A Friendly Open Question For Clay Collins

I like Clay Collins. I think he’s very smart, funny and helpful, and I’ve learned a lot from him, and still do. That’s why I’m subscribed to his marketing show and that’s why I received the email that ultimately led to this post – and hopefully to a bit of friendly debate.

Clay Did Something I Didn’t Really Like – And it Confused Me. A LOT.

Last week, an email notification flashed across my screen, announcing a message from Clay. Subject header: ‘Hater’.

Now, I’m a guy who lives and dies by the power of words – quite literally. I also like to philosophise about things like ethics, psychology and semantics, amongst a bunch of other things.

As such, the word ‘hate’ is one that I rarely, if ever, use.

Maybe it’s a matter of mental hygiene, or maybe you think I ‘m being pedantic, but I just really do not like the word and will always find a way to avoid using it, whether in speaking or in writing.

So when that email landed, it of course struck me, and while I wasn’t offended or upset in any way, it was kind of jarring. For a second, a mild, panic-inspired feeling swept through me: ‘Is he accusing me? What is that about?’ Obviously, I stopped what I was doing and went to read the message immediately.

Turned out, it was not a personal message, but rather one that was sent to his list. Some people had been calling him a ‘hater’ and this was his opinion and reaction to it. Fair enough: I subscribed to his list, so he can send me whatever he thinks should be sent, right? Right.

I Don’t Like Being Confused

So obviously, I sent him an email, and asked him to clarify, pretty please.

As a marketer, Clay scored one with me, because that subject header made sure that I read the message. And that’s what the subject header is supposed to do. Well done, therefore.

However, since I find the word so negatively charged, and since Clay is all about ethics in marketing and treating people nicely and all that modern feelgood socially responsible stuff (the stuff I just love to learn about), it didn’t make sense to me. Why would he use a tactic by leveraging the power of a strong negative message? What, other than making sure the open rate on the email was going to be high, was his explanation? Surely, just making sure lots of people would read it couldn’t be his only justification?

So I wrote him a friendly email and asked him – after thanking him for the lessons and making sure it was clear there was no criticism implied at all – what his reasoning was for ‘such a negative outreach’.

A few days later, his assistant Tracy wrote back and thanked me for taking the time, and said that they took note and would be ‘mulling over’ what I had written.

Fair enough, and appreciated. Still, I wanted Clay’s opinion, so I replied and asked – again, friendly – if she would ask him. I don’t think he ever was asked or shown the email because he never got back to me. Fair enough.

A few days later he sent another email to his list, asking us to take a few minutes to give him feedback about his work, so I did. And of course I included my question again. Another of his assistants replied to the question, and didn’t answer it. And I can imagine, it’s a tricky question to answer.

Then I tried to DM him on twitter, but he doesn’t follow me, so that didn’t work.

But I would really like to know. Not that he owes me an answer, but I can ask, can’t I? So here it is:

Dear Clay,

That ‘hater’ email you sent me: why was that? For me personally, using that subject header was too strong and too negative. For one thing, the psychology of it really isn’t my thing, but it’s also kind of like swearing in my inbox, so to speak.

Aside from that, isn’t it a bit of an easy trick? I mean: Come on, it’s like a buff rich sporty dude in a convertible making a pass at a younger, impressionable woman: There’s nothing really wrong with it as such, and it’ll probably work, but it’s kind of easy, isn’t it?

Teach me man. Please explain what that was about, if you have the time.

Your reaction?



So there you have it. I hope the guy’s got a sense of humour :)


  1. Martin,
    This question reminds me to be aware that words matter and how we choose to use them – the voice we use online – matters. I hope Clay answers!
    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  2. Hey Phyllis!

    Words matter a LOT, and I just love working with that notion. I too hope Clay answers, but I have my doubts :D

  3. Martin! I LOVE this post. Great discussion here. Thanks for taking the time to write this excellent post.

    After thoroughly reading your post, this is the only real question I see from you.

    You write: –> “That ‘hater’ email you sent me: why was that?”

    I general, I very much respect your writing and think you’re an incredibly intelligent person . . . but this seems like an underdeveloped question.

    It’s akin to me writing something like “Hey Martin . . . this blog post: why is it?”

    I think you get my point :-)

    Anyway, I want to do my very best to answer your question. And while you do an excellent job explaining the context and the back story, it’s difficult to tell EXACTLY what your question is.

    I want to ensure that, when I do answer your question, that I’m really answering your question. And not just what I THINK is your question.

    So if you develop your question beyond “That ‘hater’ email you sent me: why was that?” and “your reaction?” then I’ll do my very best job to thoroughly answer it.

    Again, I think you did a great job explaining the context and backstory behind your question, but I’m still not yet sure EXACTLY what your question is.

    In closing, I love your work and am thankful and grateful that you wrote this excellent post.

    Warm regards,

  4. So just to explain further, I understand WHY you asked your question. And I understand what brought you to ask the question. But I am not yet sure exactly what your question IS.

    Thanks again for writing this excellent blog, Martin. And for all the great things you do for the marketing community. You’re a great person.

    Warm regards,

  5. Hi Clay!

    Thank you millions for taking the time, and for the kind words! I really appreciate it.

    Ok, you’re completely right about the question I asked, not really being much of a question. I wanted to avoid criticism to such a degree that I ended up breaking the actual question.

    So allow me to rephrase that. If ethics and right practices are important to you, it seems discordant to me to use this subject header. How do you justify this strategy in the context of ethical marketing. Is it, in fact, ethical?

  6. Again, I THINK I know what your question is, but as you say, words are incredibly important, and I want to make sure that I answer your question correctly. So, before I answer your question, I still want to know exactly what your question is.

    So your question is –> “How do you justify this strategy in the context of ethical marketing. Is it, in fact, ethical?”

    But . . . in your entire article, you never ever tell me what you think my strategy is? You refer to “this strategy.” Can you tell me what you think my strategy *is* so I can tell you whether or not I think it’s ethical?

    I’m not trying to split hairs, but I think in any discussion, it’s important to know what we’re really talking about before we actually talk about it.

    And again, I love this discussion. And thank you for posing this question.

    Warm and kind regards,

  7. Actually, while you’re at it, Martin, could you also define “ethical”, “marketing”, and “fact”? Also, perhaps “avoiding the question”?

  8. Well, I’m not much of a debater, so this is a format I’m grappling with but yes, the question is as I put it, and as you repeated it.

    The strategy is to use a known negative linguistic aggravator to get a result.

  9. Well I love you both guys, for using huge amounts of energy in order to come to a positive resolution/clarification : )

    Well, I think it would have been way more secure to use ‘I was a h****’ (preferred in small caps) or simply ‘I am no longer a h****’

    Or way way better: either: Social Media H**** (small caps), or: No Longer A Social Media H****

    Or any copywritten tittle that could pull just as much response without sounding… that accusating, maybe? : )

    My quick near-off-topic comment (found an excuse to escape from current task, lol) on a very important question : )

    Take it easy guys, you both rock!


  10. Martin, I apologize if the subject line “hater” created a negative emotional experience for you. The subject line was simply meant to connect with the body of the email message, which is about how I’ve been called a social media hater. A better subject line would have been “I’ve been called a hater.” It wasn’t meant to accuse you or any a hater. I apologize if this hurt you or made you sad or created a negative experience. So far, from what I can tell, you’ve written multiple emails to my support team about this one-word subject line, and written an enter blog post about it . . . so it obviously had long term negative effects. I am sorry that you had a “mild, panic-inspired feeling swept through you” and that you were confused. Please accept my sincerest and deepest apologies for your confusion.

    Warm regards,

  11. Hi clay,

    The apology is appreciated but really wasn’t necessary.

    Beyond a short moment of: ‘Is he calling me a hater???’ I had no real emotional reaction to it, and certainly not of upset in any way.

    It had no negative effects at all, not short term or long term (though I’ll confirm that in ten years from now :)

    It seemed only natural to write you and ask: ‘What’s up with that’ and it was obvious that Tracy either didn’t show you the email, or that you didn’t want to or couldn’t go into it.

    Then chance stepped in: I received that request for feedback from you a few days later, so hey, why not ask again? Not because I wanted to nag per se, but because I really wanted to hear your take on it.

    When that didn’t work, I thought: ‘How can I get Clay himself to notice? You know what, I’ll just write a blog post about it.’ I apologise if it seems I was pestering you :)

    It is interesting that you say a better subject line would have been: ‘I’ve been called a social media hater’. The difference with that would be that there is no chance the reader would – as I wrongly did – apply it to himself.

    I agree that this would be better, though I readily admit that ‘good’; ‘better’; ‘ethics’; or ‘right’ are all very difficult to define, if it is at all possible.

    That is also why I started this conversation with you. I’m always asking myself: ‘What actually is right? What is ethical practice?’ I feel that the main redeeming factor of my blog and my work in general is in asking the questions and making people think, having conversations.

    So I want to thank you sincerely for taking the time, and for participating in this conversation.

    Cheers, & keep up the good work!


  12. It’s interesting to think about what constitutes ethical behaviour because it’s _so_ personal – for instance, I’d never consider crossing a picket line, while someone else might think that’s lefty bullshit. Fair enough. As a definition, ethical marketing is almost useless, as it just means ‘marketing in line with what I believe to be ok’.

    I’m still scratching my head about Clay’s response, though. He’s a very smart marketer, and I don’t believe he picks his subject lines haphazardly; a subject line like ‘Hater’ is bound to get a high open rate. Claiming it was an innocent attempt to link to the subject matter is a bit disingenuous – I mean, I’ve been called an ‘inconsiderate asshole’ many times, but I’m pretty unlikely to use that as a subject line to any list, even if it was linked to a story about the inconsiderate asshole behaviour that led to it.

    The question is, where do you draw the line? I don’t think anyone would object to something like “Incredible offer that’s perfect for you!” even if the offer was completely credible and imperfect for them, although strictly speaking that would be a misleading headline.

    When it comes down to it, ‘to market ethically’ is just an irregular verb that conjugates as: I market ethically; you cross the line once in a while; he has been prosecuted for violating the FTC guidelines.

  13. You make a very good point, Colin. My opinion is that there is no universally true definition of ethics. It is, indeed, a matter of personal values and opinions.

    So there’s this big grey area, right? On one side, there are things that are clearly ‘wrong’ by consensus, and things that are ‘right’ by the same definition. Inbetween, stuff slides, scales, and is open to all kinds of opinion and justification.

    It may seem like I just want to ask pesky questions, but in reality I just want to ask pesky questions, because I believe that it is useful, healthy and necessary to ask and to think about things – especially if they aren’t clearly definable.

  14. To Colin; I am not sure Clay was being disingenuous in his apology to Martin. It sounded as if he realy was sorry about the negative emotions his subject line caused to surface and that was the point of his apology in my opinion.

    As Martin so correctly pointed out; when I also got the email the first question that came to my mind was “Is he calling me a hater?” and I don’t even know this guy really.
    I can definitely understand the reaction from that perspective.

    On “ethical marketing” that could be a never ending debate there, but we all have some semblance on decency about us. While we have the FCC and other regulatory bodies our gut usually is a great indicator for if and when we are going to far off the path.

  15. It’s tricky. Really very very tricky. Ethics, morality, honesty, truth… all such concepts are completely personal and well-nigh impossible to define objectively. Centuries of heated debate by brains much bigger than mine attest to that.

    I guess that is what I intended though: to have a discussion and exchange ideas. I’m really glad that Clay showed up to share his take on things.

  16. You addressed a couple of important issues; (1) what is the cost of writing hype, non-authentic headlines just to get a higher open rate and (2) what is an appropriate response to marketing that doesn’t resonate? I’m not sure I can answer the first part but I’d like to discuss the later. I had a similar experience a few months ago. Someone I respected sent an email with a negative headline (and it didn’t jive with her business voice). I sent an email asking for an explanation. In my case, the marketer wrote back immediately and she addressed my question head on.

    I think you arrived at the real answer you were looking for. Is Clay someone you want to learn from? Does he resonate with you? Does he take time to address a personal email from a subscriber? His information might be good, but you can get information from anyone.

    Thanks for posting this and bringing the question up for discussion.

  17. Hey Tami,

    Basically, I want to learn from anyone who’s got something that I don’t know or understand yet. So yeah, I’m learning from Clay, sure enough.

    That said, of course you can get information from all kinds of sources. I don’t really care where it comes from as long as they know what they’re talking about, and they’re not offending me (which, I repeat, Clay didn’t in any way).

    It was an interesting experiment, this. Thanks for joining in the discussion :)

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