8 Counterintuitive Marketing Strategies That Actually Work

Cold outreach is typically seen as a numbers game: hit as many inboxes as you can, assuming 5% or fewer will convert. But I’ve never agreed with that approach because I believe my reputation is on the line when I message a stranger. I don’t want them to feel like I copy and paste the same message to hundreds of other people. 

So I’ve always spent a lot of time and effort researching the person and their company before reaching out. I ultimately message a small list, but I get a response nearly every time.

My cold outreach strategy might sound normal to some people and counterintuitive to many others.

But sometimes marketing is counterintuitive like that. Here are a bunch of principles and examples to prove it:

1. Add friction to boost sales.

Boxed cake mixes before 1933 required only water. But when Duncan Hines’ cake mix forced the consumer to add fresh eggs as well, sales soared. After just a few weeks, Duncan Hines had almost half the market share for cake mixes.

Turns out, women (who were the ones baking these cake mixes) liked the extra work of adding the egg. When psychologist Ernest Dichter (consulting for General Mills) interviewed them to better understand their approach to baking, he learned that the very simplicity of mixes — just add water and stir — made women feel self-indulgent for using them.

But aside from that, fresh eggs produced better cakes. Cakes no longer stuck to the pan and the mixes had longer shelf lives.

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

Other examples:

Longer sign-up forms can improve conversion: In one famous study by conversion rate optimizer Michael Aagaard, reducing the amount of form fields actually led to a 14% drop in form conversions. 

But the takeaway isn’t that longer forms are always optimal. Surprise, surprise, there’s nuance. Context and desire matter. If a user is motivated enough for the result — whether it’s a necessity like a life insurance policy or home appraisal, or otherwise valuable information like a dense ebook or juicy webinar — they’ll sign up. It won’t matter whether the form has three or eight fields.

IKEA’s store layout inspires impulse buys: It’s by design that customers have to weave their way through bedroom, bathroom and living room sets before they can actually grab items off the shelf. The maze-like layout forces customers to see all available items in the appropriate context (e.g. table lamp nestled in a cozy bedroom) and inspires them to add more items to their shopping carts.

Most desktop checkout processes require a similarly lengthy maze of product add-ons and customization, as does every automobile website. If you’ve got a product people want and expect to customize, or one that benefits from showing off the store, adding friction might actually increase conversion.

2. Grow your community through unscalable interactions.

Especially when it’s early days. Whether you’re running a Slack, Discord, Circle, or in-person meetups, it’s crucial to connect one-on-one with members.

Personally welcome each new person. And as you get to know people, take notes on their interests and expertise. When relevant community discussions come up, tag them in.

This unscalable approach to relationship-building is what makes the community. Christina Pashialis, who runs content marketing community ContentUK, schedules calls with new members to get a sense of their needs. CMX co-founder David Spinks welcomes all new members as well.

For women’s professional network Elpha, community is the product. They grew their community to over 50,000 women in large part through 1:1 connections in other semi-private communities, and by personally welcoming each new Elpha member.

Everyone loves white-glove service.

3. Give away valuable info to get paying customers.

Marketers have been conditioned to tease value so that people buy.

But freely giving that value — guides, calculators, templates, etc — helps people trust and refer you. In a time when there’s more competition than ever, sometimes the only way to stand out is to lead with value, and trust that the investment will come back to you.

Over time, people will get to know you for your high-quality work. This was a key lead generation strategy I led at a previous employer, SEO and content creation agency Growth Machine. We created a comprehensive blog post containing a bunch of free content marketing Google Sheet templates. To this day, it leads to lots of new email newsletter subscribers, and demonstrates Growth Machine’s competency in content marketing.

4. Narrow your focus to sustain healthier growth.

Unless you have an established marketing team, it’s unlikely you can create truly excellent blog posts, webinars, podcasts, newsletters, and social media content.

Master one channel, then scale. You’ll end up creating a flywheel for yourself that gets both repeat content while also allowing you to scale with decreasing friction. I mean… it’s basically how Rand grew Moz in its earliest days: he was the first person to codify SEO best practices so that he could grow Moz’s business.

One of our own marketing flywheels here at SparkToro is our Office Hours series. We end up repurposing parts of our presentations for other webinars, we feature some of our most loyal customers — like Ross Simmonds of Foundation Inc — and we turn presentations into blog posts

Flywheels go beyond marketing. You can look at just about any successful brand and see how narrowed focus on a given product helped them grow and evolve over time. Menswear brand Bonobos famously focused on pants before expanding their product line. Phil Knight made running shoes for nearly a decade before launching Nike’s first basketball shoe. Spanx started out with just undergarments, Crocs made just clogs, Amazon sold just books — the list goes on.

Nike's first-ever running shoes
Nike’s first-ever running shoes

Anything worth doing takes time. But once you start to see momentum, it becomes easier to expand your efforts and get greater return on your investment.

Oh, speaking of ROI…

5. Get greater ROI from smaller channels.

It’s table stakes for brands to advertise on Google and Facebook. But in a saturated market, advertisers need to constantly outbid each other to make sure they get in front of their target audience.

A better solution? Tap into underleveraged marketing channels before the law of shitty clickthroughs kicks in and you can reap the benefits before these channels go mainstream.

Right now, my favorite channel is niche newsletters. Niche or smaller email lists tend to have high open rates and click-through rates, which means they’re ripe for sponsorships. And even if the writer charges a high CPM, the small list makes for a lower price tag.

Here’s a receipt: My personal newsletter only has about 2,700 subscribers, but my open rate is 65% and click-through rate is 14%.

Email analytics for Amanda’s personal newsletter on ConvertKit

One of SparkToro’s customers, content marketing agency Foundation Inc., saw recent success with tapping into hidden gem newsletters. Their team used audience research searches  to find high-potential paid marketing opportunities for one of their clients. 

They started by analyzing influencers’ social media followers, and then looking at Hidden Gems — social accounts that have solid engagement but are not yet mainstream. From there, Foundation uncovered those accounts’ podcasts and newsletters. They calculated that by investing in these opportunities, they could reach more people than if they ran targeted Facebook Ads. 

Screenshot of Hidden Gems highlighted in SparkToro dashboard
Screenshot of Hidden Gems highlighted in the Social tab of the SparkToro dashboard

So they swung big. They spent nearly $50,000 on niche sponsorships and within a month, the client saw 50% more qualified leads than they were getting from previous digital advertising efforts.

You can read more about the process in this case study.

6. Remind customers of recurring charges to foster loyalty.

We’ve seen the subscription hacks: Hide the “cancel account” button to keep customers. Don’t remind people that they’re paying. Add friction to cancellation processes. Require a phone call or email to stop the next bill (even brands as auspicious as the New York Times, infuriatingly, do this).

All of these hacks cause frustration. And they might hurt the brand more than they help save subscribers.

Instead, try sending reminders or offering a “skip” option. It keeps customers happy and nurtures word-of-mouth.

The first time our customers’ credit cards are about to get charged, we send them an email reminder three days prior. We even get thank you messages in reply to this.

SparkToro’s reminder email

Making it easy for customers to cancel or skip works well across industries. Prebiotic soda brand Olipop grew from zero to nearly 6,000 subscribers in less than a year, and they credit ease of cancellation for part of that growth.

Showing you’re not afraid to lose consumers instills trust. It may even reignite interest in your product. If a product is easy to cancel, the fear of re-subscribing drops. SparkToro’s own numbers suggest this is a real phenomenon: more than 8% of our customers each month have previously subscribed at least once!

7. Delete subscribers to improve your email program.

Another counterintuitive practice: Encouraging your email subscribers to opt out so that they stay in.

Check who hasn’t opened your emails in the past 90 days.

Send them a note inviting them to opt out:

“We work really hard on our newsletter, and we only want to email people who want to be on this list. It’s no problem if you don’t want to stay on our list. In fact, doing nothing will ensure that we remove you. 

But if you do want to keep receiving our emails, click on the link below and you’ll receive the next edition soon.”

Give it a couple days. Then remove those who don’t click. Hitting that delete button will hurt your gross numbers. But your open rates and clickthroughs will thank you (and that’s usually a great tradeoff in a world of spam filters and “promotions” tabs). 

8. Give free PR to others to enhance your credibility.

This one goes against the grain of everything you’re taught in Public Relations 101. You’re not supposed to give other brands free press.

While I wouldn’t recommend going awkwardly out of your way to promote direct competitors, there’s no reason not to shout out brands who share your similar audience, ethos, or approach.

I call this permissionless co-marketing. It’s aligning yourself with other brands by promoting them in your work. The payoff is earning goodwill, potential reciprocation, and unlocking doors for future collaboration.

But aside from the benefits to highlighting brands and people you admire, you also become more credible to your audience. You’re showing that you’re paying attention to trends and that you give credit when it’s due.

Was this counterintuitive writing?

If you’re feeling deja vu because you think you already read this post, you’re right. I published this last week as a Twitter thread, when it was essentially just a list of ideas in my marketing swipe file. It was after Rand’s reply that I saw it would also be a compelling blog post.

And it was a fun meta realization about counterintuitiveness. Content marketers have been trained to write blog posts under the guidance of a high-volume keyword strategy. After all, it makes sense to create content that people are already searching for. But all writers know that the ideas worth writing about are the undiscovered ones that challenge common sense — regardless of search volume.