As marketers, we spend a lot of time crafting our pitches – emails, sales letters, print ads, etc. – to make our products seem as desirable as possible. We strive for convincing copy that doesn’t raise suspicion in the mind of the reader, and seeks to quell any fears or objections. But, are there some situations where turning off some prospects can work to the marketer’s benefit? Microsoft researcher and cybercrime expert Cormac Herley says “yes.”

Herley looked at the behavior of the scam artists who send out mass emails promising the recipient a financial windfall if they just provide a little help to the sender. You know the kind of email I’m talking about – “My uncle was the oil minister of Nigeria and deposited $50 million in a U.S. bank account. Because of government controls in Nigeria, I can’t access the account. But, if you help, I’ll give you half of the money we recover.” These emails, most commonly dubbed “Nigerian scams” or “419 scams,” are invariably outlandish – huge sums of money and a goofy, implausible story.

Often, despite the association of email scams with Nigerian perpetrators, the communications frequently reference Nigeria as the location of the dead oil minister, deposed king, etc. In Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They are From Nigeria? Herley summarizes the math and shows that referencing Nigeria in the hard-to-believe story actually helps the scammers.

The “Clueless” Filter

Here’s why: when you get one of these emails, you are likely thinking, “You’d have to be a clueless idiot to think the nephew of a dead general is going to share $30 million with you just for making a trip to the bank.” If a 419 scammer could read your thoughts and reply in business terms, he would likely say, “Exactly! That’s our target market!”

Shrinking the Sales Funnel

For the scammers to make money, they will ultimately have to convince their targets to wire them money and perhaps even travel to Africa. Needless to say, these are steps that few prospects will find appealing. Even gullible targets will get suspicious as the demands increase, and most will drop out of the process. And each prospect requires individual attention in the form of emails, replies, phone calls, etc. (Off topic: do you suppose these scammers use CRM software to keep track of all their prospects and where they are in the “closing” process?)

This labor-intensive process means that if more potential skeptics are knocked out of the conversion funnel at the outset, the density of potential victims goes up in the smaller pool of prospects. The scammer wastes less time and can convert more victims to maximize profit. Even if a few good prospects are lost by by using less plausible pitch, the higher density of victims in the final pool makes the entire process more profitable. As Herley notes,

By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

Who Cares? I’m Not a Scammer!

What does this have to do with the marketing that most of us do? Well, at least for those marketers that have costs associated with a sales process, like followup phone calls or in-person visits to inquiries, casting a wide net with the advertising process may lead to inefficiencies downstream.

Shrink Your Funnel?

Smart marketers understand the costs at each stage of their process, and calculate the cost per conversion for each source. A few things you can do:

  • Be sure you know how profitable the leads are from each source.
  • Include all costs in your calculations – advertising, cost to qualify, cost of the sales process, etc.
  • Run the numbers to see if you can change your front end marketing to produce fewer prospects that, on average, will convert better.

The perpetrators of scams generally can’t sustain losses for very long. They have no choice but to squeeze inefficiency out of their system. We may despise the scammers’ methods, objectives, and results, but the need to avoid filling the conversion funnel with leads that won’t convert is one lesson we can learn from them.

[I should point out that the vast majority of Nigerian people, whether at home or abroad, are honest and hard-working. Why a few people from that country came to dominate this kind of scam, I'm unable to say. To learn more about 419 scams and to see how creative people have worked to scam the scammers into spending their own money and wasting time doing silly things, check out The exchanges are often hilarious! Photo via]

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