Let me tell you why I’m mad at Unroll.me — It’s the deceptive growth hacking

I submitted the following letter to Unroll.me after signing up for its service earlier today. I’ve decided to share it more publicly because I think the substance of my complaint is relevant to many more companies. I’ve written about the annoyance of growth hacking in my Fast Company column. I also had a major set of tweets and replies after first expressing excitement about this service and then feeling the need to rescind that excitement.

I’m sad I have to write this message, and I’ve chosen to label this “sales/advertising” because it has to do with what I consider to be deceptive advertising practices by your company. This is a long message. I hope you read it. I’ll also be publishing it online to share with others because I believe it has to do with more than you and your service.

I started today trying to clear out my inbox. I posted to Twitter that I would pay for a service that OAuth’d into my gmail and unsubscribed me from all email lists. Thanks to Twitter magic, within seconds my friend Jon Gottfried had recommended you. Seconds later so did other friends.

I had suggested to one user that I’d pay up to $150 for such a service.

When I got to your site, there was no mention of price. I should have known then to be suspicious.

I granted you access to my email, and you told me I had 265 newsletters I could unsubscribe from. I removed one and ran to Twitter to express my gratitude.

I tweeted out my excitement, mentioning your Twitter handle fully.

The unexpected but should-have-been-expected growth hacking paywall on Unroll.me

Then I went back to unsubscribing and was greeted with an alarming popup claiming I had reached my “unsubscribe limit,” and that in order to keep unsubscribing, the ONLY options I had were

a) like you on facebook
b) pinning on pinterest
c) sharing on twitter
d) inviting friends by email.

There’s so much wrong with this approach starting with the bait and switch. You never told me as you teased the prospect of 265 unsubscribes in my face that a mere five unsubscribes later you would extort some form of endorsement from me.

Further, you offered no alternative to forced word-of-mouth.

Having violated my trust already, I was in no mood to celebrate your service among my friends and followers. In fact, I had already done that after my first unsub and returned to this unexpected ransom-holding behavior.

Having violated my trust, I would honestly not know what would happen if I clicked any of the four buttons. Would I have the option to modify any pre-set text you populated?

My friends who recommended you of their own free will say this “unsub limit” is a new thing, which suggests you are under significant pressure to grow. Maybe it’s your own milestones, or maybe you have VCs who don’t trust in the quality of your product and have forced you to force users to say nice things about you. I’m sure the pressure is great, whatever the reason.

But you’re failing.

You’ve lost a potential advocate with massive reach and passion.

You had solved a real problem for me, but you ruined it by violating my trust and creating worse problems.

I sincerely hope you abandon this tactic of coerced word of mouth. I see a few options.

At a minimum, be transparent.

Much of my frustration is in not knowing there even was a “unsubscribe limit.” Nowhere in the cute video or feature list or FAQ (all of which I consumed) did you mention that users only get five unsubs before they are cut off. This is inexcusable.

Beyond this, encourage sharing without requiring it. Your popup language is adorably deceptive. “In order to unsubscribe from more than 5 subscriptions, help out by sharing below.” Let me be clear. “Help” is not “help” when it’s the only option. When I pay legally required taxes, I’m not “helping out America.” I’m obeying the law.

When you put a roadblock in front of a user and demand ransom to get by, you are demonstrating a lack of faith both in the user and in your own product. Have some faith in both, or get out of the business of providing services. True user growth is strongly a function of quality product and user satisfaction. You cannot apply growth hacking mechanics alone to substitute for something as genuine as that. So just stop. When you don’t believe in your own product, neither do I.

Finally, let us pay! I know it is the fashion in highly leveraged tech platforms to avoid collecting revenues from users, but I urge you to counter this often senseless trend. Again it comes to faith. If you make something good and useful, people will pay. Sometimes they’ll pay with a public endorsement. Sometimes they’ll even pay with, and stick with me here, MONEY.

Every day billions of people spend billions of dollars on goods and services they deem valuable. Give the tried and true capitalist model a chance. Not everything that has worked for generations needs to be disrupted, and you don’t have to reinvent a wheel that works.

I might have been happy to pay you if you gave yourselves a chance, in good faith, to demonstrate your value.

But instead you deceived me by withholding the true terms of use.

You exposed a lack of faith in yourselves and me by attempting to coerce an endorsement.

And you ignored the most proven business model of all time which is to just take my damn money.

A service such as yours has a place in this world. I had hoped you would be the ones to provide it, but sadly, you didn’t give yourself a chance.

Update 29 September 2014 @ 8pm PT:

A few users on Twitter pointed me to Mailstrom as an example of a service doing what I needed and being upfront about the nature of the trial period. I signed up, and as I proceeded through the setup process, was greeted with this page. It’s a positive example of how my experience with Unroll.me could have been so much better and felt more honest.

This is a better way to communicate. Thank for the example of good behavior, Mailstrom.

Mailstrom is clear about how many “removals” I get for free, how many I’ve used, and what a paid option costs and includes in terms of features. I’m not endorsing the service (yet), but I am endorsing the transparency of the sales and marketing practice.