I almost filled out the sample ballot like it was my absentee ballot [DIGITAL MARKETING REMINDER]

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

I try to vote in every election but typically through absentee ballot so I was excited when my ballot arrived in late September.

I was ready to get it filled out and make my vote count but quickly realized that the mailing I received was actually a sample ballot sent out by the Linn County Auditor’s Office to let people know who is on the ballot in November and to encourage people to request an absentee ballot.

The intent was good but not everybody understood it-including myself for a few moments. I even emailed the office right away to ask if any had been submitted yet.

The Gazette newspaper is reporting that after a few days over 120 people actually returned them like they were voting.

But the sample ballot had a letter with it that stated its purpose:

The goal is well-intentioned and I appreciate them sending it to me. In fact, my wife and I were just discussing whether or not we are in the district for a certain race. Getting the sample ballot or at least who is on our ballot sent to us certainly settled that discussion and we can now focus our energy on who we actually want to vote for and why in that particular race.

Unfortunately, the Auditor’s Office ran into the disconnect between well intention and actual user behavior. Of course, that’s a problem digital marketers face all the time.

We build our user experience based on our strategy and based on what we know and think will work.

Then an actual user sees it and does something totally different from what we expected.

The first few times that happened in my career I thought I failed. Now I use the experiences to evolve a campaign.

We put that call to action in red right there so you can push it. But nobody does. Why not? Something in the design or delivery is throwing them off the path we intended for them to take.

Another link might be pulling them away to other things. That’s why digital landing pages to the direct sale or conversion must be succinct.

Want to sell something? Don’t clutter things with other ads and links. At least don’t overdo it.

Then we have different mindsets of users. I saw people posting on social media that they were surprised they had to use their own stamp to send in their absentee ballot this year.

They knew they had already requested a ballot and thought this sample ballot was it.

I never even saw the light SAMPLE on the ballot.

It’s a problem digital marketers run across nonstop.

Intent matters

Intent matters. Ask the people in prison for it.

Seriously, though, intent also matters in the stories and information that we share on our blogs and social media channels – two of my favorite content marketing channels.

What was our intent when we posted what we posted?

Did we try to teach? Did we try to show somebody off? Did we (knowingly) spread incorrect information?

Why did we do it? The intent matters. The auditor had good intent here.

Sometimes, we might misinterpret somebody’s intent or something was taking out of the so-called context – like when somebody quotes us. “That was taking out of context.” Do we really mean: “That wasn’t my intent to come across like that?” Maybe. Being taken out of context also comes back to intent. Did they intent do be misleading with their quote or actually thought it was accurate? Yes, I know oftentimes, the actual words were spoken, but with the additional words also spoken around them don’t make much sense or have a different meaning.

The intent can come back to our relationship with the person and even their body language, which can be hard to read when the message is sent through a Tweet. 🙂

Maybe, just maybe, the person really picked the less-than-perfect words by mistake. So, instead of jumping on him or her with one of those digital lynch mobs, what if we ask a clarification question first:

I read your post this way. Is that right?

Can you explain that further?

Certainly, some statements people make are better kept in one’s head. So maybe they actually intended them that way. Sometimes I wonder. Maybe they just weren’t prepared for the digital onslaught of opinions.

Can we change our intent after the digital lynch mob has gotten a hold of us? Probably not. Sometimes people say after the fact that they didn’t intent to cause that reaction, but does that mean they intended what they said?

Intent matters. Let’s make it count for something.

As long as we are not trickery

Of course, once we cross the barrier of actual user behavior and understanding some digital marketers take it too far. What’s trickery in digital marketing

Here’s how I define trickery and digital marketing: when digital marketers implement a tactic that gets people to do things they didn’t intend to do or the tactic is misleading.

Of course, digital trickery can actually work short-term, but it’s not a long-term strategy and certainly isn’t customer-focused when done intentionally. Sometimes it’s unintentional by the marketer, and hopefully that’s the case most of the time. But when it’s done unintentionally, marketers quickly change their tactic.

I’ll give you an example of when I crossed the line myself: I often run marketing campaigns and often times I use display ads for those campaigns.

One of my ads said: Should you swear in blog posts? Then below that were two check boxes – one for ‘yes’ and one for ‘no’.

Of course, the ad was really just a static image and when you clicked ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you ended up going to the blog post that answered that question.

Really, you could click anywhere on the ad and get the same journey. The ad performed really well and I was excited by how many people were caring about the topic.

And then Google turned off the campaign because it was misleading. What they explained was that if you have check boxes in your ad, they actually need to work and can’t just be a static element on a static image. It appeared to me that somebody had reported the ad after they clicked on it and it didn’t do what they expected it to do.

My intent certainly wasn’t to be misleading, but at least one person thought the ad was tricking them into doing something they didn’t expect to be doing.

Certainly, I worked with the designer to create the ad and then even get some advice on how to place it, and thought about the budget and more. But it didn’t cross my mind that it would be seen as trickery. However, now I know and won’t run similar ads again. The other thing that’s important once somebody reports that they felt tricked is to promptly understand, learn, and adjust.

In fact, I wonder if when we have highly performing campaigns and are surprised by how well they perform, should we actually go back and review the customer journey to make sure our intent and message is clear and not tricky? Success can also be a sign of failure, I guess. Ultimately, prospects who were tricked into buying, likely won’t continue buying. But of course, good digital marketers get really close to the line of trickery in their ongoing journey to reach relevant audiences.

When we optimize with good and customer-focused intentions, that’s okay. Just be sure that if you cross the line by accident to adjust and learn! This is also another reason to not run digital marketing in a vacuum.

Have regular meetings with stakeholders, and talk through concepts and actual steps. Share ideas and strategies to help everyone think through if strategies might work without tricking people.


Of course, the mailed ballot was supposed to be helpful. Which it was. It was well-intention. And intent matters.

It also hit the hurdle marketers face all the time. People don’t read everything. They misinterpret.

It wasn’t tricky by any means but did lead some people to vote on it. In a digital environment we can test and adjust. In this example, once the samples shipped they shipped.

It’s a real dilemma. Nonetheless don’t let the setbacks bring you down. Keep being helpful to your audiences. It’s what good marketers (and public officials) do.

Parts of this article were originally written in 2015 and 2017.