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Why Phishing Scammers are More Persuasive Than You Are


Hundreds if not thousands of marketing messages inundate us each day—each one fighting to grab your attention. And this swarm of shouting people and brands extend into our email boxes, too. We all have developed strategies for dealing with the deluge, and mine is simple: I quickly delete the unimportant, overly promotional, or unsolicited emails before working through the important messages in my inbox. So I was surprised to find myself taking an increasing amount of time to read, contemplate, and consider action with phishing scam emails.

spinning and lakePhishing scams are big trouble for businesses and big business for troublemakers. If you have an email account, you have no doubt received a phishing email. By definition, “phishing” is the act of sending fraudulent emails that masquerade as legitimate communication from trusted sources. The goal is to trick recipients into divulging sensitive logins, passwords, and other personal information by leading them to a phony website. And lately these scams have gotten a lot more effective by mimicking company templates and brand standards and concealing links. The masterminds behind phishing scams have one goal in mind: more clicks, more interaction, and more conversion.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Marketers, after all, have that same goal—we want our audience to engage with messages, click on links, and activate calls to action. While phishing remains a fringe activity, it is not unsuccessful—research has estimated the worldwide impact of phishing as high as $2.5 billion annually.

In spite of efforts to curb their success, these phishing emails remain effective. Here are five reasons scam artists are way more persuasive than you—and how you can learn from them:

1. Phishers leverage brand equity

Scam artists understand the power of brand equity—the value of a well-known name. More importantly, phishing scammers understand the nuanced persuasive influence brand equity exerts. They understand how an “Urgent!” email from Bank of America appears more important than a coupon from your local auto garage. We know phishers target big brands to gain the largest pool of potential victims. But if you are a big brand, don’t ever forget the value your company’s reputation plays in communicating a message. Make sure your brand logo holds visual prominence in all steps of your conversion flow. If phishing scammers know the simple mention or appearance of your brand in certain contexts compels people to action, you should too.

2. Phishers use fear tactics to create urgency 

The most effective phishing scams typically create the perception of a financial threat. Such perceptions are evocative—leading to intense feelings of fear, which in turn creates motivation to take action. While “crying wolf” with every marketing message is not advisable, understanding the role emotion plays in decision-making is critical.

Flash sales, for example, create a feeling of urgency to increase motivation and encourage conversions. The same effect can also be achieved with time-sensitive bonus discounts or double point redemptions in specific short-burst time periods. This tactics utilize fear, but in a positive way more suited to legitimate brands. The key is to capitalize on the fear of missing out instead of the fear harm, penalty, or punishment.

3. Phishers have consistent messaging throughout the funnel

When a user clicks a link in an email, he or she expects to land on a page with a similar headline and graphic treatment—and certainly the same company logo. Scammers understand how important this consistency is for maintain momentum toward conversion, so they ensure landing pages maintain consistency in messaging and branding. This may sound obvious, but it isn’t always easy to maintain this consistency throughout the experience flow. Often, for example, the email team is separate from the website team and design or messaging changes aren’t communicated.

4. Phishers use intrigue to cause action

We all know when an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is—yet this is exactly what phishers often suggest. And, because we are curious, skeptical, or afraid of missing out, we click to find out more. Or maybe the message appears to be an urgent appeal from someone we know. Maybe it’s an unexpected or unusual request—which may be more effective than something so mundane it is completely expected and believable. Meanwhile, such personalization remains a dream for most marketers.

5. Phishers prey on the moment

A great way to motivate someone to act is to emphasize timeliness. “We noticed you made a purchase at this store a few hours ago, we fear this is a fraudulent charge and your account is compromised,” is a very effective message. And it’s not limited to alert messages. It can be mimicked in a variety of other contexts, for example: “We noticed you made a purchase at this store a few hours ago. Sign up for our loyalty plan and we will credit you back the 10% you would have saved to your account right now.” Timely. Persuasive. Effective.

Most phishing scammers focus on email, but these tactics can be applied to landing pages and websites, too. And while their ethics may be deplorable, there is a lot to learn from these fraudulent messages.