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The Devolution of the Affiliate Program

I’m a DirectTV customer, and have been for some time. Generally, I’ve had a good experience with the service itself and when I’ve had to call for support I found their support team to be friendly, helpful, and genuinely concerned about solving my issue. (Football fans can appreciate the terrifying panic that sets in at 12:30pm Eastern on a Sunday when NFL Sunday Ticket isn’t working properly.)

However, when I watch their creepy “Ben Franklin Head” TV commercial, it doesn’t exactly make me feel good about being a customer. You know the one – the one where DirectTV tries to “incent” (bribe?) their existing customers into getting friends to subscribe, all for the princely commission of $100. During this ad we see all sorts of folks – presumably DirectTV customers like me – happily having their actual heads (identities?) eliminated and substituted with the image of Ben Franklin’s head from the $100 bill. We see all sorts of otherwise nice, happy DirectTV customers stripped of their faces until everyone bears the countenance of a $100 bill. Charming.

So … I get the idea: We’ll pay you to sell your friends on our stuff. It’s basically the web-style “affiliate program” (e.g. use my coded link and I’ll get a few bucks from the purchase you were just about to make anyway) mixed in with a little old school door-to-door multi-level marketing (MLM). The click-on-my-link meets the dude sitting next to you on the ski lift trying to sell you cleaning supplies. Not exactly innovative, but the unintentional message it sends is actually unique.

Does this ad mean the people at DirectTV believe they need to pay me to promote their service? Do those same folks see their customers as fungible, dancing little currency-heads, all thrilled to have made $100 roping in their buds?

It feels so …. icky.

Ironically, I’m a numbers guy. I enjoy analyzing data and metrics – whether the underlying subject matter is football, SaaS, financial markets or anything else.  I like to play with numbers.  As a SaaS company, we also understand and regularly work with key subscription business concepts such as “customer acquisition cost” (CAC), “cost/lead”, “customer lifetime value” (LTV) and all of the type of similar metrics that undoubtedly were used to support the program that this ad advocates.

We understand the idea of trying to minimize CAC, finding economical ways to generate leads, and so forth. However, it’s one thing to analyze and use these things as instructive guidelines, it’s another to twist them into the core theme of a stand-alone marketing message. It’s almost as though the customer care and marketing team all went on vacation for a week and let the finance team loose on ad creative. (We finance types often like to believe that we’re extremely creative, just ask any marketing VP.)

Look, if I like a service, don’t worry – I’ll tell my friends. If I love a service, I’ll probably browbeat them to try it. I’ll nag them more than any business could ever do with even the most obscenely large marketing budget. Seth Godin – a marketing whiz whose ideas I find really cool – might say that when I like something, I’m actually the sales funnel turned upside-down: I turn into a megaphone. I do that for free, PLUS my recommendation comes backed with the credibility my friends already ascribe to me (some more than others.) It’s promotion that you literally cannot buy for any price.

Conversely, if I’m not very impressed with a service, you’re not going to get me to push it onto my friends.  Respectfully, neither I nor my friends, nor anyone who is in my contacts database, would practice what this gentleman suggests.  If your service is good, you don’t need to bribe me to promote it. Moreover, you can’t.

Spam my friends? Really?!

Also, when any business is fortunate enough to have loyal customers who really like and value what it offers, it needs to keep them by striving to do its very best to treat them as critically important individuals, sometimes within communities. Our customers are our lifeblood, we listen carefully to every single one of them, and we try to help promote communities. Viewing customers as faceless or interchangeable is exact the opposite from the approach taken by some of the thoughtful, innovative, customer-centric businesses we admire.

I don’t know how nominally successful this ad has been.  I just know that I find it very much at odds with how I think businesses should view their customers. It’s also probably unfair to the nice support folks at DirectTV with whom I’ve dealt – who didn’t treat me like a fungible commodity. I like the service because of the content it delivers, and the support I’ve received when I needed it.

Ben Franklin said: “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle”, and it’s something to keep in mind when we’re thinking about the messages we send when we communicate with our existing and prospective customers.  Most folks like to feel good about the services they use and they like to tell their friends about cool stuff.

Permitting the thinking that drives finance metrics to bleed into actual customer messaging seems like risky business.