Enter clickbait here

Yesterday I talked about how the truth matters in email marketing. But that’s not the only place the truth matters.
Today I found myself in a bit of a … discussion on Facebook. It ended up being a lesson in why you should never trust the clickbait headline. I also realized there are parallels with email best practices and how we share them with people.

The Facebook discussion

wineglass_smallOne of my friends linked to a USA Today article with the headline CDC: Young women should avoid alcohol unless using birth control. There was some complaining about how wrong / annoying / bad / anti-feminist these recommendations were.
The thing is, in my scientific career I actually worked in two labs that left me with strong opinions about these specific CDC recommendations.. My very first lab job was at the FDA and gave me a solid background in public health. After grad school I moved to a lab studying fetal alcohol syndrome. We were looking at extremely early exposure (equivalent to 3 – 4 weeks post conception in humans) to a single dose of alcohol. It was some really interesting work that also had significant public health implications.
So when people start discussing public health recommendations, particularly in the area of in utero alcohol exposure, I have some opinions. The Facebook argument centered around how these recommendations don’t take into account the specific situations for each individual woman. There was also some concern about how this might be another attempt to police women’s behavior. These aren’t unreasonable concerns in the current political climate, but in this case the recommendations have real science behind them.
I jumped in and started pointing out the science. I argued that this isn’t necessarily a bad public health recommendation. I didn’t even get into why public health recommendations are generally not nuanced. I didn’t even bother to really read the USA Today article. I skimmed it to find a link to the actual CDC recommendations and see if the article actually quoted the CDC as saying what was in the headline.
Surprise! (not) The article didn’t support the headline. They didn’t have any quote from anyone at the CDC saying what the headline claimed. They didn’t even bother linking to the CDC website. But that’s OK, I could find it anyway.
It wasn’t until I was 2 or 3 posts into the discussion that I realized I was arguing about a USA Today headline. The problem was the headline, not the CDC recommendations. I’m not defending USA Today, the headline was total clickbait. But I also wasn’t putting any stock in the content of the USA Today article. That was fluffy non-scientific reporting and wasn’t relevant.
Once I posted the actual CDC recommendations everyone backed off on the fight. We were arguing about a non-issue. The actual CDC recommendation is that doctors should “Recommend birth control to women who are having sex (if appropriate), not planning to get pregnant, and drinking alcohol.” Well, yes, they should. No one is forcing birth control on women, in fact the CDC recommendations make it clear that women have the final choice and responsibility.

Email? Huh?

hands-typing-4How does this relate to email? Best practices are a lot like public health recommendations. They address the common situation and give general guidelines. Some recommendations are for the general public, some are for professionals and some are for experts.
In public health there tends to be one set of recommendations for health professionals (doctors, physicians assistants, pharmacists, nurses, etc) and another set of recommendations for individual people. These address different sets of knowledge, but also different areas of responsibility. Health professionals should be concerned about all their patients, the individual only needs to be concerned about a smaller group.
In email, some recommendations are geared for the general audience, others are geared towards the professionals who will be offering guidance to the general audience. The volume and complexity of information is different, but the knowledge bases are different. For example, some people know what a 5321.from is, others need it explained in different language. It does mean, too, you might hear different recommendations from me depending on what audience I’m with. The things I tell my colleagues at M3AAWG are different than the things I tell my colleagues at an ESP user conference and those are both different than what I talk about to a general audience.
I don’t think that’s bad or wrong. If I can’t speak to my audience I’m wasting everyone’s time.


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