Shaming Customers Drives Conversions, but at What Cost?


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Magnolia (not her real opinion)

“Don’t put words in someone else’s mouth!” This sage advice from my first-grade teacher has stuck with me. I have my conversational faults, but I’ve steadfastly avoided this transgression. Yet, the gaffe persists in society today, and it’s growing.

We need a grass roots campaign to stop the spread. First, let’s adopt a more contemporary slogan. How about, “don’t put e-words in someone else’s e-mouth!” It tackles a new wrinkle to this older problem because some major online retailers force people to say things they don’t really think or believe.

“No thanks, I do not want fast, free shipping,” Amazon e-said for me last week when I completed my online transaction, declining their offer for the “free shipping” benefit. Generally, when I don’t want to purchase something, I find “no” a simple and effective response. One that gets my point across fully. No need to embellish.  Whatever . . . my need wasn’t especially urgent. I let Amazon’s default comment stand. I just wanted my epoxy in the next few weeks.

“No, I will not protect my rental car and I agree to pay for damages incurred,” were the e-words a car rental agency attributed to me in April when I populated their online reservation form, indicating to them that I didn’t want supplemental insurance coverage. A more accurate statement would have been, “No, I find these charges a rip off, designed to pad the agency’s profits.” But that choice wasn’t available. Nobody likes to be misquoted, but for now, I’ll have to live with this violation. Sigh. At least the e-words indelicately placed in my e-mouth provided the cost savings I wanted.

In fact, anytime I rent a vehicle, I drive it with the same care that I do for my own, which is pretty carefully. And my personal auto coverages extend to rentals, ergo, protection! For these reasons, the “I will not protect my rental car . . .” isn’t technically correct. Nor is the “I agree to pay for damages incurred,” if, for example, a driver runs a stop sign and hits my rental car. When the at-fault driver has auto insurance, their provider pays. Not me.

I understand the reasons for this subtle humiliation. Shame and revenue are connected. I wonder how many consumers vacillate on decisions, wavering the mouse arrow around that car rental insurance offer acceptance box. “Should I? Should I not? Should I? . . . What to do? I will NOT protect my car? . . . hmmmm. Well, NO! That seems so risky! I WILL protect my car . . .” The consumer reluctantly approves the add-on fee, and proceeds to mull the next needless upcharge. If I ran a car-rental agency, I’d ask to hear a ka-ching play through a loudspeaker at headquarters every time a customer succumbed to this slick online trick. The staff would figure out how to deal with the racket. “Team! All of it goes straight into our profit-sharing plan!”

In the early days of e-commerce, retailers used large bright on-screen buttons to encourage customers to accept an offer, to buy a product, or to release identity information. The alternative, decline, was low-key and polite – usually a smaller button with a simple “no” or “no, thanks.”

Today’s customers proceed through a sophisticated, choreographed “buyers’ journey,” and vendors are loathe to allow them off the path to Transaction City. Shaming has become commonplace. So much so, that the Nielsen Norman Group has even coined a term for the enabling mechanism: manipulinks. “In a desperate attempt to nudge users towards conversions like newsletter signups some websites are adding manipulative link text to their popup modals.  These user-shaming labels are called manipulinks . . . : they employ the practice of what is often referred to as confirmshaming — making users feel bad for opting out of an offer (logically, this practice might better be described as declineshaming).”

Nielsen Norman provides some stunning examples: To decline “Show Me The Deals” [sic], a website visitor must click on “No thanks, I don’t like deals.”

Women’s Health To decline “GET MY TOTAL BODY WORKOUT PLAN”, a website visitor must click on “No thanks, I don’t need to work out.” To decline “SHOW ME 14 SIMPLE DINNERS,” a website visitor must click on “No thanks, I’ll have a microwave dinner tonight.” (I laughed at this one, though I sense jocularity was not the company’s intent.)

I see a hand raised in the back of the room . . . . yes, on the left, blue striped shirt! Could you speak up so everyone can hear you? . . . momentary silence . . . then, a confident voice rings out: “We don’t call it ‘shaming.’ A/B testing has revealed that certain messages produce more conversions. That’s why companies do it.”

I see. Numbers often create compelling arguments. But, as Nielsen Norman explains it, “focusing on conversions to the exclusion of common sense is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t matter if more people [sign] up for your newsletter if you had to bully them into doing it.” Hands down, that is the most eloquent, sensible CX wisdom I have read in a long time.

The problem is that some marketers are dashboard junkies, and don’t see the risks. While A/B testing provides answers on which message produced the preferred result more often, it doesn’t reveal a cruddy customer experience.

I think it’s a mistake to shame customers. You can discount my opinion. You can say that I’m stubborn, unable to accept new ways of doing things. True, in this case. I confess that when it comes to positive customer experience, I don’t readily budge from particular ideals. One of them is that when customers visit my company’s website, and those of my clients, I want them to feel like winners, not losers. Every customer decision should be respected, even ones we don’t like or disagree with. That insight didn’t come naturally to me, but was discovered and reinforced through many years of face-to-face B2B selling. Today, basic courtesy has been shoved aside. Marketing professionals take note: snarkiness directed at prospects and customers will inevitably bite you in the rear.

“Be all you can be!” Now there was a brilliant aspirational recruiting slogan for the US Army, thanks to visionary agency NW Ayer. A message that every person on the planet could relate to. What happened to spreading good vibes as a marketing tactic? I don’t know. Maybe the wrong people got promoted into the wrong jobs. Or, maybe people started putting too much credence in their A/B tests. And maybe those who knew better didn’t feel safe questioning what the results were “telling” them. That’s why we have the e-words “no thanks, I’ll have a microwave dinner tonight” shoved into our mouths when we have the temerity to opt out of something a marketer wants us to opt into.

Not every company follows the shaming herd. According to Nielsen Norman, “Ace Hardware employs a traditional and more direct approach to promoting its newsletter . . . It presents the offer directly without using a condescending tone. Users can simply say ‘no thanks’ or close the window and move on.”

Civil and respectful communication. What’s not to like? And customer sentiment will likely be reciprocal. A positive result that any marketer should want.

Draw from the social skills that your elementary school teacher insisted that you follow. One of them might accelerate your revenue achievement.

The post Shaming Customers Drives Conversions, but at What Cost? appeared first on Contrary Domino.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. I completely agree! You have defined for me that gut wrenching feeling I get when a full page offer is presented with a discount offer to join a mailing list. The decline response is: “No I prefer to pay full price”. They might as well just call me Stupid! Anyway, thank you for this article. I like to think my website offer is simply offering you a benefit with a polite decline option if you prefer.

  2. Hi Mary: thank you for your comment, and for sharing the decline response you encountered. I would like to see companies get their comeuppance when attempting to humiliate customers. Maybe a tweet exposing the practice, a negative review on Yelp, or dinging the offender on a post-purchase survey (assuming you make one) will demonstrate to practitioners what humiliation feels like – along with giving companies a strong message to cut it out.


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