Yesterday, as I was taking garbage out to the curb, a young man passed a flyer to me. The flyer announced that the house numbers on the curb were to be repainted and residents were being asked to contribute money towards that goal. The flyer had wording that falsely implied the following:
- With an official sounding headline “Advisory Notice To All Residents” and references to “911” and “postal-mail”, the flyer suggests a relationship with the city government; perhaps they are hired by the city. This is false; I doubt they are a real company (there was no telephone or website listed on the flyer) and definitely, the city did not hire them. The real story is that several years ago, the city did hire a company to repaint certain neighborhoods. After that, the city never repeated that initiative again.
- The flyer asks for a contribution of $15 or “what is most comfortable for your budget”, implying that the city is asking for help to fund this initiative (if you believe they are affiliated with the city). This is false; you can bet that any money will go to their pockets, not the city’s.
- If you do not wish to have your house number repainted on the curb, you must tape the flyer to the curb. Otherwise, they assume that you have agreed to the repainting. Of course, they don’t state on what day they would paint so there’s no guarantee that the flyer will still be there when they come.
At first, I was very annoyed. I didn’t want to pay to have my house number repainted on the curb. Now, I had to go get some sturdy tape so I can tape that darn flyer to the curb. Then I thought, these guys are marketing geniuses! They took the opt-out marketing idea from the Internet and added a bit of local patriotism (donate to help the city) to make a lot of money. For about 50 cents worth of spray paint (and an initial investment in number stencils), they could potentially get $15 back. Even if they just got a dollar, they would still be profitable! Most likely, they will get between 5 and 15 dollars from each house.
For those who don’t know about opt-out, it was a strategy initially used on the Internet by companies to quickly create email lists of customers. The trick is to assume that any time a customer provides an email address, the customer has agreed to receive emails from the company; for example, when you purchase an item and provide your email address for order/shipping updates. In order to not receive emails, the customer would have to explicitly opt-out of the mailings. Of course, most customers considered these company advertising emails to be spam.
Soon after, many web order forms (purchasing forms, download forms, information request forms, etc.) started to display checkboxes already pre-checked to subscribe the customer to the company mailist and even worse, to subscribe the customer to paid services. The latter is especially heinous because I have fallen victim to it several times. Years ago, after I had signed up for a 3-month special with Match.com and allowed it to lapse, I was surprised to see a charge on my credit card for another 3 months at full price. Evidently, Match.com opted me into an automatic re-subscription service (I do not recall seeing that checkbox on the signup form). Worst, Match.com refused to reverse the charges because I had “agreed” to the charge; I had not manually changed my account settings to disallow automatic re-subscription. A recent example is when I purchased a game from BigFishGames.com and found myself subscribed to their $6.99/month Game Club membership service; I quickly unsubscribed by calling their customer service number.
You will also see the opt-out strategy when installing software, especially free software. One of the many installation screens would have pre-checked boxes to install other software (such as browser toolbars, Google Earth, and Yahoo Messenger). This additional software will fill up your hard drive space (best case), slow down your computer with automatically-launched programs (worse case), and/or install viruses and spyware (worst case). Whenever I am diagnosing a computer because it was “too slow” or “acting weird”, my first action is to find and remove this unwanted software. I’ve seen browsers start with 5-6 toolbars, each with its own search input field. When asked about these toolbars, the user would invariably say, “I don’t know where they came from.”
Unsolicited company email is a nuisance and thankfully, there are mechanisms (“mark as spam” on Google or Yahoo Mail) that will eventually get that company email blacklisted. Extraneous software installations are the “payment” you make for free software; to avoid, just look carefully at every checkbox during installation. But companies that pull the opt-out paid service ploy are evil because they cost you your hard-earned money and time (which you spend trying to get out of the paid service). These companies get on my boycott list and they lose me, my family, and friends as customers.
My advice to companies is to not use opt-out because in the long run, they will lose their existing and new customers (once word gets around). However, the curbside painters are still geniuses because their use of the opt-out technique has very little downside. There is no need to retain customers as a repainting is not necessary again for years (though they imply that it is a yearly event) and there are many new neighborhoods filled with unsuspecting marks, I mean customers.