Can You Get People to Buy by Insulting Them?

AN, a Web designer, seems to think so.

The other day he sent me an e-mail saying he enjoys my books — but that my Web site,, is crappy and poorly designed.

He never bothers to ask first whether the Web site is working — or how much money it is making for me — issues that apparently don’t concern him nearly as much as the fact that I don’t use a CMS (content management system) or that my pages are in HTML, something he doesn’t like.

Of course, for a fee, Web designer AN can fix it for me — and make it much better. Or so he says.

Let me ask those of you, especially those of you who either (a) have Web sites or (b) provide services….

How would you rate sending potential clients an e-mail criticizing what they’re doing, and then offering your own services to fix it, as a marketing strategy — good, bad, or terrible? And why?


505 thoughts on “Can You Get People to Buy by Insulting Them?

  • Bob,
    I think this goes back to your other post about people being rude online.

    Sure, if I get a piece of direct mail that was poorly conceived and written, I might write a constructive note to the sender. I’d explain what I thought was wrong and suggest another approach.

    Wonder why these cranks are taking their frustrations out on you?! Consider it a sign of success!


  • Morty: my take on it is different. My rule: never give people unsolicited advice. If they want your opinion, they’ll ask for it. And only those who ask for it and pay for it will value it.

  • I think there are better approaches than being insulting. AN displays a certain naivete which is common to technically-skilled types (“it’s all about the technology”).

    Clearly, it would be coup to be “the designer who fixed Bob Bly’s site and made him lots more money.” It’s not stupid to approach you (since you’re well known and would be a great reference client), but I would think “give and get” is a better (initial) strategy.

    Speaking of which, have you thought about placing the e-mail sign up (a) above the fold, and (b) on every page? A recent article by Anne Holland gives evidence that these are two easy and effective techniques for list building. Of course, that assumes you want to build your list, which may not be the function of

  • I have 15 of the ugliest websites in the world … I only know this because I’ve been the subject of message boards, personal notes of concern from designers, and even well meaning advice from “experts” … but as long as they keep pulling, I don’t care.

    Could they pull better with fancy graphics, pull down menus, and “design elements” … perhaps, but I’m too busy testing copy to try anything more than a single graphic or headline change. Testing is the only determining factor of what works and what doesn’t.

    Bob, I just wrote your “Never give unsolicited advice …” quote on an index card and stuck it to my monitor. It’s priceless. A critical insights for any freelance or professional who sells their talent.

    To criticize a prospective client is bad practice, it’s better to approach a client neutral on what they are currently doing, then use a (paid) consultation to outline the specifics. I use an inquiry letter, soft sell article, or sales letter to open the door for an appointment.

    Anyway, Thanks for such an insightful resource.



  • Mike: the primary purpose of is to serve as online inquiry fulfillment for prospects interested in my copywriting services — not to build the list — which is why the sign-up box is lower down. I also want potential clients to inquire about my services, which is why I have a Need Great Copy burst at the top.

  • Bob,

    Have been loving your posts of late. 🙂

    I’ve had potiential clients call me to say, “We need a new Website.” My question: “Why?” Reply, “Ours sucks.”

    My next question always is, “How do you know?” You need to look at your analytics, analyze your traffic and page downloads, determine if people are finding you via the search engines, etc etc etc. If people are calling you from your site and saying, “Let’s talk” then your site is working — no matter how “sucky” the design.

    Personally, I try not to go negative with clients/prospects. If I see a site needs something I will often say, “Have you considered X?” Most of the time, they know they need something but haven’t gotten around to fixing the problem.

    Dianna Huff

  • I think we marketers should view our relationships in a similar manner to the way we view our friendships.

    Would we criticize and demean our friends (“your jeans look awful”), then provide them with a solution (“I’ll take you to the mall to get you new jeans”)? Maybe we do that from time to time. But if we did that consistenly, what kind of base of friends would we create? We’d have friends who are either very thick skinned, or we would have friends who depend upon us for their needs. Either way, we wouldn’t have the friends we want to have.

    So, yea, you can get people to purchase by insulting them. Long-term, my guess is that a customer base is built that doesn’t reflect the kind of customer you want to have.

  • First of all, I am sorry, but I did not mean to insult Robert or sell him anything.

    Here is what did I write: I believe that can be improved. Especially the homepage.

    I wrote this as a user. Not as a designer. And I never wrote that I will fix or do something else for fee or for free. Did I, Robert?

    Maybe I am wrong, but I would ask visitors to answer the following questions:

    1. For example: turn off the graphics and open homepage. You won’t see the menu. Is this good for user? Users often turn off graphics, especially when they want to increase the download speed or decrease traffic. Are graphic menus and imagemaps good for search engines?

    2. And if I click on the menu links before I see the subscription form (because it is under the fold and people do not always read the whole text from top to bottom) — does this increase the probability of using that form?

    Now I’d like to repeat: I am sorry, I did not mean to insult Robert or sell anything.


  • AN: I am going to be up front with you — I don’t even UNDERSTAND your comments. More to the point, it is a bad idea to give unsolicited criticism, especially without asking questions about the site and its goals. This site has literally helped me make millions of dollars — and prospects submit the form at least one per day, even though I do not actively drive traffic to the site. BTW, the form link is NOT just below the fold, it is als in a blue burst at the upper right of the screen — “Need great copy?”

  • I love this blog/post!

    I often consult with ad agencies and marketing firms…and usually their creative directors or senior designers will tell me something like, “It is amazing that our owner hired you an internet marketing consultant. Your site is really ugly. Let’s talk about having our firm fix it for you.”

    Of course, they are talking about design only. Not business goals. Not programming. Not copy.

    They seem to want to implement a design school ideal for what they think is “pretty”. Not effective. Not informative. Just “pretty”.

    What they **usually** have in mind is a six-page, billboard-type website with lots of Flash. So if I ask them questions about how many visitors they get to their own gorgeous sites — and what their conversion rate is — they stare at me blankly. The look seems to say:

    “Stats? We don’t need no stinkin’ stats! We’re pretty! Isn’t it obvious? It’s all about image! Style! Impression! Our phones will ring off the hook for our creative vision any day now!”

    The irony! This kind of “start with the insult – ignore the goals” hubris is part of the reason why I am paid to consult with the agency in the first place!

  • Seems to me there is actually a happy-medium between “design school” and generally bad web sites, ads, brochures or whatever.

    Full disclosure — I am an advertising person, so I come to it with that bias, if it can be called that. The fact is that a-n-y outreach effort should address both the concerns/needs of the business … and of the reader/user.

    There is a lot of be said for good design. Not unnecessary bells & whistles, never that! The fact is that people see so much good design that they do make judgments, without necessarily even knowing it, about poorly-organized information.

    This IS NOT about Bob’s site – I just had to stick up for the good designers who actually do add A LOT to the sales effort. It’s not just the words. It’s not just the design. It’s the marriage that can make a real difference, IMHO.

  • Quote from above:
    “I have 15 of the ugliest websites in the world … I only know this because I’ve been the subject of message boards, personal notes of concern from designers, and even well meaning advice from “experts” … but as long as they keep pulling, I don’t care.

    Could they pull better with fancy graphics, pull down menus, and “design elements” … perhaps, but I’m too busy testing copy to try anything more than a single graphic or headline change. Testing is the only determining factor of what works and what doesn’t.”

    I guess I keep thinking about this subject because of the last line. If testing is the only determining factor of what works – and I believe it is – why not test design too?

    It’s not as easy as testing copylines, I understand that. But design matters. It didn’t used to on the web, but – more and more – it does.

    And no, I’m not a designer. And a web site doesn’t need to be fancy. At all! I HATE flash. As a web surfer/shopper, I HATE sites that are beautiful BUT slow and WAY TOO complicated. Wynn Resorts — this means you! But I do like organized information. There are so many both good and horrible web sites out there now that I tend to move away from the ugly ones figuring that if they can’t get their site in order, how easy will they be to do business with? I don’t have time to think ugly through. It’s sort of like a store that way. Wal*Mart is great, I’m sure. I prefer Costco ’cause I’m more comfortable there.

    {This is absolutely n-o-t about any individual web site. It’s the general idea that has me thinking.)

    Thanks for the always-thoughtful blog, Bob.

  • Bob and company…

    I kid you not, I have a client/friend that does website design. Occassionally he’ll see a viable concern with what he believes to be a terrible website (terrible in his world is poor function – not design). He’ll pick up the phone, get the president or owner on the line and pretty much tell them, “your website sucks”. He’s very blunt. And for some reason they will listen a while, answer his tough questions, then ask him how much he’d charge to help them. Go figure.

    Perhaps people are more welcoming of insults in areas of expertise that they are really unsure about. To insult a Marketing Master on something marketing related invites counter attack (or an excoriating blog post!). Whereas, if someone comes to me and says, “hey, your diet sucks” I’m slightly less offended?

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