seinfeld spoke for most of us in this clip from his TV show:

Spam is the worst of all. The term came from this classic Monty Python sketch, which involves a breakfast menu filled with items containing mostly Spam, redundantly mentioned in each item. I just emptied my spam folder in Yahoo! Mail. There were 286 messages there, all from the past two days. I really wonder how spammers think that their tactics might be effective. With this volume of email, repeating the same offers endlessly, how can they expect that anyone will actually do anything other than delete their onslaught of spam?

I get lots of email, but it’s fine if I can opt out. I make heavy use of email notifications, and I know that any time they get to be too much for me to keep up with, I can unsubscribe and they will immediately stop. All other scenarios, including no opt-out option, delayed removal from an email list, or ignoring or abusing requests to unsubscribe, are extremely annoying.

I hate getting email, junk mail, marketing phone calls, ads, commercials, and other communications that I didn’t request, expect, or want. I assume that most others feel the same way.

Don’t add anyone to an email distribution list, ESN group, or community membership list unless they specifically request it. You may think that you’re doing them a favor, but you aren’t. I recall a sales discussion board in which all sales reps were added to the membership without their knowledge. The thought was that this would be a great way to get the forum started with lots of participants. Instead, after an initial post, the next 100 messages in the forum were all “take me off this list!” This effectively made the community dead on arrival.

Another common phenomenon is the email storm. This happens when a message is sent to a very large distribution list, and the distribution list is visible in the TO or CC fields. If the people were not expecting to receive the message, many will use “reply to all” asking to be removed from the list. This will result in many others replying to all, telling everyone else to stop replying to all, or saying “me, too.” This email storm may not subside for hours or days. It’s all because we hate to be bothered with messages from people we don’t know or messages which are not important to us.

What to Read

1. Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers, wrote about permission marketing:

“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention. Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious. And there’s no way they can get their attention back if they change their mind. Attention becomes an important asset, something to be valued, not wasted.

Real permission is different from presumed or legalistic permission. Just because you somehow get my email address doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because I don’t complain doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because it’s in the fine print of your privacy policy doesn’t mean it’s permission either. In order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, ‘I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening.’ And then, this is the hard part, that’s all you do. You don’t assume you can do more.

If it sounds like you need humility and patience to do permission marketing, you’re right. That’s why so few companies do it properly. The best shortcut, in this case, is no shortcut at all.”

2. John Hagel, author of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, wrote about mastering new marketing practices:

“Conventional marketing is built upon the three I’s:

  • Intercept — target and expose customers to your message wherever you can find them.
  • Inhibit — make it as difficult as possible for the customer to compare your product or service with any other options.
  • Isolate — enter into a direct relationship with the customer and, wherever possible, remove all third parties from the relationship.

A different approach will be required, collaboration marketing, defined in terms of three A’s:

  • Attract — create incentives for people to seek you out.
  • Assist — the most powerful way to attract people is to be as helpful and engaging with them as possible — this requires a deep understanding of the various contexts in which people might use your products and a willingness to co-create products with customers.
  • Affiliate — mobilize third parties, including other customers, to become even more helpful to the people you interact with.

Sorry to say, vendors are responding as vendors — old habits and old instincts die hard. While there is a broad recognition among marketers that attention scarcity is becoming a big issue, the response has been increasing desperation to get some of that scarce attention. Intrusive ads are appearing in more and more places — projected in lights on the sides of buildings at night, plastered on the sides of farm animals in fields and running on video displays above urinals. Rather than just focusing on how to get attention, vendors might also want to consider how they can help their customers receive attention that is important to them and not just from the vendor, but from others that matter to the customers.”

3. Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge and David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, wrote about new clues:

“Marketing still makes it harder to talk.

  • We were right the first time: Markets are conversations.
  • A conversation isn’t your business tugging at our sleeve to shill a product we don’t want to hear about.
  • If we want to know the truth about your products, we’ll find out from one another.
  • You’re welcome to join our conversation, but only if you tell us who you work for, and if you can speak for yourself and as yourself.
  • Don’t worry: we’ll tell you when we’re in the market for something. In our own way. Not yours. Trust us: this will be good for you.
  • Ads that sound human but come from your marketing department’s irritable bowels, stain the fabric of the Web.”

What to Do

So what should you do instead of pushing content?

  1. Allow people to choose which ESN groups or communities to join and how they wish to be notified of new communications, instead of sending out email messages to large distribution lists.
  2. Use an ESN or threaded discussion board to enable two-way communications; solicit feedback, questions, and suggestions for each communication. This is especially valuable for leadership communications.
  3. Allow users to subscribe and unsubscribe to periodicals distributed by email.
  4. Allow opting in and out of membership lists, using tools and services which allow people to subscribe and unsubscribe easily.
  5. Send a one-time invitation to subscribe to a wide audience, and then respect the decisions of the recipients.
  6. Don’t subscribe anyone who didn’t request it.
  7. Don’t send messages to people unless they want to receive them from you.
  8. Make it obvious in each message you send out how to subscribe or unsubscribe, and make sure that links really work or that a real human will take any requested action in a timely manner.
  9. Don’t blanket all forums or ESN groups you belong to with the same message; if a message is relevant to more than one forum, craft a brief, customized version which is specific to each forum, explain why it is relevant, and include a link to the full message which is posted elsewhere; limit this to just a few forums.
  10. Make your content so desirable and valuable that people will ask you to provide it to them, eagerly await updates, and be disappointed if updates are not frequent enough.

An example of the tenth point comes from my time at Digital Equipment Corporation. I managed a team of consultants who needed to know whom to contact among Digital’s 135,000 employees for different issues. There was no personnel directory other than a physical phone book — nothing that showed organization structure, roles, responsibilities, reporting hierarchies, or titles. So I created a document to record what information I could find out about the various groups.

This became known as the Key Contacts List, and it was the single most popular piece of knowledge I ever managed. It contained the structure, names, and roles of everyone at Digital who had a key area of responsibility, and the monthly updates were subscribed to by over 30,000 people using an opt-in service called Reader’s Choice. I updated this document every month, and it had the most subscribers of any periodical in the company. No one ever complained about receiving it; instead, people regularly asked how to get it. That’s the way to communicate — use the power of pull to attract demand, and then deliver useful content on a regular basis.

Do you like receiving push communications? If so, why? Do you send out push communications? If so, do you think the recipients appreciate it, and spend time reading what you send? What other ideas do you have for moving from push to pull?

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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