Generate 100,000 leads per day for free. Guaranteed!

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I am going to share the story of an accidental discovery with you. It is guaranteed to do what the subject line promises. Let’s put aside the ethical implications for now, and I will tell you what happened.

Our company handles a direct-marketing TV campaign for a large SA insurer. You’ve all probably seen those insurance ads where you have to dial a short code (i.e. *120*XYZ#) to get an agent to call you if you’re interested in the product. We’re responsible for the magic between the client dialling that number, that number getting scored at the credit bureau, and the call centre agent calling you a few seconds later already knowing whether you can afford the product or not (yeah, there’s a reason I said ‘magic’ J). On an average month, we handle around 40 000 leads, approximately 1,300 leads per calendar day, which we can see on a real-time dashboard.

Two weeks ago something very, very, very odd happened. We walked in on Monday morning and saw over 200,000 leads had come in over the weekend. Yes, that’s 200,000 in 2 days. Now there are two types of people in this world – the types who start submitting entries to Loerie for a stellar TV advertising campaign, and the analytical types (like us) that take one look at this and call bulls*it. You simply don’t go from an average of 1,300 to 100,000 overnight. Heck, there are only 86,400 seconds in a day, so we’re talking more than 1 lead a second!

Incredulous much? Absolutely!

And so the investigation began.

Our first question was: Are there really 200,000 new leads in the database, i.e. distinct people, with distinct mobile numbers, that responded using our client’s short code, this weekend?

The short answer was yes. Bar some duplicates, there were over 190,000 distinct new mobile numbers that came in over the weekend that we’d never seen before. And for good measure, the weekend phenomenon hadn’t yet stopped – leads were still streaming in at a lead per second on the Monday.

This lead us to our second question: Is this a cellular network glitch sending us responses from all/other short codes, and not just the one displayed on our clients advert?

After many phone calls & providing examples, the networks confirmed that the responses originated on the client’s short code and that there were no issues on their end – so once again, pointing to real people, actually dialling the code.

At this point, it was two hours later and we still hadn’t progressed passed the “What the heck is going on?” phase. So we took a cue from Sherlock (“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”) and concluded that there were no glitches in the matrix. This meant that the leads were real people, really responding to our client’s short code. But why were they responding?

It was time to get back to basics – we took a sample of 20 phone numbers & simply called them to find out if they actually dialled the code. We were halfway through the list and everyone so far denied responding to the short code. We also noticed that we are getting quite a few students – not really the ad’s target market.

Ok, so maybe Sherlock lied? Or maybe “Stage 1: Denial” is at work here?

So we changed the question… “I noticed you dialled *123*XYZ# which is a response code for [Brand-Product] – why did you dial the code?” The first two people seem to suffer from memory loss, but then we hit gold from the third; “I received a WhatsApp broadcast to dial this code for 500Mb FREE mobile DATA”

I jumped onto Facebook and Twitter and searched for the client’s short code – instantly I was hit with hundreds of results.

There it was. The promise of free mobile data, via a hoax Facebook post early Saturday morning, was responsible for the generation of 200,000 leads over the weekend. Now if you’re a sneaky marketer wanting to build a cellphone database on the cheap, this is an easy way to do it. Alternatively, if you want to mess up your competitors call centre by sending 200,000 nonsense leads to it, look no further. (Warning: Don’t! Prison isn’t a fun place.)

The bottom line is that with anything, there are risks. This is an example of a risk all South African direct marketers face. The question is whether they have enough preventative and reactive controls to spot and deal with such an issue. As a company, we’ve definitely learnt a few tricks from this episode that we’ve implemented into our systems. We know they work because we got hit again two weeks later and we stopped it before it caused any issues.

Hopefully this article makes you think about what you could do on your own direct-marketing platforms to deal with a similar situation.