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  • Writer's pictureTom Church

What happens when you use your digital marketing skills for evil?

Earlier this year, I was stuck in literal hell, otherwise known as Luton Airport. I had endured the purgatory that was the M1 50mph speed limits, and even being mentally prepared to descend to greater depths of torment that was the departure lounge, my fortitude was tested by a text message I received from my airline as I pulled up in the Long Stay Car Park.

“We regret to inform you that your flight has been delayed. It is expected at 21.00 today.”

21.00 hours? As I parked up it was just 09.00am in the morning and the flight had been scheduled for just after midday. That was a delay of nine hours!

What to do? Going home was out of the question. Going into Luton itself for a visit would, I think, have caused me to self-combust in an immolation of frustration. No, the only choice was to sign ourselves in, register our presence as arriving on time (or even ‘early’) and see what the fates decided.

It was of course made worse by the fact that I wasn’t allowed into the Departure Lounge for several hours either, so, confined to landside, I existed in my little quarter of Starbucks, subsisting on a smoked salmon sandwich from Pret a Manger and several chocolate coins to push me into a sugar-induced post stress hypnotic trance.

Nonetheless, we made it through eventually, and our new aircraft bore us aloft, though I shall not say where, as the original one had been struck by lightning and had been grounded for safety checks.

So, was I entitled to compensation as the flight was delayed more than six hours? Apparently so.

And here it is, on my quest for compensation, that I discovered the presence of the Dark Side in marketing skills.

Working in lead generation, you can’t go too far wrong if you start with the principle of ‘making it as easy as possible’ for your user. That means clear navigation, clear language, as few a clicks as possible to convince them to fill in a contact form that is brevity par excellence and with as few as fields a needed.

That is the Light Side of marketing, and one in which I am not unskilled.

But the Dark Side? Well, this is a perversion of everything I have studied. And an airline’s compensation claim form is where you fill find every dirty trick designed to ignite your neurones into rage-firing pulses, to unbalance your hormones with excess adrenaline aimed to elicit a fight-or-flight approach with your computer, to stress you enough to put your heart rate well above its safety zone!

Bodyguard pages and sapping text blocks.

Firstly, you have to find the damn form! And here is trick number one: the airline has polluted Google’s search results so that you will find yourself running around in circles, clicking on pages that mention ‘how to claim’ but helpfully never provide you with a link to this mythical form. I am convinced, though I haven’t tested it, that they have added a ‘no-follow’ link to this form from all their pages so the page with the form itself doesn’t get indexed by search engines. Slimy, dirty, conniving b*stards!

Eventually I did find it, tucked away in small font at the bottom of paragraphs of boring text that would sap the reader’s will to continue.

So here, they have used the Dark Side to interrupt the user journey. I know I have a problem, I know I need to fill in a form, and they know it too, but they’ve helpfully hidden it away from the search engines and provided so many ‘helpful’ pages as a bodyguard that it takes several minutes to track down.

But we have found the form! The Holy Grail is within sight!

Not so fast there Sonny Jim! The Dark Side is powerful here, and did I just imagine an Emperor-like cackle from the loading page, and is it my imagination but is it loading slower? No, surely not!

We want to know EVERYTHING! The impediment of asking for information they know you won’t have to hand!

Then I have to log in - yet the option appears to be there to let me fill in the form first. If I do that, then log in, do I find that all the fields will once more be smiling blankly back at me? I dare not risk it, and log on in the first instance. Let’s not give them the ammunition to trip me up!

Then once I’ve confirmed who I’m claiming for (is it me, or me and others, or just others?), I am asked to present a confirmation code.

Which, of course, I don’t have to hand and can’t remember. Hence, I leave the site, trawl through my emails or open another window in the airline’s account section to view my history, and I find it. It’s a diversion that might prove costly.

And now following the Dark Side cackle comes the Dark Side lightning bolts, casting me into oblivion! I’m asked to upload a Power of Attorney as I’m including my other half on the claim. What? I mean did someone die? Was my wife replaced by a doppelgänger at Starbuck’s as I busied myself writing emails?

This, of course, requires signatures. So I have to abandon this attempt to wait until she’s back from work to get her to sign. The Dark Side has triumphed. I can see that such a request would confound many users, hiding amongst the legal jargon and terrifying various people: what, for example, had I been a devil-may-care Jack the Lad on a boozy stag do party with 5 others in my party? Would I have to ask each of the buggers for Power of Attorney? Now that would sure put the barriers up on them passing me the information? I mean, I might try and sell their houses next!

(Of course, the permission here is NOT equated to a true Power of Attorney under English law, and can in fact be given in just a simple letter with a signature of the people involved, but it is intimidating wording nonetheless).

A few days later, I have finally drafted my letter, gathered the signature, digitised it, and I can start the application again.

We’re 1-0 up and playing for time: we need technical info we know will cost you extra minutes to find - and we might then log you out (snigger!)

Now I’m confronted by the serious question of where any reimbursement should go. For that, I need my bank account details: both the IBAN and the BIC identifiers. Being an app user, this is something I can manage relatively quickly, but I can imagine it would sink others, force them to turn aside to find it, and thus be another cog in the sabotaged wheel.

Finally, when I had submitted all that, I was logged out. I had been ‘inactive’ for too long. Very clever.

In the end, I got all my info together on a Word doc, and went through it anew, now determined to bite back. But the fact that it had taken me at least 3 log ins to get this far did make me think that it is all possibly a deliberate impediment to deter people from successful applications. After all, they have incentive to trip you up.

I mean, do they look at their marketing dashboard each week and say, “Oh, bounce rate is up by 2%, goodie!” Perhaps they will make the font slightly smaller, or add a captcha that asks you to identify unique flora from the Socotra Archipelago in the Arabian Sea, such as the wonderful Dragon Blood Tree? Too easy? Perhaps identify the next Prime Number for them?

Many of these hurdles could be simplified: the confirmation number could be offered to you in a drop down list of recent flights - after all, you have logged in to your account so that shouldn’t be too difficult. Another way would be to have a list of information you will need to complete the application at the outset, and where you can find it. And can’t they have an editable template for a Power of Attorney and a way of signing it?

Simple things, to make life simpler for your users. That is what Light Side marketing is. But when it’s perverted to impede sign ups and complaints and claims, to encourage drop offs, bouncing, page time outs, it is certainly the Dark Side indeed.

From a marketing viewpoint, it is an intellectual curiosity that I think would warrant further investigation. I would like to have a series of blog articles where the Dark Side is used to prevent people making their voices heard.

Have you any examples? I’d be eager to hear them. Perhaps a local council, or an appointment with the GP which has been corrupted? Let me know!


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