Why Scammers, Spammers and Bad Ads Are Cleverer Than You Are

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“Dear Beloved Friend,

I know that this message will reach you in good health but please permit me the wish to enter a business relationship with you.”

We’ve all had at least one of these emails before. The infamous advance fee or 419 scam still sneaks its way into our inboxes even a decade after we remember first seeing it. It’s so blatant that it’s a scam yet the fact it pesters us still forces us to conclude one thing: it still works.

Stilted language; fantastic hoards of cash; tales of princes and warlords desperately seeking foreign aid – these are the hallmarks that raise red flags with most sensible people.

It’s easy to dismiss these emails as being laughably amateur attempts at scamming, the gist being that if you pay a small ‘release fee’, a much larger sum of money will be paid to you in return. Ever heard of a ‘release fee’ outside of one of these emails? Of course not, because there’s no such thing – another red flag.

The Psychology Behind Email Scams

By now you’re probably shaking your head, wondering how these crooks can be conning so many victims (a ‘mugu’ in Nigerian) across the world with such sloppy tactics.

Like any business or craft, the art of the 419 scam has been carefully honed and optimised over the past decade, and the ease at which you detect and dismiss it plays right into the scammers’ hands.

The unnatural language, bad grammar, preposterous stories and sums of money all contribute to encouraging sensible people to ignore the emails, allowing the scammers to to filter down to the gullible ones, who they hope to convert to paying mugus.

These emails have been fine-tuned to be easily spottable by people who will only waste the scammers’ time, yet somehow believable and intriguing enough to maximize revenue from the gullible. These tactics are laughably ham-fisted yet ingeniously applicable to online ads.

“Stick it to the Man”: Pretending to Resist the Establishment

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Another blight of the Internet, ‘one weird tip’ ads have been a common sight since the late 2000s. Contrary to the filtering language of the 419 emails, these ads are written to maximize traffic from people want to believe that there’s a cheaper alternative to an expensive or time-consuming solution to sensitive problems like aging, balding or weight-loss.

There are also those who believe that someone, somewhere, has a secret that “big pharma” and multinational brands don’t want you to know. Why? Because you’ll cure your ills while saving a ton of money. Sometimes in life this might be true, but such luck is not usually found by clicking on one of these “bad ads”.

These ads typically lead to a product page selling snake oil; a wonder product no more effective than a placebo, the modern equivalent to the tonic-flogging charlatans and their stooges of Western movies. Having received a massive volume of impressions and clicks over the years, the data amassed through countless A/B tests means these ads have been highly tuned for effectiveness.

Unlike the stilted language of the 419 emails, professional copywriters cleverly write these ads after extensive user profiling.

The first example looks like a crude 5 minute MS Paint job, making it stand out from the corporate ads and conveying that they’re ‘sticking it to the man’, when they very much are ‘the man’ behind a thin mask.

An amateur-looking ad has a jarring effect on the conscious and could be more successful at snapping people out of autopilot than a more professional-looking ad. The second example looks more polished but the claim is far more preposterous – we wonder which ad is most effective.

Unlike the 419 scam, these spammy ads are crafted to draw as many clicks as possible in order to satisfy tight ROI margins with sheer traffic volume. Whilst the 419 scam is likely to involve a genuine conversation with bespoke responses from the scammer, these ads are the top-level bait in a sophisticated sales funnel designed to draw high volumes of traffic.

The Underdog’s Cunning Pitch

Ryan Luedeck, beef jerky entrepreneur, demonstrates that an ‘against the grain’ approach to ads is powerful on the link-sharing site Reddit. To summarize his ingenious approach, Ryan pitched himself as an underdog trying to set up a lemonade stand in a city of lemonade factories (if a more irrelevant metaphor can be used, let me know).

If you’re familiar with how much of a dragon’s den Reddit is, then this approach might make sense to you, as the Reddit hive mind is leftist, libertarian and hostile to any blatant attempts of corporate promotion. You know those hipsters that sit in Starbucks on their MacBooks? Yeah, they’re Redditors pretending to do important stuff.

ryan luedeck

ryan luedeck

Ryan provides examples for both of Reddit’s underwhelming array of ad formats – link ads and text ads, stating both are equally viable for him. The combination of a casual selfie, personalization, first-person narrative and ‘underdog fighting the man’ pitch adds up to a potent formula.

But wait, there’s more! Ryan has mastered the subtleties of the Reddit community that aren’t obvious to the uninitiated; the coupon code is ‘FOODPORN’, the title of an innocent foodie subreddit.

Read the language he uses carefully in the title of the 2nd ad: ‘I’, ‘us’, ‘local’ and finally, ‘Want in?’ It puts Ryan on the level of his demographic, giving them a friendly nudge from someone who shares the same tastes as them.

‘Reserve your spot’ – the suggestion that it’s an underground, exclusive club for jerky enthusiasts, appealing to the hipsters of Reddit – again, absolutely ingenious. His simple value proposition is a silver bullet aimed straight for the heart of the typical Redditor – yuppies with disposable income and a lust for craft beer, homemade bread, overpriced coffee and fair trade everything.

Would he be more successful using a logo and talking about his business from the third person perspective like most ads do?

Unfortunately this tactic is really only an option for the true underdogs rather than any established business who might be seen as trying to ‘get down with the kids’, inevitably to be down-voted and jeered at by the usual trolls.

My Experience Using Garish but Effective Ads

We condemn the scammers, but their approaches can be surprisingly applicable to honest digital marketing practices, even though we’re not trying to target the gullible or attract every last drop of traffic.

The principle of deterring unwanted clicks is applicable to Google AdWords and Facebook ads, seeing as you don’t want to pay for unprofitable visitors. Many greener advertisers find it tempting to increase clickthrough rates as high as possible in order to appease the quality or relevancy score systems, whilst losing sight of more practical goals like revenue. We don’t recommend you use unnatural or bad English to achieve this, but try including your prices in your ad text to immediately deter unwilling customers. 

best converting legal ads

Yes, both examples are stock images with watermarks because we’re not paying for the real ones, but can you guess which image did better for a Facebook campaign I ran with a previous agency (with the purchased images)?

You will most likely say the second since we’ve been discussing garish-looking ads, which would be the correct answer. It’s a horrible image, barely fitting within Facebook’s 20% text image policy. But it was surprisingly effective compared to the first image, performing significantly better in both clickthrough and conversion rates. It might be more to do with the fact that the first image is so boring and stockish that the second one wins by daring to be bright and bold.

best converting adwords ads

In a previous role I ran an internal lead generation campaign with ads similar to these. The first generation of ads I created were similar to the top example and encouraged many clicks and conversions, the second generated fewer of both.

However, the second ad completely replaced the first ad because although it produced fewer leads, the leads were of exceptionally higher quality. This was due to the specificity and complexity of the language in the second ad compared to the first. The second ad was designed to appeal to savvier and, of course, wealthier clients, whilst the first was designed to appeal to everyone.

Discouraging clicks contradicts Google’s encouragement of gaining high clickthrough rates to bolster quality scores, but it’s better for overall business. This is basically the opposite of what 419 scammers are trying to achieve, though both use text tailored to filter their audiences.

3 Key Takeaways to Super-Charge Your Ad Conversions

  1. Odd-looking ads can be counter intuitively good and you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with text, colors and images that seem out of place.
  2. Ads that deter unwanted clicks by including prices and product-specific details can be great for reducing costs per conversion.
  3. Presenting yourself as a low-budget underdog is an effective approach to some platforms. The world is becoming an increasingly anti big business, as this “sticking it to the man” approach is now of mass appeal. 
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