April 11, 2016
Marketing  |  9 min read

What a Spammy Pop-up Ad can Actually Teach Us about Distractive Marketing

How (not) to get a customer’s attention

Here’s an embarrassing story:

In 2001, I went away to college. My first order of business was to open my seven-pound laptop and connect to the Internet. An hour of troubleshooting later, I plugged a bright yellow cable into the computer port and—BOOM—hello, digital age. 

Those were magical times. I could do research from my room! Download songs! Email classmates! Chat with friends back home! 

Just when life couldn’t get any better, it happened: my first pop-up ad. It basically looked like this:

 Free cruise.jpeg

(Seriously, this is a pretty faithful rendition)

Exhilarated, I threw open my dorm room door and burst into the courtyard to share the news. “I WON A CRUISE! I WON A CRUISE! I WON A CRUISE!”

Lucky for me, a much savvier student was standing nearby. He patiently explained the concepts of “pop-up ad,” “scam,” and “bullsh-t” to my sheltered mind.

Wait. So I hadn’t won a cruise?                                              

No. I had not.

So, I wouldn’t be whisked off to a Caribbean island at no cost?

No. I would not.


What is distractive marketing?

The pop-up ad got my attention because it had elements of great marketing:

  •       Strong value proposition—Um, who doesn’t want a free cruise?
  •       Attention-grabbing headline—Short, to-the-point offer
  •       Evoked an emotional response—It’s thrilling to “win” something for “free”
  •       Inspired social sharing—The advertiser’s message was amplified right away
  •       Created a memorable experience—15 years later, I’m writing about it

I don’t think anyone reading this post would consider a spammy pop-up to be great marketing. But it’s a great lesson in distractive marketing.

Maybe you’ve heard a similar term, “disruptive marketing.” Disruptive marketing refers to the dramatic stunts and insanely clever campaigns that are often delivered by big brands (with the help of big budgets and big ad agencies). The ones that command your attention. The ones you can’t look away from.

If you work in small business, you probably don’t have the resources to create big, flashy, disruptive campaigns. 

Focus instead on distractive marketing:

   Powerful, surprising message

+ Equally delightful experience


= Successful distractive marketing

The cruise pop-up failed because it only followed half of the distractive marketing formula. The seductive offer distracted me from my normal routine, but there was nothing real to back it up.

Distractive marketing demands your audience’s attention, then rewards it with an awesome experience. 

How to use distractive marketing

Here are three tactics you can use to experiment with distractive marketing in your small business:

Tactic No. 1: Try a new format 

The big idea: When you think about a $20 billion company, do you think about… cartoons? Probably not. That’s why this LinkedIn post from SAP caught my eye.

 SAP Post.png

In a sea of stock photos and a bunch of boring text, SAP’s melting snowmen broke through the clutter. The cartoon pokes fun at the pressure that disgruntled employees face to “embrace change,” which appeals to their emotions. It then offers a valuable tool to relieve their pain: an article that shows you how to do it in a humane way.

Why it works: The topic (digital transformation) was interesting to me, but so is a lot of stuff on LinkedIn. But the medium (a captioned cartoon) was totally different from anything else in my feed. It was a welcome distraction. Better yet, when I clicked to the link, I was rewarded with an equally engaging, short article. Maybe not as snazzy as a free cruise, but a heck of a lot more useful.

Tactic No. 2: Send half-birthday greetings

The big idea: Every year on my birthday, I receive an email greeting from my dentist. And the dentist I went to before her. And the dentist I saw when I lived in another city. Literally. Every. Year. Birthday greetings are great, but three copies of the same generic card for several years in a row has lost its luster.

Another business, the Arizona Snow Bowl Ski resort, also engages in birthday marketing:

Arizona Snowbowl Promo.png

Screen shot courtesy of www.arizonasnowbowl.com

That’s great... as long as you have a winter birthday. Imagine how frustrating it would be to get a free ski pass you can’t use, because it’s the middle of August. 

But what if you received the free pass on your half-birthday (6 months after your actual birthday)? I’m willing to bet that most businesses don’t think to celebrate customers’ half-birthdays. 

Why it works: If Arizona Snowbowl emailed a half-birthday promotion to customers with summer birthdays, it would catch them by surprise. The company could command attention with an unexpected message and back it up with a great offer for every customer, not just those lucky enough to be born in the winter months. A free pass virtually guarantees that your customer will visit; Arizona Snowbowl will generate additional revenue in the form of ski rentals and food and beverage purchases, and the customer will get great value out of a free lift ticket.

Tactic No. 3: Try a different medium

The big idea: Here at Infusionsoft, we send valuable information to our customers via email. Think product updates, event discounts, and software training. We also respect their communication preferences. Not all of our 100,000-plus users have given us permission to send them email, so they were missing out on important information. How could we ask them to opt in to our email list when we couldn’t even send them email? 

The customer marketing team came up with a great idea to communicate via old-fashioned direct mail. We rounded up a list of the customers we wanted to reach, and sent each of them a gift: a small notebook with business tips printed on the pages, and an invitation to receive similarly useful content by updating their email preferences online.

Customer Mailer.jpeg

Why it works: We blew our goal out of the water, with thousands of customers opting to start receiving the valuable information they needed from Infusionsoft. Customers don’t expect to receive gifts in the mail from a software company, so they were intrigued enough to open the mailers and respond. Once they opted in, they realized there was real value behind our request to communicate via email. They appreciated receiving valuable information that keeps them informed and engaged with the product—a delightful ongoing experience.

In conclusion: Distract with delight

The distractive marketing formula is easy to remember and even easier to use:

   Powerful, surprising message

+ Equally delightful experience


= Successful distractive marketing

You don’t need to spam your customers to get a response, and you don’t need a big budget either. It really comes down to respect: reward your audience’s attention with something meaningful, and they’ll reward you back with their business. And for the love of marketing, steer clear of “free cruise” pop-up ads.

The Small Business Guide to Capturing Leads - Download Now

 Clare Kirlin.jpeg

Clare is the associate copy director at Infusionsoft, where she works to craft meaningful messaging for a worldwide audience of small business superheroes. Her 10-year marketing career has deep roots in content strategy, with an emphasis on B2B technology. Outside the office, Clare can usually be found indulging her passion for language as a creative writer, prolific reader, and inexorable chatterbox. She is a proud parent of one daughter and self-nominated captain of Team Oxford Comma. Connect with Clare on Twitter @clarekirlin.

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