What exactly are “good results” with email marketing?

In my work in marketing communications, I’m asked pretty often what expectations are realistic for a successful e-mail marketing initiative.  While the goal is to achieve as much engagement as possible, the reality of overflowing e-mail inboxes means that engagement may never rise to the level we would like it to be.

So, it’s good to know what “reasonable expectations” might be.  And for that, we can look to evidence gathered by Campaign Monitor, a leading e-mail marketing platform. Based on analyzing actions and engagement on the millions of e-mail campaigns deployed from its platform, Campaign Monitor has assembled performance benchmarks for a number of industries, and they are instructive.

In broad terms, here are the average metrics Campaign Monitor has compiled across all of the industries it has studied:

  • Open rate: ~17.9%
  • Click-to-open rate: ~14.1%
  • Clickthrough rate: ~2.7%
  • Bounce rate: ~1.0%
  • Unsubscribe rate: ~0.2%

So … a campaign that may seem at first blush to be doing only a middling job might actually be performing noticeably better than many others.

Across the various industries evaluated by Campaign Monitor, it turns out that the “gap” between the best-performing open rate averages and the lowest ones isn’t all that great.  The top-performing category is not-for-profit organizations, where the average open rate is ~20.4%.  At the low end of the scale is government entities, where the average open rate is ~15.1%.

As for the best-performing days of the week to deploy e-mails, open rate stats are strongest on Thursdays, while the best performance on clickthrough rates is Tuesday.

These benchmarks are informative, but for many marketers an equally important measure of performance will be to compare against their own past results as the baseline.  That could well be a more realistic (and easier) way to determine what success actually looks like for a particular company or brand and its products.

What sort of metrics are you seeing in your own segment of industry?  How do they stack up against the overall metrics that Campaign Monitor has compiled? Please share your observations with other viewers here.

Fair weather friends? Consumers tie loyalty programs to getting discounts and freebies.

As more consumers than ever before have gravitated online to do their shopping, loyalty programs continue to grow in importance.

But what do consumers really want out of these loyalty programs?

The short answer to that question is “freebies and discounts,” the Loyalty Barometer Report from HelloWorld, an arm of Merkle, makes clear.

Of the ~1,500 U.S. consumers polled, ~77% of the respondents said they expected benefits for their loyalty to be in the way of free products, and an almost-equal percentage (~75%) expect to be offered special offers or discounts.

As for the most important reasons people participate in loyalty programs, the Merkle survey reveals that most people take a purely “transactional” approach to them.  Discounts and free products far outweigh other considerations:

  • Participation to receive discounts or offers: ~43% of respondents cited as the most important reason
  • To earn free products: ~27%
  • To gain access to exclusive rewards: ~10%
  • To receive members-only benefits: ~9%
  • To stay connected to a “brand I love”: ~6%
  • Other factors: ~5%

Notice how far down the list “brand love” falls.

As for negative aspects of reward programs, it turns out that there are a number of those.  The following five factors were cited most often by the survey respondents:

  • It takes too long to earn a reward: ~54% cited
  • It’s too difficult to earn a reward: ~39%
  • Receiving too many communications: ~36%
  • The rewards aren’t very valuable: ~32%
  • Worries about personal information security: ~29%

[For more details from the Merkle report, you can access a summary of findings here.]

The results of the Merkle survey suggest that rewards programs may be more “transactional” in nature than many brand managers would like them to be.  But perhaps that’s happened because of the very way the loyalty programs have been structured. When loyalty marketing is focused on discounts, it’s likely to drive transactions without necessarily engendering much if any actual customer loyalty.

On the other hand, if we define customer loyalty as when people are willing to pay a premium, or go out of their way to purchase a particular brand’s product or service, that represents a significantly smaller group companies than the plethora of companies offering loyalty programs to their customers.

Which brands do you consider to be true loyalty leaders?  A few that come to my mind are Amazon, American Express and Nike — but what others might you posit?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Let the AP Stylebook explain it all to you …

For many people – not just journalists but also business and tech writers – the Associated Press’ AP Stylebook is something of a Bible when it comes to adhering to proper presentation of the written English language.

There are other style guides out there – FranklinCovey is another popular resource – but the AP Stylebook has been the “go-to source” for so many decades, it’s hard not to think of it as the ultimate arbiter of what’s considered “proper” in written communications.

This vaunted reputation is why so many people take notice whenever new revisions to the AP Stylebook are released.  The most recent ones, published within the past few months – all 991 of them – are in some cases eyebrow-raising.

Reading through them, it appears that the Associated Press has gone all-in on “keeping up with changing times” by tackling a wide range of sometimes-provocative topics.  Here are some examples:

  • AP is weighing in on environmental terminology, contending that “climate change” is a more accurate scientific term than “global warming.”
  • References to people with disabilities should now exclude descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “battling” or “suffers from.” Moreover, referring to a disability as a “handicap” is no longer appropriate.
  • The word “mistress” should no longer be used to describe a woman involved in a relationship with a married man (although rendering judgments about “paramour” or “kept man,” common references to the male version of the same, are noticeably absent from the guidelines).
  • On ethnic/racial topics, the term Black is now preferred over “African American.” What’s more, the term should always be capitalized whenever used.  (No similar pronouncement is made about capitalizing the word “white” in the same context.)
  • When it comes to age demographics, “senior citizen” and “elderly” are no longer appropriate terminology. Instead, the reference should be to “older adult” or “older person.”

But the most extensive new guidelines in the updated AP Stylebook are the 11 paragraphs and 22 specific examples presented under the heading “gender-neutral language.”

Banished are terms like “businessman,” “manpower,” “man-made,” “salesman” and “mankind.”  In their place are “businessperson,” “crews,” “human-made,” “salesperson” and “humanity.”

“Freshman” is now also frowned upon – but at least the replacement term isn’t the awkward-sounding “freshperson,” but rather “first-year student.”

While AP is to be commended for attempting to keep current on cultural changes, let’s hope that its efforts don’t devolve into the level of parody; some may think that it already has.

But I do have one question:  When will AP finally acknowledge that the entire world is using U.S. Postal Service abbreviations for state names – and has been doing so for well-nigh decades now?

These days, it seems that nobody other than AP is writing “Ore.” for “OR,” to cite just one example among 50.  Tenaciously holding on to outmoded state abbreviations — when no one else is doing so — seems almost like a nervous tic on AP’s part.  (Or is “nervous tic” yet another descriptor we can no longer use?)

What are your thoughts about the newest AP Stylebook guidelines?  Right on the money … or blunt overkill?  Please share your views with other readers here.

Brand statements get a real workout in 2020.

The bigger the company, it seems, the heftier the brand statement documents are that are associated with it.  And it’s gotten even more so in 2020 with several consequential current events being added to the mix – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest.

Unfortunately, these new challenges have come with their share of socio-political ramifications.  We’re dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, after all, and there isn’t really a “one size fits all” response that will work for many brands.

Companies are having to address two aspects, actually.  One pertains to internal (employee) audiences.  To build and maintain trust, employees and others who represent a company’s brand need to be briefed on the brand implications of the events in the news.

What to communicate depends on a variety of factors – and it’s also prone to mid-course adjustments in rapidly evolving environments.  (We’ve certainly experienced numerous twists and turns with the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest over the past six months.)

What’s most important is for internal messaging to assure employees that the work environment will be supportive when it comes to issues of physical (and mental) health, instances of alleged racism or discrimination, and the like.  And beyond this, to assure that employees have options and avenues to raise concerns, and that those concerns will be considered on the merits.

Some aspects of internal messaging may be uncomfortable to address, but keeping silent on the issues isn’t usually a practical option, considering the intensity of the current environment and how it has affected so many aspects of our daily lives.

As for what to say to the outside world, many companies and brands have released public statements as well; my inbox has been positively stuffed with them over the past months.

On the other hand, other companies have remained quiet.  Should they be doing so?

The answer to that question begins with the company’s own “DNA.”  What has its public face been over the years?  Has it been in the forefront with public statements in the past?  For some brands, any such statement will feel like a normal, regular extension of the brand as it’s been perceived — par for the course.  But if this hasn’t been the “culture” of a company up to now, to make a statement now might come across as insincere.

A company is an amalgam of the people who make up the organization.  That makes it wise for corporate leaders to trust their own instincts.  If their gut tells them it isn’t the right time to put certain public-facing content out into the world, such discretion is probably warranted.

But even if the decision is to remain mum, this is as good a time as any to consider if the “quiet company” approach might need to change going forward.  More than a few organizations are undertaking some form of “genetic re-engineering” to bring their brand DNA in line with modern expectations.  That’s probably a good thing.

Finding the Sweet Spot in Ad Personalization

Marketing and advertising professionals know that personalization can be a very useful part of promotional strategies.  But doing personalization the right way has its challenges as well.

Those of us “of a certain age” remember when personalization first began to be used in promo campaigns.  Too often it was a joke – or carried out in such a way that it actually did more harm than good.

Probably the worst cases were when direct mail pieces would incorporate a person’s name inside the customer communications.  Often, the resulting piece was über-awkward – particularly if the name was misspelled or otherwise not presented how the recipient would normally be addressed; how many marketers know their customers’ nicknames?

Even worse was when mistake was repeated multiple places in the same promo piece – magnifying the problem to the level of farce.

Things are more sophisticated these days, and it’s pretty clear that targeted, relevant marketing works much better.  But after nearly 25 years of personalization and microtargeting in the digital realm, things have reached the level of diminishing returns:  ROI in deeper personalization declines as the efforts get more granular.

The more microtargeting that happens, the harder it becomes to find a large enough number of targets for each highly personalized ad.  At the same time, development costs increase even as the returns diminish, because creating a higher volume of microtargeted promotions aimed at highly specialized niche groups means that more effort has to go into ad creative, copywriting and production.

Of course, Facebook and Google have developed sophisticated ways to target advertising to the most lucrative prospects, to the degree that it’s often easier and more cost-effective to rely on those resources rather than undertaking personalization efforts in-house.  But there’s another potential issue with a relentless pursuit of personalization in advertising.  Engaging in it too much has the potential of creating a backlash, with some customers finding the practice overly intrusive – even creepy.

Ad retargeting is a particularly obnoxious practice – the digital equivalent of a salesperson following you around the store trying to get you to purchase an item you may have merely glanced at in passing interest.

Pushback is also manifesting itself in regulations such as CDPR (general data protection regulation), which aims to protect consumer data and how it’s used by making it more difficult to collect and store this kind of data.  Google has added fuel to the fire by ending support for third-party cookies – yet another barrier to obtaining worthwhile granular data.

All of this means that while personalization that increases relevancy remains a valuable marketing tool, it hasn’t turned out to be the silver bullet that some might have hoped.  Instead, it’s creating a good a balance between data and creativity that makes for the most successful campaigns.

Change agent: COVID-19’s ripple effect on BtoB marketing and sales.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world of business (and nearly everything else), marketing and sales in the BtoB realm had already undergone some pretty big changes in recent decades.

Historically, B2B sales were primarily a matter of face-to-face, physical contact. Often, the “road warriors” of those times would spend the majority of their weeks traveling to visit with customers and prospects at their places of business, or meeting them at trade shows.

But the turn away from that traditional model began in the 1980s and 1990s with building security concerns. Then along came 9/11 …

Technology has played a big part in the evolution — and has actually helped accelerate it with e-mail, database management, digital advertising, online RFP pricing/bid systems and other innovations affecting the nature of customer engagement.

Let’s not forget social networks, too — with LinkedIn being a particularly lucrative tool assisting many sales and marketing professionals in finding and nurturing prospects.

Somewhere along the way, the functions of marketing became much more than merely branding, advertising, and lead generation. Today, BtoB marketing is involved in every stage of the customer relationship.

Along comes COVID-19 in early 2020, which seems certain to drive further change. For one thing, virtual engagement has become a necessity instead of a merely an option.

At the same time, one could posit that customer retention has taken on more importance than ever before. It’s no wonder we’re hearing the phrase “retention is the new acquisition” stated with such frequency at the moment.

Roger McDonald

International strategic business advisor Roger McDonald believes that business has come full circle, returning to Peter Drucker’s classic maxim from more than 30 years ago: “Business has only two functions: marketing and innovation. These produce revenues. All others are costs.”

In McDonald’s view:

“Perhaps we are at a tipping point, where senior management will move beyond metrics of lead generation to nurture marketing’s evolving role as an organizer of systems, IT initiatives, and salesperson engagement for both acquisition and retention.”

One thing seems quite clear as we emerge from nearly three months of mandated COVID-isolation: We won’t return to an “old normal.” Those eggs have already been broken and scrambled.

What are your thoughts on which BtoB marketing and sales fundamentals have changed in light of the coronavirus disruption? Please share your thoughts with other readers in the comment section below.

As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.

 

The (Very) Real Privacy Concerns Raised by Contact Tracing

Last week, I linked to a “guest” blog post about the challenges of contact tracing as part of the way out of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.  The piece was authored by my brother, Nelson Nones, who heads up a company that has developed software capabilities to support such functions. One reader left a thoughtful response citing the personal privacy concerns that any sort of effective contact tracing regimen inevitably raises.

It’s an important issue that deserves an equally thoughtful response, so I invited Nelson to share his own thoughts on the issue. Here’s what he wrote to me:

The introduction of new contact tracing apps for smartphones has raised quite a few privacy fears around the globe. This is a very hot topic right now which deserves attention. However, to keep my original article about the ability to conduct effective contact tracing on point, I purposely sidestepped the privacy issue — other than mentioning privacy fears briefly in the ‘Technology Limitations’ section of the article. 

Here I’ll expand a bit. Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has raised a lot of concern about Orwellian “big brother” surveillance and government overreach, but what many people may not realize is that it’s not about expanding “the target population of surveillance and state control” as the commenter notes. When it comes to public health, governments – including state governments in the United States – have possessed these powers for a long time. 

I first discovered this in my own personal life about 20 years ago. I was at work in Long Beach one day when I received a call from the California Department of Health, informing me that I was confirmed to have a highly contagious gastrointestinal infection and ordering me to submit regular stool samples until my tests came back negative. I was informed that if I did not do so, I could be forcibly quarantined — and fined or even jailed — if I refused to cooperate. 

My first question to myself was, “How the h*ll and why the h*ll did they target me?”  

I had recently returned from a trip to Thailand and started having GI issues, so I went to my doctor and gave a stool sample. They performed a lab analysis which confirmed a particular type of infection that was listed on the Department of Health’s watch list, so I was informed that my doctor was obliged by law to report my case to the Department of Health.  

The Health Department, in turn, was obliged by law to contact me and issue the orders given to me – and by law I was obliged to comply with their orders. 

The reason that nations, states and provinces have such powers is to contain and control the spread of infectious diseases. This means that governments have the power to forcibly isolate people who are confirmed to be infected — and they also have the power to forcibly quarantine people who are suspected (but not yet confirmed) to be infected.  

Whether or not, and how, they choose to exercise those powers depends on the nature of the disease, how it’s transmitted, whether or not an epidemic or pandemic has been declared, and whether or not proven cures exist. Moreover, rigorous protocols are in place to protect people against the abuse of those powers.  

But the bottom line is: in most countries, including the United States, if you are unfortunate enough to catch an infectious and communicable disease, you have no constitutional right to prevent the government from identifying you and potentially depriving you of your civil liberties, because of the risk that you could unknowingly infect other people. 

Think of it as a civic duty — just as you have no constitutional right to prevent the government from ordering you to perform jury service. 

Medical science is so advanced these days that most diseases can be contained and controlled without having to inconvenience more than a relatively small number of people, which is why most people have no idea that governments possess such vast powers. But COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century outbreak that’s so novel, so poorly understood, and so communicable that nearly everyone in the world is being deprived of their civil liberties right now out of an abundance of caution.  

Realistically, one could expect these restrictions to remain in place unless and until COVID-19 vaccines and/or therapies are invented, proven and made available to the public – at which time it will (hopefully) be possible to manage COVID-19 like the seasonal flu, which doesn’t require draconian public health measures.    

As for the new smartphone apps, have a look at this recent article that appeared in Britain’s Express newspaper which will give you a good idea of how “hot” this topic has become.  

The key question here is whether or not the database backend (which is the software that my company Geoprise makes) is “centralized” or “decentralized.” A “centralized” backend follows the Singapore model and contains personally-identifiable information (PII) about everyone who registers the app with a public health authority and/or is confirmed to be infected.  

Conversely, some researchers are proposing a “decentralized” backend which serves only as a communications platform, and only ever receives anonymized and nonlinkable data from the smartphones.  

This is the privacy and security model that Apple and Google are following, but there is no way that such a “decentralized” backend could ever serve as a contact tracing database in the traditional sense. That’s because a traditional contact tracing database, by definition, always contains linkable PII. (Incidentally, our Geoprise software could be used in either a “centralized” or “decentralized” manner.) 

The key thing to understand about even the most “centralized” of the smartphone apps, such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app, is that they contain numerous privacy and security safeguards. Here’s a short list: 

  • The data which is captured and retained on individual devices identifies a particular smartphone only by an encrypted “TempID” which changes periodically (Singapore’s recommendation is to change the TempIDs every 15 minutes). This makes it impossible for a smartphone owner or eavesdropper to reconstruct complete histories of encounters held on the devices in a personally-identifiable way.
  • As my original article states, the contact tracing apps don’t use or store geo-location data (i.e. “where your smartphone was”) because GPS measurements are too unreliable for proximity-sensing purposes. Instead they use the device’s Bluetooth radio to sense other Bluetooth-enabled devices that come within very close range (i.e. “devices that were near your smartphone”).
  • The apps are opt-in. You can’t be compelled to download the app or register it with the public health authority (unless you happen to live in Mainland China — but that’s yet another story!).
  • Only people who are confirmed to be infected are ever asked to share their history of encounters with the public health authority.
  • Sharing your history of encounters is voluntary. You can’t be compelled to upload your contact tracing history to the public health authority’s backend server.

Apple and Google appear to be taking this a step further by: 

  • Allowing smartphone owners to “turn off” proximity sensing whenever they wish (such as when meeting a secret lover during trysts, or for more innocuous occasions).
  • Allowing smartphone owners to delete their history of encounters on demand, and to erase all data when uninstalling the app.
  • “Graceful dismantling” – to quote one researcher:“The system will organically dismantle itself after the end of the epidemic. Infected patients will stop uploading their data to the central server, and people will stop using the app. Data on the server is removed after 14 days.”  

The bottom-line on privacy and government overreach, I think, is for everyone to step back a safe distance from one another, and take a deep breath …

Contact Tracing: The giant obstacle smack in the middle of the road to COVID-19 recovery.

… But we’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

In recent days, news reports about the coronavirus pandemic have gravitated from a shortage of ventilators and possible overcrowding in the nation’s hospitals to how best to reopen the economy (and society).

The challenge, of course, is how to “reopen” in responsible ways that don’t result in a new flare-up of COVID-19 cases.

Governors, medical professionals and governmental personnel have been cogitating about this issue for a number of weeks now, and it appears that some “baby steps” are starting to be taken in some states, with other jurisdictions to follow in the coming days and weeks.

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of bringing the economy – and life – back to some semblance of “normal” is being able to know who has, or has had, the coronavirus — and beyond that identifying who the people are that each affected person has interfaced with in the previous weeks.

There’s the old-fashioned way of doing contract tracing: undertaking in-depth interviews with patients to learn who they have interfaced with for 15 minutes or longer over a period of 2-3 weeks … and then interviewing those persons plus the people they’ve interfaced with … and so on down the line.

Those suspected of being exposed can then be directed to quarantine themselves for the requisite two-week period so as to arrest the spread of the virus.

This is a hugely costly undertaking.

Moreover, it’s labor-intensive — to the tune that a state like Massachusetts is attempting to hire 1,000 new workers to undertake these duties. And that’s just to get through Phase 1 of the recovery effort.

The other challenge with traditional contact tracing is that the data being collected is based on memory and recollections, which as we all know are prone to fallibility.

In our tech-savvy world, some giants are “on the case” – entities like Google and Apple that have teamed up to use cellphone tracking technology to “keep tabs” on people’s movements and thereby know what people may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Of course, this solution is also prone to gaps in coverage, as phones aren’t turned “on” at all times, not to mention that significant swaths of the population – particularly the elderly – aren’t using cellphones equipped with the types of location information functionalities that can be tracked.  (Surprisingly perhaps, smartphone penetration worldwide still languishes at only around 45% of cellphone users.)

And then there’s always the issue of “privacy” lurking the background – a factor which can’t be ignored in a world where many people are already suspicious of governments snooping into their private lives.

But there could be other methods to employ by which contact tracing can be made more efficient, and more accurate – and at a more reasonable price tag.

Recently my brother, Nelson Nones, whose company, Geoprise Technologies Corporation, specializes in encrypted data management, outlined just such a practical solution that can accomplish this trio of disparate-yet-important goals.

His article on the topic, titled “Call to Action: Recovering from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” has been published and can be read here.

I find the article as persuasive as it is understandable to a technology layperson like myself. Moreover, it seems as though the solutions proposed could become an essential software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution not just for government agencies but for private business organizations, too.

Action is already happening, but so far, the results have been somewhat mixed despite strong support from governments, private businesses and end-users. Functionalities need to continue to build.

But it looks like we may be on our way … and that’s extremely good news for anyone who has an interest in reopening the economies of the world – and going back to living life the way humans were meant to live it.

A small silver lining in the big, black Coronavirus cloud? Robocalls fall off a cliff.

There isn’t much positive news at all for businesses and consumers coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic — which makes one appreciate any glimmer of good news all the more.

One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this.  My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon.  And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:

Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline. 

I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:

What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website. 

As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.  

That’s almost a 90% drop. 

Is this just a happy coincidence? 

At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.  

If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.  

Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).  

But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.

As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.

The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.  

In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds. 

[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.] 

As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:

I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running. 

We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.