As someone who helps organizations to build communities with prospective members and customers, I am always on the lookout for effective methods and techniques for building authentic, valuable engagement. Sadly, as part of this, I often see cases where people get it wrong too. I want to share one such example here.
Bark is a website that provides a service where people can find service providers such as gardeners, plumbers etc. They seem to have around 20 million users and a good TrustPilot rating. I have never used Bark before so I have no idea how good their service is, but it seems their engagement approach is broken.
Now, to be clear, my goal here is highlight a problem and propose a solution. While Bark are the company in question here, they themselves are not the focus of this article. I am less interested in them and more interested in the topic of unsolicited and automated engagement, irrespective of who it is. This is why I didn’t use Bark in the title of this post and I have not optimized my SEO around their name: they are merely a current example (and hopefully they will fix this).
Recently I started getting a bunch of emails from Bark in a fairly short timeframe:
Each one looks fairly similar. Here is an example:
Now, a few key notes here:
- I have never signed up for Bark, never used the service, never had my badge scanned by someone from Bark at a conference, and never given permission for them to email me.
- I am not a lawncare professional (quite the opposite, I am a shitty gardener).
- I don’t live in Solihull. I live on the other side of the planet in California.
After I got the third email I reached out to Bark via Twitter to ask why they are contacting me. They asked me to continue the conversation in a Direct Message. I am not sharing those messages here because I don’t believe in posting private conversations.
In a nutshell, I was informed a colleague got my details online and must have got it wrong about my expertise in lawncare. I asked where they got my details from and they said from my contact page.
When I informed them that spamming is illegal in England, they assured me that the precautions they take in the emails they send (e.g. including an opt-out link) mean their emails operate within the law.
Issues and Solutions
As mentioned above, I have no animosity to Bark themselves, and I am sure they are good people trying to do good work (in fact, their people responding on social media were lovely), but there are flaws in this current model. Let’s cover these and some proposed solutions.
Ensure your emails are accurate
As shown above, the emails I got from Bark were simply broken in the two most critical areas: the service sought and the location. As someone who isn’t a gardener living in California, I am of literally no use in this correspondence.
This means that Bark is wasting my time (opening and reading the email) and wasting their resources (e.g. sending out the emails, trying to connect customers and providers etc).
One would assume this simply providers no value, but it is worse as it now cements Bark in my head as an incompetent organization to get this so wrong.
Solution: always ensure your emails in any context are (a) accurate, (b) personal, and (c) provide value. There is an uncanny valley in emails: people can often spot if they are automated. If you do automate (which is totally fine in many scenarios), it should be personal and offer relevant value.
Don’t send valueless unsolicited email
Now, it is easy to be snippy about unsolicited email, but it is not bad in all scenarios. Importantly, people judge unsolicited email in three areas:
- Who sent it
- The value of the content
- The relevance of the content to the reader
Some unsolicited emails are helpful. For example, when someone out of the blue emails me about hiring me it is of value. As per above, (1) the person themselves sent it, (2) it relates to my area of expertise and business, (3) I can probably serve those needs.
In this case, (1) some random company sent this to me, not the person themselves looking for business, (2) the content as discussed above is entirely mismatched to me or my location, and (3) see #2.
Solution: firstly, you should never send emails to people have not indicated in some form they are happy to get them (e.g. having a badge scanned at a conference or agreeing to receive email). Secondly, always ensure this content is highly tuned to the reader: make it personal, make it demonstrate value specific to them, and include the integrity of the sender in it. Unsolicited email can be used for good but as a general rule it is broadly abused and then it is filed in the spam folder where it never gets looked at.
Don’t scrape contact details
In this instance, it seems my contact details were pulled from my public contact form. Now, to be clear, I put my email address there (it is not hidden).
The issue here is twofold.
Firstly, when I created my contact page, I intended for people to contact me directly with questions, queries, and potential collaborations. I don’t put it there to get unsolicited email.
Secondly, I am convinced that the reason why the original email to me was so inaccurate (lawn services and me living in Solihull) is because they tried to find corrosponding information in some scraped way (or with a minimal level of human effort). Quite how they got to lawn services I don’t know. I did used to live near Solihull at least…
Solution: don’t scrape contact details from the Internet. It is unwanted, it doesn’t work well, and and it offers little value for everyone involved.
Don’t use the law as a defence for poor engagement
When I queried Bark via DM about where they got my contact details and informed them that spamming is illegal in the UK, their response was that they are operating within the laws of the UK. I believe this: I am not suggesting at all that Bark are breaking the law, I don’t think they are.
The problem with this response though is that it is needling out of the problem. Sure, they are working within the parameters of the law, but are they working within the parameters of how people like to be treated online?
I don’t think so.
Solution: don’t send unsolicited email, as outlined above.
The core of my philosophy with how companies should build communities and engage with their customers/users is that it should be authentic. In a nutshell, treat your customers as you want to be treated yourself.
When we automate away the personality of a service, when we forfeit due diligence in the interests of growth, and when we deliver an experience that puts the other person in a position of being bombarded with content they didn’t ask for, it erodes brand confidence.
I think this is happening here. Just a few small examples:
This is just a few small examples. Visit, their Twitter feed has more.
Firstly, it is clear this behavior is irrating a lot of people. If I was running Bark, I would immediate change this course of action.
Secondly, the common responses from Bark to these frustrations are (1) we were just trying to help a client find someone, and (2) it was in error, it won’t happen again. For the former, this is a weak answer as their methods of finding a service provider are clearly broken, mismatched, and not adding value. It is one thing to get an uninteresting request for one of their clients, but another to get totally irrelevant unsolicited email For the latter, this error appears to be happening so much that I frankly question whether they are trying to resolve the errors as a systematic way (to fix the broader problem) as opposed to an individual level (to simply unsubscribe people).
I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant and I always admire companies who are open about both their successes and failures. It reminds me when GitLab had their downtime incident: instead of battening down the hatches, they spun up a Google Doc, a live YouTube stream and brought their customers in to help rectify the issue. They got a lot of goodwill from their community.
If you work for an organization where this article smacks a little close to home, I would be open about it, identify where there are failings, and bring your customers in where they can help you to understand the primary value they are seeking and how you can craft that. People respect humility in cases of failure.
The reason I am writing this is because I suspect the folks at Bark are good people making some mistakes, and I suspect other companies are making similar mistakes, so I figured this might be a useful article to mull on.