I finished the article, and you know what? I enjoyed it. No. I loved it. But my love was betrayed because appended to the end of the piece was a call-to-action. My emotions in that moment were a microcosm of what it feels like to be crossed by someone I love; anger and despair. 

Sure, I know that it’s common practice for most pieces of writing that are published online to be a means-to-an-end, for the author—or the publication—to be giving in order to get. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Or continue to participate in the game.

The approach I’m speaking of is particularly prevalent on platforms like Medium, and it goes something like this:

  1. Seductive title.
  2. Interesting and slightly ambiguous subtitle. 
  3. Promising lede.
  4. Clear, structured, effective prose.
  5. Neat, compressed summary.
  6. Call-to-action.

Parts one-through-five have been honed steadily for years. But only recently has the call-to-action been deployed and weaponised. Content producers have finally figured out how to play the game. Here’s a typical call-to-action structure, taken from the article that conjured my feelings of betrayal:

  1. Ask a rhetorical question that primes the reader to listen to what’s coming next. 
  2. Introduce an on-ramp to something—an email list, a product, a service—that is closely-related to the article’s content
  3. Emphasise the low friction and risk associated with sign-up. “Free” is the key word here. Also, some mild scarcity could come in handy.
  4. Describe how they can get access to what’s on offer in 2).

​The above embodied look like this:

“Did you enjoy reading about A?
Then you might like B, a free, five-part video course that provides a comprehensive breakdown of the processes discussed above. Just drop your email here and be one of the first people to benefit from the insights and strategies that have helped net me clients like C, D and E, and build a six-figure business in under two years.”

It’s effective. I can’t argue that. Like pop-ups, it’s annoying, but it works. Still, I can’t be the only one who gets annoyed by such brazen manipulation. “Manipulation? Matt, that’s too strong a word.” Is it? Consider my thought process as I read such an article:

First, I look for ways in which the article can help me. If I find them, I think about the author, for whom I feel gratitude: “This person doesn’t have to tell me this, to share this, to put this into the world. Perhaps I’ll share it with a friend, or drop the author a message with some questions, or a note of thanks.” Then I reach the end and find that the author wants something from me, that they’ve suckered me into a quid-pro-quo. The author knows they’ve provided value so they know they can ask for reciprocation. Embedded in statements like, “If you enjoyed this…” is the implication that the reader is now indebted to the author.

My response to this realisation is as childish as their strategy is shady: Fuck you and your attempts to coerce me.

There’s better ways to capture value than indebtedness-via-deceit. They take longer. They have a lower success rate. But they’re less manipulative than making generosity appear unfettered. How about giving something away for nothing? How about not trying to get me to do anything? How about making it easy for me to find out more about you and your work, at my own pace, in my own way, if I want to? Because if what you make is good enough, I’ll care, and I’ll act. I neither need nor want your pokes and prods; there’s enough people tugging on my sleeve, competing for a sliver of my most precious resources. So don’t add to the cacophony. Instead, make something so good that people like me can’t help but share it, talk about it, use it, benefit from it and, as a consequence, want to do something for you in return. 

Do that and your recompense will be my heart, instead of my anger.