Social Business, Social Media Strategy

Is Your Marketing a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

badge jay says Is Your Marketing a Wolf in Sheeps Clothing?Last week, I wrote that social media stunts can do more harm than good, because they set an expectation among the masses that they will also be treated with extraordinary kindness. But they won’t, because highly individualized “wow” moments aren’t typically scalable.

(Note: not everyone agreed with me on that, which is terrific. I don’t write this blog to be right, I write it to make social and content professionals think beyond the obvious crap-ola that’s shoveled around the Web every day.) 

 Is Your Marketing a Wolf in Sheeps Clothing?Just three days later, I found an amazing article in USA Today about Sprint sending 470,000 hand-written thank you notes to their customers. Wow! They have implemented “thank you Thursdays” where each employee is asked to write five notes. Even the CEO writes them.

Sprint has been doing some great stuff in the customer care area, including their Social Ninjas program. Check out the always good Hobson & Holtz Report podcast with Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson for details on the Ninjas.

So, I’m thinking “Finally, a great example of three too rare elements of modern business success!”

Humanization – The hand-written thank you card is going extinct like Kristen Stewart’s reputation.

Employees Working Off-Script – They are allowed to write whatever they want at Sprint, as long as it’s legible, and the idea was suggested by a rank-and-file employee, and embraced by leadership

Scalable – 470,000 notes is not a “buy Peter Shankman a steak” or “give a kid a boogie board” one-off stunt.

……but then the milk of inspired kindness and human connection turned sour and craven.

Thank You. Now Give Us Your Money.

Turns out, each thank you note is “redeemable” by its recipient for 25% any accessory at a local Sprint store. There’s even an expiration date.

This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Sprint totally missed the point.

  • Every quid doesn’t require a quo
  • Every gesture doesn’t require a call-to-action
  • Every campaign doesn’t require a tracking mechanism

Smart guys Tom Martin and Matt Ridings agreed on Twitter:


We’ll never know of course, but I think they’d have a better redemption rate if they just sent the note without the offer, and then sent a straightforward offer down the road a few weeks. The unbastardized sheep makes the audience more receptive to the wolf.

Or maybe I’m being oversensitive?

  • gonzogonzo

    Indeed, the milk turned sour… Looking at this example, I find it’s a great one of stellar creativity, with poor execution. I can just imagine the senior leadership talking about this campaign before implementing, asking “gee, how are we going to measure the ROI of this action, sending 475,000 handwritten card?”Fact is, the “tactic” itself should have been, as you suggested, as two-punch action. First, send out the handwritten notes. Then, follow up with an offer 2-3 weeks later. Yes, it would cost more, because of postage and doubling up the efforts, but it would not have bastardized the first “thank you” note.But then again, this example came from a telecom company. Having done a brief stint in that industry, I am not surprised. It’s all about marketing offers, with short-term perspective. Brand loyalty? Meh. No such thing… Acquisition, acquisition, acquisition… with very little effort on retention, loyalty and true brand evangelism.

    • JayBaer

      gonzogonzo It’s very hard to not include an offer. Hell, as mentioned in the comment above, I even have a pop-up on this very page, so I guess I’m as much part of the problem as I am part of the solution. 

  • svolinsky

    I agree, a thank you note should be a thank you note, not a coupon. When I toured Zappos, they showed us blank Zappos cards: they offer their employees an option to write a thank you note to somebody they were on the phone/chat/etc. Personal connection is what they go for, and it seems to be really working!

  • StuMcLaren

    I don’t know JayBaer, I’m not so sensitive to the fact that they made an offer.I’m not looking to be best friends with the companies I do business with so for me, the fact that they put forth the effort to write a hand written card would not be completely discounted because they included a special offer.For me, the hand written card goes a LONG way regardless of the offer. Sometimes I feel like we are starting to take the “social” thing a little too far… but that’s just me.

    • JayBaer

      StuMcLaren I hear you Stu. I just feel that they genuinely would have better results if they did the thank you by itself, and then the offer afterwards. 

  • TomMartin

    After the cold light of a weekend, and a few adult beverages, it sort of jelled for me Jay… The beauty of a thank you note is that it is a uniquely selfless act. We don’t send thank you notes (in real life) with any intent other than to show genuine appreciation for something. That’s the part Sprint missed. The power of the communication method is the understood context of a thank you note… it’s really more of a branding approach than a direct response one in my opinion.But yes, as you note – you can almost hear the smartie in the room talking about ROI and saying, hey, let’s give them a discount if they bring it in for a purchase… and heads nodding…. As we said last week … shame really. Could have, should have been a powerful effort… now it’s just an effort.   @TomMartin 

    • JayBaer

      TomMartin Damn. I should have had a few adult beverages before I wrote the post!

  • T_Hinkle

    I can definitely see your point here, Jay.  However, if I’m a Sprint customer and actually in the market for some sort of accessory, this “thank you” note was just taken to a whole new level.  Not only did I get a hand-written thank you note, but I can actually save some money on that accessory I’ve been eyeing.  I understand the principle of the “thank you” note but Sprint wasn’t forcing anyone to redeem the coupon.  If I wasn’t in the market for an accessory, I don’t think I’d hold it against them for at least trying to thank me…I would see right through it though.Signed,Verizon Customer

    • JayBaer

      T_Hinkle I don’t think I would hold it against them, no. 

  • jrevans1963

    So I click on the link to this article via Twitter…and, ironically, I read for about 2 minutes and then a pop-up ad interrupts my viewing and darkens the screen so I cannot do what I want…read the post…but I have to respond to some sales item from this blog.  I never click on those pop-ups and I find it really distracts from the effort to get me here to read the post…I feel this way about every site that markets this way.  So, in a way, you are doing the same thing by forcing a sales decision when a reader hasn’t requested one.

    • JayBaer

      jrevans1963 That is (unintentionally ironic). The good news is that you shouldn’t see the pop-up again for a couple weeks. Thanks for the comment. 

  • Siddharth Deswal

    JayBaer JayBaer Just tried putting myself in the customer’s shoes.Am I going to buy prepaid talking minutes (I’m from India, so not sure what the exact nomenclature for that in the US is) in the coming days / months? Unless am jumping services or moving abroad, almost certainly. Will this discount be helpful? Yes. What happens when there’s no discount? I feel good about it for a few minutes and then move on.But when I have the discount, I feel good about getting it in the mail, and then even better when I walk into a Sprint outlet to buy something and find out that almost no one else has the same thing (475,000 / 55 million * 100 = 0.86%) and then when I finally get the discount.In terms of feel good factor, the discount wins, no?

  • techguerilla

    From a marketing perspective, I believe as you do that it would have been more effective as a two-part staged communication.However, where this really failed for me had little to do with a marketing campaigns effectiveness.  If you are going to engage all of your employees in something like this you are teaching your employees your values.  You are saying “We care about our customers.  They have choices and they chose us. We don’t want you to forget that, in fact we want you to honor that relationship and form a direct relationship with them…person to person as it were”.  Reinforcing those values has profound effects on your internal culture that go far beyond simple marketing objectives.  The moment you attach the marketing offer you instead are telling your employees that they have become free labor in a marketing exercise and that those are the true values that your company about.  Companies can build and leverage relationships that in turn create transactions, or they can simply try and generate transactions through simple marketing calls-to-action.  Guess which one I think the employees feel they were a part of.Cheers,Matt Ridings - @techguerilla 

  • R_Anderson

    My Fellow Marketers -For me, the execution is the key to whether this plays well as intended or feels tainted with a lack of authenticity as many here seem to feel it does.  If I received a handwritten note from my rep at Omaha Steaks with some coupons encouraging me to try some other items I believe I would appreciate it.  If I received a handwritten note from my rep at Sweetwater (musical gear) accompanied by some coupons for savings on guitar strings or a dollar(s) off my next purchase I would think that smart and appropriate – not swarmy (is that a word?)If I received a handwritten note from my florist thanking me for my continued business and included an inducement to be used in the next 60 days I would think it smart.I definitely applaud the effort of this initiative by Sprint and know from experience how difficult it is to mandate handwritten notes or any personal follow-up for that matter.  If, and I repeat – if, they missed the mark with a poorly executed inducement accompanying their notes than I suggest a slight tweaking of the campaign – not the trash can nor a finger shaking …NOT a Sprint customer – but I like what I am hearing  :)Russell ACS Creative

  • alancrawley

    @GrahamHill @dschulenberg @jaybaer seems a lot of marketing is a sheep in wolf’s clothing!

    • GrahamHill

      @alancrawley LOL Marketing as sleeping tablet vs marketing as ramming machine. :-)

    • dschulenberg

      @alancrawley Agree…much in the same way many do social instead become social businesses. Maybe this is a symptom of a bigger ‘problem’

      • alancrawley

        @dschulenberg so right. They key is to think about the business model. Does it work for customers; is it economically viable? #dotcombubble

  • dschulenberg

    @GrahamHill Thanks for sharing Graham!

    • GrahamHill

      @dschulenberg It was my pleasure :-)

  • dschulenberg

    @eveliinawe Thanks for sharing Evelina. Do you see examples of marketing wolves in your LOB?

    • eveliinawe

      @dschulenberg Cannot think of any(one) right now… Interesting post and especially the comments!

  • ErikWullschleger

    Jay – sent you a quick tweet with a link, but figured I would dive in here.The whole point of Thank You Thursday was to establish a personal connection with our real customers…the “Thank You Note” being one way of doing that (and also a fairly low effort…highly valued form of connection).  I was born out of the sales organization and every day had the chance to directly impact the end user of Sprint services.  I could explain a certain feature in more detail, trouble shoot an issue, or even just slap on a bigger smile…and directly see the effect of my actions.I moved to corporate and found that ability was virtually gone…..and even worse, most of my co-workers never knew the feeling.  Thank You Thursday is an opportunity for employees in legal, accounting, operations and heck….even MARKETING to give their personal contact info to a living/breathing customer and genuinely recognize that we’re here because of them…and we appreciate it!To the point of the coupon… one’s tracking it….we didn’t put it on there to retire a revenue bogey….we were just being nice.  In fact, the code reps use to redeem the “offer” on the back of the card is just a generic code that isn’t even tied to any specific campaign.I was absolutely THRILLED to see your blog post….I hope the true intent and hard work of thousands of Sprint employees suffering through writer’s cramp isn’t lost here.  We’re trying to be the good guys… the right thing and genuinely tell customers who have been footing the bills for our paychecks “Thank You.”More coverage at my blog if anyone is interested….thanks! As a bonus….some coverage of the benefits of our hardwork…..due to solid execution, not just the 1/2 million thank you notes we’ve written :-) 

  • Rebecca Livermore

    I’m definitely impressed with a couple of things here. One is that first of all, they even thought to send handwritten thank you notes. That is an art form that has all but disappeared. I’m also impressed with the fact that they have gotten employees from all over the company to participate in this. This shows that expressing gratitude is becoming part of the company culture, which I think is awesome.  I do agree that it would be better if they kept out all sales messages from the thank you notes and followed up later, though I will admit that I probably would be impressed enough with the handwritten thank you not, since it’s so rare, that I wouldn’t hold the coupon against them. 

  • bhas

    I wonder if they did a hard sell in the Thank You note, or it was a soft sell.Writing something like “Thanks for being our customer. We are very excited to give you a discount of 25% on any accessory and we would highly recommend that you try it out. This offer expires on 30th Aug” is very different from “Thanks for being our customer. We appreciate your patronage and would love to gift you a discount of 25% on any accessory . ” The first one reads like a smarmy salesman plastering a fake smile while pushing you a used car, while the second one sounds more personal and way less pushy.If they went with the second approach, I can’t fault them. But if they went in for the juglar, it’s a daft marketing and branding approach.