To Poach or Not to Poach? The Ethics of Marketing to Competitors’ Customers

Derek Halpern has a new post that provides some good food for thought: is it ethically acceptable to pitch to a rival’s clients? His conclusion: it’s not black and white, but why cross a grey line when you’re better off finding entirely new customers?

Put those gloves back on, ladies and gentlemen.

I asked them how they’d feel if I went down their client list, and messaged each of them. Both of them said they wouldn’t like it. Naturally.

Oh tech people.

They notoriously HATE marketing and selling. And they’ll slam people who try to grow their business…

…but then we look at their actions. Behind closed doors, when nobody is looking, they’re marketing and selling in the worst way possible.

I’m me. I LOVE competition. I grew up playing chess, had a stint as a professional gamer, and nothing makes me happier than beating someone who’s trying to beat me.

But this has got to stop.

Not because it’s slimy. Not because it’s border-line unethical. It has to stop because this is a HORRIBLE way to win business.

Is it? Is it slimy? Is is borderline unethical? (And what does that mean–almost bad or almost good?) Is it a horrible way to win business?

I’ve been following Derek’s blog for a while now: I love his ideas, consider him one of my mentors, and hardly ever comment on his posts because I’m too busy nodding in silent agreement. But besides being an introverted admirer, I’m also passionate about things like ethics and social justice. When it comes to business practices, “borderline (un)ethical” doesn’t cut it.

So I thought about it, and most of what I thought, I also posted as a comment on the blog post. Here it is with some differences.

“I don’t like it” is Not a Marketing Strategy

“Slimy” is an expression of personal disgust, not a strategy breakdown. “Horrible” is a subjective perception, not an objective assessment.

The objective assessment: unless you know exactly who to approach (the visibly unhappy, the barely interested), pitching to your rival’s clients runs a significant risk of being futile from the get-go. As a marketing strategy, it is ineffective. Not morally reprehensible. Not horrible. Not always useless. Just far more trouble than it may be worth.

You’re not going to get very far if you don’t focus on growing your own little garden of goodwill. But short of a mudslinging campaign (unless it’s a battle of the brands done right, with humor), underhanded viciousness (see also: buying toxic backlinks to mess up a competitor’s site), or outright lies and slander, I don’t see what’s unethical about scoping out your competitor’s lawn.

More Freedom, Fewer Gag Orders

If it’s not illegal, not malicious, not slanderous, not based on falsehood, and not even occasion-inappropriate (like telling somebody to sign up on on your job site after they just quit another one) then how is that message unethical? Since when did good business become all about coloring within ‘grey lines’?

Sure, pitching to another company’s clients may not win you friends (and that’s something you need to think about) but here’s the thing: Derek is right when he says tech people don’t ‘get’ marketing or selling. Because those guys are wrong–not when they go after his customers, but when they feel upset at the thought of him doing the same to them. That’s not how it works–you don’t grow by limiting the messages your customers receive, you grow by beating those messages with a better one. Monopolies aren’t fair to anyone, not even you in the long run.

My job as an entrepreneur is to make something that makes people’s lives better. My job as a marketer is to create value, not control what people say about it and to whom.
There are lawyers for that.

Every Time You Lose a Customer, Everybody Wins. Including You.

No, seriously.

Somebody on the post pointed out that they offer pain relief through massage therapy and that other massage clinics are not viewed as competitors. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason why doctors and teachers don’t generally view other healthcare and education professionals as “competitors” in the traditional sense even if that’s exactly what they are: the bottom line is the welfare of the client. This is naturally more accentuated in some industries than others.

But here’s the thing: that’s exactly why competition is necessary.

The idea of client loyalty being something that must be earned and maintained is exactly what drives many of the best of us, but it doesn’t work if every company stakes out their patch of earth that nobody else is allowed to trespass on–and here’s the key part–by virtue of it already belonging to them. No. Just no.

There’s no grey line here: the people who love your service are NOT going to be swayed one bit by this approach, and Derek is absolutely right that if a marketer doesn’t realize when they’re barking up the wrong tree then they need to stop. (And preferably get another job.) If anything, this will only make those clients even more loyal to you because they’ll have consciously put themselves in your corner when propositioned to betray you. (Just spend two minutes watching a political or religious debate and see the power of cognitive bias in all its reinforced beauty.) Honestly, thank those competitors for that; you couldn’t have done it without them!

BUT then there ARE people who might be swayed. These are the people who weren’t happy with what you had to offer, for whom your service was not such a great fit. So what does that mean? It means somebody found a service they are (or think they will be) happier with, you got rid of an unhappy or unmotivated client, and the country’s economy is better off for it on the whole.

It’s a lot like romantic relationships, I suppose: if you love someone, let them go–if they don’t come back, they were never yours. You may or may not expect out of courtesy that people won’t hit on your partner, but even if they do–your relationship is only as committed as your partner’s decision to flirt back. That commitment is what makes the difference to your future together, not other people’s interest or lack thereof.

Because really. They’re people, not eggs.

This or That: “Valuable Content Marketing” vs “Blog, Podcast, Google, Sell”

My parents are successful doctors who worked their way up on the basis of–here comes that golden word–merit. For 22 years of my life, the only “real” job was in Medicine or its orbit. (Here’s looking at you, Dentistry!) Everything else existed in gradations of its similarity to Medicine and Business in particular was a mysterious realm on the fringe of reality, possibly inhabited by dubious characters who moved around money not unlike turning fistfuls of sand into towering mountains. In other words, no good could possibly come out of such sorcery and it would be best to stay as far away from it as my salt o’ the earth breeding could carry me.


Fast forward to 2014, and here I am. A former dental student, freelancing online as a content manager, SMM, SEO monkey, marketer, webmaster–whatever you throw at me. And writing (or hoping to write) on the side. I am in that shadowy place. And I’m staying.

But old habits die hard. Having been raised to believe you must read a LOT of books and pass a LOT of exams before you can even begin to call yourself competent, let alone practice, the Barefoot Bookworm found herself perpetually racked by guilt on account of I HAVEN’T STUDIED THIS SH*T. This coupled with bibliophilia and nerdy genes perfectly explains the buying spree I went on wherein I ended up with a number of books to give myself a crash course in everything I ought to know to do my job. Knowing full well other people either attend 4-6 years of undergrad school + internships or spend years in apprenticeship or both. (Refusing to let that intimidate me–I know my own drive and intelligence well enough.)

The good thing is, I can now say which books were rubbish and which weren’t. I spent my money so you don’t have to. Presenting, my first book smackdown:



Title: Subtitle

Valuable Content Marketing:
How to Make Quality Content the Key to Your Business Success
Blog, Podcast, Google, Sell:
The Complete Guide to Making Online Profit


Sonja Jefferson;
Sharon Tanton
Cresta Norris


Kogan Page Kogan Page


2013 (probably reprint) 2012; Indian


234; Paperback 170; Paperback

Price (in PKR; may vary)

Rs. 995 -20% online discount Rs. 595 -20% online discount


Readings Pakistan Readings Pakistan

Currently in Stock?

Yes No


Both books target the same audience: mainly businesspeople, particularly DIYers and those with small businesses. A broad adjunct aim is to be a good stepping stone for fledgling digital marketers, with a focus on content marketing. Pages aren’t littered with jargon and abbreviations aren’t casually thrown around: the aim of the authors is NOT to make themselves sound smart but to pass on what they genuinely believe you should know. So far so good

Valuable Content Marketing is organized well and each chapter is rounded out with quotes, tips, bullets, examples plus the hows-and-whys of content marketing. The language flows along smoothly and never gets too dense, while still managing to convey information most professionals would appreciate. There’s a lot of solid advice here despite the fact this was written somewhere in 2012, and a number of best practices. The book is unapologetic in its approach and you can expect a few dearly held assumptions to be ripped apart. The book quotes a number of digital marketing notables, asking their advice and adding value to material you wouldn’t find online unless you devoted months to trawling archives, reading newsletters, infographics, case studies and whatever made-for-professionals material you could get your hands on just so your feet could hit the ground running. (Like I did. But the letters “ROI” still give me sleepless nights.)

My advice to someone else starting out now? Save yourself the time. Get a good, comprehensive book. (Then keep learning unless you want to be a digital marketer for exactly 2 months.)

Blog, Podcast, Google… is not much different in terms of organization but it is more condensed, with several different things collected according to the stage when you need to focus on them during the process of establishing your online business. This makes it easier to read as an action plan for the uninitiated.  The text seems crammed on to the pages at times, but the author makes an effort to keep it as simple as possible. She also includes tables, checklists, the whole shebang and a LOT of in-depth case studies–with a special focus on small (sometimes very small) businesses. For example, there’s a heartening one about the woman who sells mulch (and worms) and found success by tapping into her niche audience. Unfortunately, for the great number of companies that don’t sell crap (at least they say they don’t ;P ) and don’t have the advantage of a sharply defined niche plus low competition, this doesn’t really help much.


Valuable Content Marketing is written by two authors, one of whom runs a digital marketing enterprise geared towards serving professional firms; the other is a copywriter with cross-platform content/communications production experience and, as the blurb says, “a background in telling stories”. Blog, Podcast, Google is written by an online marketer who has mainly content production experience with the BBC. The difference shows.

Blog, Podcast, Google provides nothing you wouldn’t be able to find online for free. It’s also, understandably, guilty of oversimplification. I love websites but it’s 2014: you DON’T have to devote entire sections to explaining what they are or that you can use them for business. I already know I can use the Internet for business–that’s why I bought the book, right? Additionally, a number of statements the author makes are not quite true in practice: I wish visitors always landed on the home page first, but the way the Internet works, they’re more likely to hit whatever random page Google deemed good enough or got a couple of hundred shares. This can increase or decrease depending on the nature of your business/online presence but unless you’re a household name, you have to make sure all your pages are independently optimized to coax visitors further along your sales funnel. THAT is why you need to drop the idea that the homepage is where your visitors start from, unless you want people clicking away before they even reach it.


Get this:-

Click to Visit the Authors’ Website

Either way, Kogan Page makes money. But you come away with a guide to the big bad world of content marketing that you can use as a base for years to come.