Growth January 7, 2021

All Annoying Acquisition Channels Shut Down (Eventually)

Darko @zerotousers

Six days ago, California banned delivery apps from listing a restaurant without an agreement. Then, four days later, FarmVille, one of the largest games on Facebook, shut down.

In the end, all annoying acquisition channels eventually shut down, along with the products that predominantly rely on them. Let me explain.

FarmVille Spammed Facebook

Zynga grew FarmVille through sketchy, spammy practices. First of all, they notably encouraged you to spam your (non-playing) friends:

If you didn’t check in every day, your crops would wither and die; some players would set alarms so they wouldn’t forget. If you needed help, you could spend real money or send requests to your Facebook friends — a source of annoyance for nonplayers who were besieged with notifications and updates in their news feeds.

People's annoyance soon turned to anger - and quickly. If you've been on Facebook long enough, you'll probably remember FarmVille appearing in your news feed every 5 seconds:

To many, the game will be remembered more for its presence in people’s news feeds than for the game itself. Facebook was well aware of the complaints.

This caused Facebook to react (after all, they don't want to lose their userbase):

After hearing from nonplayers that the game was spammy, Facebook restricted how much games could post to news feeds and send notifications. Facebook now aims to send fewer notifications only when they’re more likely to make an impact, said Vivek Sharma, a Facebook vice president and head of gaming.

Farmville failed, and one of the primary reaons was abusing an acquisition channel to a point where Facebook had to intervene and limit their reach.

Delivery Apps abused Restaurants & SEO. California Reacted

"California law bans delivery apps from listing a restaurant without an agreement". This the title of one of the most popular HackerNews threads this week.

Why would the California regulators do such a thing?

As it turns out, delivery apps use deceptive practices where they represent themselves as the restaurant. So, when people type the restaurant name into Google, they get the delivery app contact info - instead of the actual restaurant contact info.

Companies like Slice went even further and bought actual domains that posed themselves and then posed as the actual restaurant website:

slice

If delivery apps are going to go such lengths just to mimic local restaurant sites, only can only imagine just important this Google search impersonation strategy is for them as an acquisition tactic.

If you read the original HackerNews thread, you'll also see more examples: Delivery apps advertising on Facebook as the restaurant, copying their menus and so on. Yet while this strategy may bring in short term revenue, long term it ruins the reputation of the company (and can also bring legislative changes).

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Chrome and Spammy Push Notifications

If you're in the affiliate world, you'll know that 2019 was the year of "push traffic", where affiliates do everything in their power to get you to press the "Allow" button when a website promps you to show you notifications. After you do this, you'd be flooded with different affiliate offers posing as notifications.

In July, Google introduced a 'spam filter' to block this behavior. Almost immediately, many affiliate marketers freaked out, claiming the days of running successful push traffic campaigns may be a thing of the past.

When people abuse a certain platform, the platform (eventually) responds.

My Prediction: SMS is Next?

People like Dru (whom I hugely respect) wrote a recent piece about SMS marketing, and how SMS as a marketing channel will get more prevalent over time. I'm pretty sure this will be the case, but I also think SMS will go over the same journey as the 3 channels & strategies above.

If its niche, it might work. But if more and more people use SMS to push their offers, it will become annoying. Carriers will react, too, either putting more restrictions on who can send SMS, or they'll introduce a spam/ghosting filter, where deliverability will get harder.

What Can You Do About This?

If you predominantly rely on an annoying* acquisition channel to get paying users, consider diversifying. After all, there are plenty of legit channels to try instead.

My Zero to Users is a good starting point, where I outline 32+ acquisition channels that consistently work for founders. Only relying on a channel/strategy people consider annoying* puts you in the same risk (and fate) that companies like Zynga had.

*The definition of "annoying" is "causing irritation or annoyance". In this context, it's when you're doing something (like browsing the web, looking on your news feed) and something you didn't want or expect comes up. You could argue that ads are also annoying, and you'd be right. However, companies like Facebook/Google are actively working on making them more relevant, reducing their annoyance.

With push notifications/FB random notifications/impersonating restaurant sites, the gap between what you expected and what you get is large enough for you to really get annoyed to the point where you actively start complaining about them. This is where the problem starts.

Do you agree?

  1. 6

    Here in Bosnia, a lot of companies use some form of SMS marketing (either via a phone number or apps like Viber or Whatsapp).

    IT'S ANNOYING AS FUCK.

    Please don't do it.

    1. 1

      Macedonia as well. Luckily phones nowadays have a permanent 'ignore this SMS' option. These companies don't even give you the option to opt-out.

      1. 1

        Most SMS carriers will blacklist a number for you, if you simply reply "STOP". It's their inbuilt unsubscribe button AFAIK.

        1. 1

          Here in Nigeria, the SMS carriers are the ones who run the spam. I get at least 5 spam SMSes from my mobile networks each day.🤦‍♂️ So there's really no way out.

          A while ago, the regulatory body forced them to introduce a DnD switch, but that seems to have the side effect of not getting OTPs on some networks.

          1. 1

            Ouch! That's why I prefer 2FA to OTP :) I feel like my user experience for secure-logins is better when I hold it in my hands and dont have to wait for a text message or email to arrive!

  2. 4

    SMS Text is the new email. Email was once a human to human channel with high engagement and priority. That made it attractive to marketers and spammers, and now email is largely a robot-to-human channel, where bots are harvesting human attention. Robocalls have now made the telephone call largely a robot to human channel. SMS Text messaging will be the next to fall. Only networks where a sender's identity is established and verified, and reputational constraints follow a sender, are robust to this kind of misbehavior.

  3. 4

    I don't mean to drag on you, I totally agree with the idea behind your post, but your claims about Zynga are totally false and using them as an example here defeats your argument.

    Zynga did not shut down, as the article you linked mentions, they simply shut down one of their games, Farmville (which was 11 years old and has had a sequel game Farmville 2 since 2014). Zynga is one of the largest companies in casual and mobile gaming, and they successfully spammed their way to close to a billion dollars in revenue as of 2018 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zynga). Zynga did not fail in the slightest.

    1. 3

      Zynga shut down farmville because adobe stopped supporting flash and farmville relied on flash.

    2. 2

      Oh s***. Edited the post. I originally saw the post on HackerNews and the comments pointed to similar things I point in my post.

      You're right though about Zynga, but it seems they've learned their lesson. Their new(er) games like CSR are on the AppStore, and (as far as I'm aware) they haven't used the same spammy practices to grow there. Are you aware of Zynga using the same practices they used with Farmville on their other games that still exist?

      1. 1

        No, I think your point is correct and they no longer use the same practices (and probably haven't for quite some time). To be fair, they probably only succeeded so much because they pioneered the annoying spammy growth tactic on Facebook at a time when this was all so new that nobody considered it (or realized maybe) it was annoying and spammy. There's no doubt in my mind that this type of thing would fail miserably today even if Facebook hadn't stepped in with the rule changes.

        1. 2

          Thank you for your original post though. You raise an interesting point. These guys were probably on FB in the right time, made a ton of $ and had a lot of capital to invest for their "white hat" games. I edited my post to say all "products" (not companies) that rely on X as a predominant acq. channel will fail (which I think is a more accurate statement).

          1. 1

            No problem! I enjoyed the post and subscribed.

    3. 1

      Weren't they kicked off Facebook by Zuck due to a falling out between Zuck and Mark Pincus?

      1. 1

        I don't know the story that intimately but I wouldn't be surprised. I do know there was some internal turbulence involving Pincus when they went public. I believe Zynga games have always been and still are on Facebook, so the punishment/revenge might have been something more like the restrictions the post mentioned rather than booting them from the platform entirely (or maybe the removal was short lived).

  4. 4

    The lesson: It's better to focus on a sustainable channel consistently vs. give your-everything to a new, spammy channel and crash and burn.

    1. 2

      I don't think it's a question of either/or, it's a question of "and". You can focus on both types of channels at the same time.

      1. 1

        I think the point here is how you use a channel. You can spam one channel, and you can spam multiple channels, but you can also use all of them thoughtfully.

        1. 2

          That's true. But it's hard to define principles comparing 2 vague terms, "spam" vs. "using them thoughtfully". Can you provide a specific example?

  5. 3

    I also think it's a question of time before regulators put tighter pressure on SMS. Either people will be fined more, or carriers will severely limit advertisers reach.

    1. 1

      Time will tell, but there's a high likelihood of a pushback if advertisers start annoying people with SMS.

      1. 1

        Hope this doesn't happen. We have good success with SMS on our e-commerce store.

        1. 1

          Hey! Can you share your case?

  6. 2

    Completely agree on the Farmville / delivery app stuff. The delivery apps were particularly egregious and some restaurant trade org should file a class against the delivery apps.

    I have a bit of perspective on the SMS stuff, as I have a company in this space. Undoubtedly, people will try to abuse / overuse this medium as they have with email. However, there are some significant differences between SMS and email that all together I hope will be a significant enough disincentive to bad behavior to discourage bad actors.

    1. Economics. The cost of running SMS campaigns are significantly more expensive than email. Email is effectively a free channel, whereas SMS incurs per-message fees from the carriers and providers (e.g. Twilio et al). If you're not actually adding value in your SMS campaigns, you're not likely going to continue burning money on that channel (relative to email, at least).
    2. SMS is high engagement / low bullshit. You can fire people emails for weeks/months/years that they'll never read and still not unsubscribe. You can throw questionably valuable content at people and they'll hang on for a host of reasons, hoping that they one day click on a link and buy something. Not so with SMS. You're in someone's text thread, and people have a much lower tolerance for bullshit and will unsubscribe quickly. Further, unsubscribing from SMS is MUCH easier than email. By law, all you have to do is respond STOP to any sms and the provider is not allowed to contact you again. No "we'll process this in 7-10 business days" bullshit. SMS unsubs are swift and effective.
    3. Regulation. The regulation and penalties around sending SMS vs email is much more well-established and severe. There's a whole dark backend of email marketing where companies buy email lists from other companies / data brokers and you wonder how you got there. Unlike email, the federal regulations are very clear on who you are and are not allowed to send SMS marketing to. You can send messages to people who specifically opt-in to receiving messages from you. Some large providers even advise that opt-ins be tied to a specific number for a given sender. No brokers, no partners, no data sharing. That said, I saw a good amount of violation of this during the run up to the election this year, but again, you're just one STOP message from never receiving these messages again. I'd be surprised to see this happening in the future at the rate it happened during the election. Sooner or later some enterprising class-action attorney will sue all these PACs and collect a hefty fee for breaking the law.
    1. 2

      Thanks for chiming in and providing your insights.

  7. 2

    I have a post-it note on my wall in front of my desk that says in big sharpie
    "IS IT WRONGHEADED?".

    I keep it there to remind me not to publish or promote something that I think is disingenuous, tricky or tries to hide something. It's not so much about specific marketing channels, but rather about business/marketing ethics. Do you respect your customers?

  8. 2

    Personally I would and have refused these and other approaches out of my personal ethics and principles.

    It means sacrificing short term growth for long term reputation and trust. And I'm okay with that.

    1. 1

      Totally agree Rosie.

  9. 1

    I totally agree with you, and I think its best for business longevity to find a business model that works well within the boundaries of acceptable.

    I also like to think of being considerate. Be considerate of others in all forms of marketing. This will increase your longevity and trust and make for a better overall world.

    You can also do the Grandma test - would you do it to your Grandma? If not, don’t do it at all!

  10. 1

    SMS marketing has already started, and I think it has the potential to be the most annoying acquisition channel of all time. People don't want to be bothered by text advertisements and feel like that is an invasion of their privacy.

    Dont Text is a simple and free app that lets users block spam text messages.

  11. 1

    You're coming from a place that doesn't understand that these businesses were created by design to be short lived to extract as much as possible from the market until the environment that allowed for such rampant extraction changed. It's a business r strategy, let's say: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R/K_selection_theory

    1. 1

      I'd agree about affiliate marketers using push notifications. But do you really think Zynga or Uber Eats were created by design to be short-lived?

      1. 1

        Zynga I don't know(maybe their strategy changed once they hit some cash cows). Uber Eats 100%. "Short lived" is still a decade-ish.

        1. 1

          Oh I see. If by 'short lived' you mean decade-ish, yeah, I agree.

  12. 1

    Curious to see if progressive web app browser notifications could be another annoying channel that gets overrun before it's tampered by google.

  13. 1

    I've noticed this as well. Everyone treated push notifications like a magic bullet, until Google (finally) took action on them.

    1. 1

      If everyone treats a channel like a magic bullet, chances are, the 'magic' will disappear from it sooner or later (due to saturation & spamming).

    2. 1

      They had no choice, people were flooded with these notifications.

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