These unwelcome intrusions will chip away at brand trust

These unwelcome intrusions will chip away at brand trust

My recent experience of an online marketing tactic shows the negative impact of chasing numbers ahead of the quality of context and effectiveness.

A few years ago, I qualified as a ‘Time to Think’ coach. It was not easy, and entailed attending courses, submitting essays and many hours of practice. Having become accredited I was entitled to be listed on the ‘Time to Think’ professional register, for which I pay an annual fee. In my biography I mention Aviva as one of the companies I have previously worked for.

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from the business director of the ‘Time to Think’ Collegiate, forwarding on an email she has received from Aviva about my entry on their coaching register. In it the sender had written, “I work for Eleven Tenths, the outreach arm of Ingenuity Digital. We are currently working with Aviva and are contacting you regarding a page on your site that mentions my client. I was just wondering if it would be possible for you to add a link to the anchor text of ‘Aviva’ in the above page, for readers who are interested in finding out more about the company?” 

They provided a link to the Aviva UK website, and the name and email address of their client at Aviva, as if for reassurance. The director of ‘Time to Think’ wanted to know from me whether this was a “genuine request”that I was happy to accommodate.

My immediate response was one of both anger and concern. In an age when organisations like Stop Scams UK (a coalition of businesses from banking, telecoms and technology) have been set up to prevent the harm and loss caused by scams, I felt indignant that an established financial brand like Aviva was indulging in such disconcerting activity. As Stop Scams UK says on its website, “Scams are the scourge of our times. Not only do they cause harm and distress to consumers, but they undermine trust in businesses and economic activity.”

What’s more, when I worked at Aviva, we had training on ‘phishing’ emails alerting us to the danger of clicking on any links embedded within them. To reinforce the point, the cyber security team would occasionally send out ‘test’ phishing emails to evaluate how many employees clicked on the links. The use of familiar brand names and people to lull you into a false sense of security is a known technique. If you fell for it, your manager would be advised, and there would be a wrap on the knuckles. Multiple offenders were compelled to retrain and ultimately faced disciplinary action.

I tried to establish whether this email sent on behalf of Aviva was indeed genuine. I searched the Web for the company in the email address of the sender and got a message which read “The site eleventenths.co.uk has been disabled. Please contact support”. Not exactly reassuring.

Google then helpfully offered up a link to Companies House, where the entry for ‘Eleven Tenths Ltd’ ran the headline ‘eight officers/six resignations.’ That didn’t sound like a company that was doing well.

So, then I thought I would see if I could find the Aviva employee mentioned in the body of the email on Linked-In. Another blank.

At this point I resolved to speak to the communications director at Aviva, an old friend and colleague who I knew would share my disquiet and help investigate what on Earth was going on. She was able to immediately reassure me that the Aviva person mentioned in the body of the offending email was genuine and worked in the in-house SEO team.

Phew. So, it wasn’t a scam. But I still felt it was a cheek.

Bio hazard

First of all, affiliated links are usually part of a commercial arrangement, with clicks being paid for. To use my real estate to embed a link referring back to Aviva UK is something I should have been asked permission from someone at Aviva to do and paid accordingly for any traffic it might have generated. To hijack my professional biography in this way, without even the courtesy of making a request to do so, felt underhand and a bit cheap. It slightly smacks of desperation on Aviva’s part. Do they really think that people will not have heard of Aviva when they look at my credentials and need the reassurance of a link to check?

Finally, inserting a link to Aviva UK it would have been incorrect because I didn’t work for that business unit. I worked at the Head Office of Aviva PLC, in an international role. If I had wanted to insert a link it would have been to the corporate site, not the commercial one. So, perhaps the most vexatious part of this request is that it would have rendered my biography inaccurate. If the director at Time to Think hadn’t checked with me because she was worried it was a scam, this little bit of opportunism on the part of Aviva marketing would have corrupted my CV.

In fairness to Aviva, after my complaint, the interim marketing director wrote to me and apologised for my distress. He explained that “Ingenuity Digital, the agency behind this programme, had been engaged to search for and identify non-linked Aviva brand references. Once identified they contact the webmasters/hosts of those references to ask them if they would be willing to place a link back to the Aviva brand.”

He went on to say that the mention of Aviva in personal biographies was on “a long ID list of individuals, publications, and mention types intended to be treated as exclusions. This control is not automated but relies on the individual judgement of the person who has identified the link opportunity.”

In terms of my experience, there had been a clear mistake in the application of the agreed policy, given the Aviva reference in question was in my biography. However, he was insistent that even with this error the request for a back link was essentially benign because I had been contacted by the platform host and rejected the request.

Impact on brand trust

I have contacted a number of marketing practitioners who tell me that this form of search engine optimisation is not, in fact, standard practice. To a person they shared my disquiet and agreed that it fuels mistrust in the digital economy.

At best, the recipients have to no reassurance that the approach is genuine and will delete it for fear of being scammed, and at worst it is requesting a commercial relationship without offering any payment.

If you are to occupy someone else’s real estate you should at least offer to pay rent.

This episode highlights once again the downside of chasing numbers ahead of the quality of context and likely effectiveness. Ultimately to the detriment of brand trust and any existing or potential relationship.

I bet the numbers being monitored in this case don’t reveal how many people think less of Aviva as a result of this kind of harvesting of ‘non-linked brand references’.  I’m one annoying voice for Aviva who will no doubt be speaking for many others.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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