What is Bait and Switch Marketing and Are You Using It Unknowingly?

bait and switch marketing

Most small business owners know that bait and switch marketing (bait and switch anything, really) is wrong and unethical.

But sometimes marketers fall into this trap without even realizing it.

Whether you’re doing it on purpose or not, you have to know how it works and why it matters in order to start making moves in the right direction. Consumers are getting smarter, and while these tactics may have worked in the past, the Internet has been around long enough that the average consumer knows what a bait and switch looks like. It’s easy to see on the receiving end of the campaign, but those on the marketing side could miss it.

How Bait and Switch Marketing Works

Bait and switch marketing means that a company would advertise a product or a service at a low price, and then when the customer goes to buy that product or service it’s either out of stock or not available. Now that the company has the customer in their store or on their website, they’ll try to sell that person something else that is priced higher. In this case, the bait was the low price item, which was switched for something at a higher price.

This type of marketing can actually be illegal in some cases (it can be called false advertising), but sometimes companies won’t get in trouble because they’ll pull one of two little tricks:

They put a very small disclaimer at the bottom of the ad that stats there is a limited quantity available of that particular good/service. This covers the company’s bases so they can’t get in trouble because they just had to sell you something more expensive.

They do have the good/service in stock but they still try to sell you something more expensive that’s similar.

There is nothing wrong with “baiting” your customers, however. The only thing wrong with this method is that you’re making the switch. There is also a phrased called “bait and give” where a company may ask for an email address. This is still allowed because you’re not switching anything, you’re just asking for a little bit of information.

Common Bait and Switch Marketing Accidents

As discussed above, sometimes companies might be doing this without even knowing it. The examples above are pretty obvious, but consider some of the methods that might not be so obvious (especially to those new to marketing):

You use a competitor’s name to boost traffic to a product.

This tactic is all about your wording. If you word your campaign in a way that makes it sound like you’re selling something you’re not (something popular that your competitor sells, perhaps), then you’re tricking consumers. You’re allowed to compare your product with your competitor’s product, but it has to be natural.

For example, if you sell shoes and use the terminology “just like the red bottom shoes,” but you don’t actually sell the Christian Louboutin shoes, you’re misleading consumers who will probably click on your link because they were confused.

You use irrelevant keywords as part of an SEO bait and switch.

The whole idea behind keyword research is that you see what keywords are related to your business and where there isn’t much competition, then you optimize for those keywords in order to get targeted traffic. If you’re doing an SEO bait and switch, it means you’re trying to rank for terms that might have nothing to do with your business, but rather they’re just easy to rank for because there isn’t much competition. Your traffic wouldn’t be nearly as targeted, but some marketers don’t care and just want the exposure.

If this describes your company, realize that while visibility is a good thing, it won’t mean much if your site is being viewed by people who don’t convert. It’s also important to remember that each time someone clicks on your ad online, you are paying for that. This is considered a black hat tactic in the SEO world, so I would avoid it at all costs.

The Takeaway

In the end, it’s incredibly important to build trust. You don’t want any of your customers to think that you’re trying to trick them, and now that online reviews are so prominent a mistake like this could be incredibly costly. Go back and look at your marketing campaigns to double-check you’re not using this approach unknowingly, and talk with your marketing team so that you’re all on the same page.

Are you familiar with bait and switch marketing? Have you had any personal experiences, either as a consumer or a company owner? Let us know your story and your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: Alan Cleaver / Creative Commons License