Archive for October, 2017

When & How To Use Negative Copy In Customer Outreach Campaigns

Friday, October 27th, 2017

In When Does Negative Copy Drive Positive Outcomes?, we saw how the Loss Aversion principle in consumer behavior makes negative copy very effective. At the end of the post, I’d cautioned vendors against using negative copy indiscriminately and implored them to handle campaigns based on negative copy with a lot of care.

In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on when and how to use negative copy in customer outreach campaigns.

First the “when” of using negative copy.

It’s a no brainer that negative copy should be used selectively. Based on my experience, I recommend it when your prospective customer’s vitals would take a nosedive without your intervention. “Vitals” include operations, revenue, CSAT, brand image and any other KPIs of your customer. “Your intervention” means your product, service or consulting.

While the nuances of the “when” can vary from product to product and market to market, the above guidance can be used to quickly dipstick whether a certain context lends itself to the use of negative copy or not.

Let me “backtest” this guidance on the two examples described in my previous post.

  1. The retailer would lose money if its stock got pilfered from its warehouse
  2. My company’s operations would come to a standstill if my phone stopped working.

In both situations, the respective company’s vitals would take a nosedive if it did nothing. Therefore, both vendors were justified in using negative copy to communicate their call to action (CTA).

Next, the “how” of using negative copy.

There are right ways and wrong ways of executing any marketing campaign. When it comes to outreach campaigns based on negative copy, the stakes are higher on account of the sensitivity of the message. Therefore, such campaigns need to be run with greater sensitivity towards the best practices.

I’ll take the example of my bank’s recent outreach campaign to “organically” arrive at the right ways of running a campaign based on negative copy.

Every time I logged on to this bank’s Internet Banking portal, I was “greeted” by the following scary-looking banner.

The same banner was also attached to email transaction alert sent by the bank for my company’s bank account.

For the uninitiated, the campaign seeks to drive the so-called “Aadhaar Seeding” activity whereby all bank accounts in India must be linked to their holders’ Aadhaar Number (which is a biometric ID issued by UIDAI). The government has mandated this step to curb money laundering. There’s a lot of hue and cry on the mainstream and social media that Aadhaar Seeding infringes upon the Right to Privacy. But I digress. In the context of this post, Aadhaar Seeding is taken as a non-negotiable requirement.

Since my company’s operations would come to a standstill if its bank account was frozen – in other words, its vitals would take a nosedive – the bank was justified in using negative copy in its outreach campaign.

However, the bank bungled the execution of the campaign.

The bank showed me this banner whenever I logged in to my personal savings account. When I clicked on the Link Now button in the banner, the landing page displayed my Aadhaar Number correctly. This was a confirmation of the fact that I’d already linked my Aadhaar Number to this account. No surprises there because I’d completed this activity way back in 2013, pursuant to an ordeal that I’d described in what became the second most viewed post on Finextra that year. So, this message was not relevant for my savings account.

The bank also showed me this banner whenever I logged in to my company’s current account. Since Aadhaar is not applicable for companies, this message essentially made no sense. Besides, when I clicked the Link Now button, the resulting page informed me that my company’s Customer ID wasn’t linked to any savings account. Duh, Captain Obvious, didn’t I already know that?

This got very frustrating.

What can a bank in a similar situation do differently? Sugarcoat the basic message? No. But it can

  • Refrain from showing this banner when I log into my savings account
  • Explain the relevance of Aadhaar for a business / current account
  • Provide a way (that works!) to complete Aadhaar seeding for the given account.

Abstracted one level above, this would mean that a vendor running a campaign based on negative copy should

  1. Target the campaign accurately instead of blasting it to all and sundry
  2. Use copy that expresses the problem clearly
  3. Provide a workable solution to solve the problem.

When applied to the WMS software developer featured in my previous post, the above best practices would translate to the following guidance for the vendor’s “cut losses” campaign:

  • The campaign should target only retailers, FMCG and other industries that have warehouses. It should skip BFSI, Telecom and other services verticals for whom warehouse is not a thing
  • The copy should clearly state that it’s referring to losses caused by pilferage of goods from warehouses
  • Explain how WMS would help curb such pilferage.

Coming back to my bank, I was anxious to complete my pending Aadhaar Seeding activity. I reached out to its senior management to share the above best practices.

After a bit of back and forth, the bank incorporated my guidance. Accordingly:

  • I no longer see the scary-looking banner when I log on to my savings account. Check best practice #1
  • The bank now makes it clear upfront that, in the case of current accounts, Aadhaar seeding refers to the Aadhaar Number of the authorized signatory of the company’s account. Check best practice #2
  • Upon clicking the Link Now button appearing on the welcome screen, customers are directed to a landing page where they can enter the concerned person’s Aadhaar Number (including authorized signatory of a company in the case of a current account). Check best practice #3.
  • Once customers enter their particulars and click the SUBMIT button, they see the following confirmation:

Called “positive reinforcement” in Consumer Behavior, this is a very important step especially when it comes to outreach campaigns that ask customers to complete CTAs mandated by regulation e.g. Aadhaar Seeding, KYC Verification, and so on. Such a confirmation is par for the course for pure-play online companies but, for a bank, I can imagine that thinking of it was the result of going the extra mile.
As a result of these changes, the CX of Aadhaar Seeding journey has improved.

While I don’t have the figures, I’m sure the new customer journey has helped the bank achieve a manifold increase in conversion of online customers to “Aadhaar Seeders”.

In summary, negative copy can be very effective if used in the right context and handled with kid gloves.

When Does Negative Copy Drive Positive Outcomes?

Friday, October 20th, 2017

All through my career in sales and marketing in the corporate world, I’ve been exhorted to write in positive style. The strong guidance applied to ads, email marketing, datasheets, brochures, case studies and other forms of marketing collateral (hereinafter referred to as “copy”).

In my early days in software marketing, I used to work for a company that developed a warehouse management software (“WMS”). By curbing theft from warehouses, WMS helped retailers and other industries prevent pilferage losses. Accordingly, the most natural way to position it was as a tool to “cut losses”. However my boss at the time told me to put across the value proposition positively. Since I was a marketing greenhorn at the time, I went ahead and pitched it as “grow profits with WMS”.

But I was never comfortable with the contrived positive spin.

Sure enough, over the following years, I’ve regularly come across negative copy in business communications. For example:


Peter Sondergaard, SVP & Global Head of Research at Gartner, does not say “your org should optimize and create new digital biz models to march ahead”.


In The future of grocery—in store and online, McKinsey Partner Louise Herring asserts “…there’s no reason why some of the technologies that can work in a financial-services world couldn’t also apply to many of the retailers that we have around the world.”

She does not put a positive spin by saying “there’s every reason why some of the technologies that can work in a financial-services world could also apply to many of the retailers we have around the world”.


In his interview with the Financial Times (subscription required), Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, declares “There is no walk of life that is not going to require computational understanding”.

He does not say “Every walk of life is going to require computational understanding.”


Have a look at the launch ad of Quikr’s Audience Platform:

India’s #1 classified ads platform does not claim that “your brand and audience will always be matched”.

It’s not just in business.

Take popular literature. The Acknowledgments section of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is full of negative lines.

Or politics:

Or coaching:

This sales management coach is actually telling his audience to reframe a positive statement into a negative warning:


When we’re taught to think positively, why’re so many famous and successful people using negative style in their written communications?

I think it’s because of the so-called Loss Aversion principle in consumer behavior theory.

In plain English, loss aversion means that individuals (as well as companies) will make double the efforts to retain what they have than to get something new. The terms “what they have” and “something” in the previous sentence refer not only to materialistic items (e.g. money, house, car) but also intangible things (e.g. status, self-esteem, brand image).

When applied to the context of warehouse theft, the loss aversion principle suggests that a company will be motivated more strongly to avoid losses caused by pilferage than to grow profits resulting from reduced pilferage. Hence “cut losses” is a more powerful message in theory. This was borne out in practice when we created a Marketable Item based on the “cut losses” angle for one of our customers many years later. The lead generation campaign based on this negative theme received a better response than the earlier one using the positive “grow profits” variant.


While marketers need to be careful about the use of negative copy, a campaign based on contrived positive language can backfire badly.

I came across a great example of this when a company sugarcoated its message when the situation called for negative copy and suffered a serious blow to its reputation as a result. This was a leading Mobile Network Operator from whom I’ve bought several mobile phone connections over the past 10+ years. All connections were in my personal name.

Consequent to the Goods & Services Tax regime that came into effect from 1 July 2017, my CA firm pointed out that I could claim tax credit on my mobile phone bills if the connections were in my company’s name. I visited the MNO’s store to request a transfer of some of my connections to my company’s name and submitted the required KYC documents. One day later, the new SIM card in my company’s name got activated. So far so good.

A couple of days later, I got the following SMS from the MNO:

Since my new connection was already active, I didn’t believe anything was pending from my side. Besides, this MNO has a track record of sending messages that even its own staff don’t understand.

Therefore, I ignored this Call To Action.

Two days later, I couldn’t make any calls. Whenever I tapped the green-colored call button on my smartphone, I got an automated message informing me that my outgoing calls were blocked due to failure of my KYC verification.

I was very upset – this was the first time my connection was blocked in 15+ years of my using a mobile phone. If someone had conducted a survey at that point, I’d have rated this MNO’s CX as the worst in the world (across all industries!).

Anyway, what was done was done. I went back to the store, jumped through several hoops and got this problem sorted out. But I vowed to myself that I’d never buy any Value Added Service from this company (For some reason apparently mandated by the telecom regulator, every VAS purchase entails fresh KYC).

Had the MNO had used a more direct Call To Action – e.g. “Your verification has failed. Please visit our store for re-verification” – I wouldn’t have suffered loss of connection or written off this brand. While the alternative message sounds negative, it’d have invoked immediate action instead of its sugarcoated message that lulled me into inaction and put me through a lot of trouble a couple of days later.

My takeaway from the overall experience was that the MNO had made the unpardonable mistake of stopping service for a paying customer. In the end, it didn’t matter that its CTA was worded positively.

Once marketers see the power of negative copy, they might be tempted to recast the messaging of all their offerings.

They shouldn’t. Negative copy needs to be used very selectively and handled with kid gloves when used.

In a follow-on post, I’ll share my thoughts on the right context for using negative copy and outline a few best practices for running campaigns based on them. Watch this space!

Aspirational Selling Is Not Overselling

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Every now and then I come across a techie complaining that their sales is overselling, thus making their job of creating a satisfied customer harder.

For example, take this OP on Quora, who asks:

Is it common to oversell in B2B? My boss has a tendency to oversell our company services, but the tech team can’t keep up. I’m new to the B2B setting.

These guys should realize that there’s a big difference between overselling and aspirational selling.

Overselling is selling something and not delivering it.

Aspirational selling is selling to aspirational goals of the customer with every intention and proven track record of achieving those goals.

Aspirational selling is a fairly common practice in the software industry.

Take office automation software, for example.

It’s widely believed that customers use only 30–40% of features in Word, Excel, etc. Despite that, Microsoft has been releasing newer versions of Office with more functionality for nearly three decades. That’s because, during the entire lifetime of MS Office, one characteristic of consumer behavior hasn’t changed: Users’ hunger for more features whether they use them or not. Microsoft didn’t stop developing future versions of Office on the basis of the reality that customers were not using 70% of the previous versions’ functionality. Instead, it released a new version almost every two years during the 30 year lifetime of MS Office. And the rest is history. (For a deep dive into this topic, see my blog posts SaaS Will Change The Outcome Of The Bloatware Versus Light Apps Debate and Introducing “Multiply UI” To Solve The Software Industry’s 95% Problem).

Now, when it comes to enterprise applications, aspirational selling is even more common.

Take the following ad from ERP leader SAP for example.

The copy drives prospective customers to aspire to become a world-class company by buying SAP.

There’s a very strong reason why aspirational selling is the standard selling style in ERP, CRM, Configure-Price-Quote, Learning Management Systems, and many other enterprise software products. Companies already use a “system” to carry out the business processes automated by these products. The basic nature of many of these business processes hasn’t changed radically. Therefore, a prospect upgrades to a new enterprise software product not to do something drastically new but because they aspire to improve the way of doing existing things.

Let’s taking invoicing as an example. Whether a company sells goods or services, uses offline, online or omnichannel, deploys ATL or BTL tactics to drive sales, it always raises an invoice against a sale. That basic principle of accounting has remained constant during the entire history of business.

To generate an invoice, a company can use a range of “systems” like pen and paper, calculator, Excel, point invoicing software or an ERP. Why would it want to upgrade to an ERP? Not to generate some “gold coated” invoice, I’m sure, but more likely to achieve one or more of the following goals:

  1. Cut operating costs by harmonizing the invoice process / template across all business units, offices and factories
  2. Compute revenues at SBU and enterprise levels in realtime
  3. Support manifold increase in invoicing volumes without a proportionate increase in manpower
  4. Gain visibility into inventory across all stocking points
  5. Prevent stock-outs and resultant loss of revenues by triggering stock transfers from one warehouse / store to another

These are aspirational goals because they seek to raise the company to the next level of revenues, profits and customer experience. It’s obvious that sales needs to sell an enterprise software as a way of fulfilling these aspirations.

Now, all these techie versus sales conflicts and charges of overselling start when the aspiration rubber hits the reality road.

Once the vendor receives the order and its tech team kicks off the implementation of the product, many unforseen challenges surface at the customer company e.g. organizational politics, disjointed data structure across operating units, differing regulations across operating locations, lack of top management bandwidth, and so on.

Before sales bags the deal, these challenges are either not forseen or appear minor to everyone. So there’s no way a salesperson can win the deal by bringing them up.

Which is why aspirational selling is practice du jour in software.

And it’s not only me.

AMR Research, the onetime leading supply chain research firm, once quipped:

“2nd Law of Software Marketing: Don’t let the product come in the way of the story.”

(Before you ask, the research firm that was subsequently acquired by Gartner didn’t propound a 1st Law of Software Marketing!)

The aforementioned challenges prevent invoice harmonization i.e rollout of a single, common invoicing process / invoice template across the whole company.

The customer has two options at this point:

(A) Keep the implementation on hold until these issues are resolved


(B) Recalibrate the scope of invoice harmonization to a subset of the operating units, and move forward with the implementation according to the original schedule.

Under Option A, the go-live deadline will be missed but all the features will be implemented upon go-live. There’s no aspirational selling or overselling.

Under Option B, the deadline will be met but certain features will be pushed out to the second phase. But there’s still no overselling, because, had the customer selected Option A, the tech team could’ve very well implemented invoice harmonization as projected by sales.

A savvy tech team helps the customer take the right decision and optimizes the implementation to fit the given circumstances.

That’s the key to creating a satisfied customer. Not whining about overselling.

I’m The Proud Author Of A Book!

Friday, October 6th, 2017

I’m happy to announce that I’ve published a book!

Entitled FROM DISLOYALTY TO OMNICHANNEL CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT, my book is available in Kindle and EPUB formats.

In this eBook, I trace the arc of loyalty programs run by brands during the last 5-7 years and predict the trajectory of their customer engagement management strategies over the remaining 3-4 years of the current decade. Contrary to popular opinion, loyalty is still a thing and many brands are making sizeable investments to go beyond discounts and promotions to build cult loyalty à la 3M, Amazon et al.

Brands covered in this book include 3M, Amazon, Allerghan, DMART, Go Daddy, ICICI Bank, IHG, Nescafe, Ola, PayTM, SBI, Shopper’s Stop, Snickers, Tic Tac and Uber.

You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

I’m currently navigating the challenges of publishing the EPUB version, one of them being the fact that the world’s leading EPUB platform NOOK restricts self-publishing to U.S residents. I’m hoping to sort this out in the coming days. I’ll update this post when the EPUB goes live on NOOK (or another EPUB platform).

Having spent a good part of my professional career in marketing, I’m no stranger to developing content but this is my first go at writing a book.