Approaching thousands of a competitor's customers/users - is it ethically challenged behavior?

I’ve found out that as part of their service offering a competitor tweets information to their users via a public account. So I could create a >10,000 user trove of their customers’ twitter handles. With that I could promote my product to them, promote surveys, and ask questions them directly.

On the one hand it seems super useful and the other like I’m digging through their garbage stealing contact info.

Does anyone have any experience or advice for this kind of thing?

If you have to ask strangers in a forum whether something is ethically ok. It isn’t. I’m calling this Brice’s law. ;0)


I think its a good law.

Snark aside they did publish the info on a public forum and advertise that they were/are doing it.

That’s not the point, the point is that you’re then going to spam those people. It’s not about the company who tweeted it’s about you then contacted those people. If you spam that many I imagine you might get blocked by twitter as well.

I do think you could think a bit more outside the box and perhaps do something useful with the data. Map their industries and sizes, use a service to map what those people tweet about a lot and what their interests are. That would be ok to me, but just coming behind the other company and tweeting all their customers doesn’t sound like the way to go.


I think the only thing thats fair from a ‘their users’ perspective is to reach out to the competitor and recommend they make that account private, use DMs, and then me not do anything with the user data.

Andy - Re: asking strangers ethical questions - here’s 15yrs of weekly NY Times ‘The Ethicist’ columns: Though I recognize the difference between professional column and a random forum somewhere.

I do think there is value to asking and answering these types of questions here. Does anyone disagree?

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

The fact that you are asking us I take to mean that you think its borderline behaviour. In such cases it is probably best to err on the ‘right’ side and not do it. As a business, your reputation is one of the most important things you have.

Also, if the roles were reversed, how would you feel about someone crawling over you to message all your hard won customers?

As a customer, how would you feel about being spammed by a competitor?

It is fine to ask the question. The fact that you are even asking it means that you aren’t one of the bad guys. But I think the fact you have to even ask ‘is it ethical’ gives you the answer.

BTW I’m not claiming to be perfect myself. I’ve done a few borderline things myself, e.g. scraping hotels addresses off a website and snail mailing them. In my experience, these borderline activities very rarely work. The conversion rates for email spam are so low that you have to send millions, to even get a handful of sales. When the last time you purchased something following an unsolicted tweet/email/letter?

Twitter ads let you target the followers of other users…no scraping required.

If you’re running an ad and offering the user something of value…a relevant blog post, an ebook (that gets them on your mailing list), then you’ll be doing better than most twitter advertisers.

If you’re just going to be like “hey @user check out mah product”, that’s spam.


I think the answer for most ethical question relates on how the user will feel in the end with some limitations. For example, if you are going to a private party and you are telling people that you throw better parties, cheaper prices and more fun…and you also give them a flyer or something. It may sound like you are spamming the “hard earned” customers of the one that throw that party. If they go to your party and they are having more fun and they come to you thanking you for telling them about it how would you feel?

Spamming is sending something to someone who didn’t asked for it, however, if the user finds is valuable is debatable if is spam or not since you are giving value and perceived as something valuable. The problem is that do you know how much value are you sending? For the ones that doesn’t find it valuable it may be perceived as spam.

After going to lots of Startup meetups, I found that most guys in the startup communities are or want to look like “extremely ethical”, especially the founders from the tech side. Those guys even think that sales guys are some kind of spammers(some of them really are), but if you are bringing everything down rationally, spamming can be even the ads on a website or TV since I’m not asking for them.

I also found that marketing guys are more “open” or “ballsy” at promoting products than tech guys. That’s why it’s good to have a co-founder with marketing/sales experience, being too ethical when you shouldn’t it will hurt you more than help. If I’m going to the bordeline actions side, I don’t think there are any successful startups which haven’t done something borderline, they are just better at hiding it.

Anyway, asking a question like this on a public startups forum most of the answers would be to not do it, if you ask on a marketing/sales forum most of them would say it’s ok if you do it moderately/don’t cross the line. A lot of these ethical stuff has a lot to do on how you’ll feel rather than if it’s spamming or not since spamming can be subjective. I think for most people, sales calls are spamming( I’m really pissed off when someone is calling and trying to sell me through the phone some crap) but it doesn’t mean that it stops them… so many companies do it anyway.

Do what makes you feel the best.

They are careful to say that you can’t show promoted tweets to a particular twitter handle. But only to followers of ‘similar’ handles. This is presumably to get around the accusation that Twitter are crawling over you to sell ads direct to your followers. In reality it probably doesn’t make much difference though.

This sounds like a great use case for Followgen, which Twitter shut down. Basically, you manually favorite tweets from the accounts on this list, several a day, over time.

Personally, I think that’s a harmless way of introducing your service to these people. But Twitter shut Followgen down b/c they don’t agree, and they make the rules.

You could wire up your own means of doing this. Should you? That’s your call.

Hadn’t come across Followgen, but I saw and mentioned a couple of days ago, which sound very similar.

If we switch the channel from Twitter to telephone, I think this question is easier to answer. If I’m DirecTV and I know that the local area all has cable TV contacting them via a phone number and address I found in the phone book doesn’t seem like an issue to me. In this case the Twitter accounts are public, not private, and if you tweeted them individually then its like a cold call. It all comes down to what your message is. If you’re reaching out to them as an individual rather than a non-targeted blanket marketing attempt at this broad segment of customers, then that’s a normal sales tactic. To me, something spammy would be tweeting all of them at the same time, like a robo-call, or using something boilerplate and repeating the same thing for every prospect.

On the question of using the data to your advantage - they setup this channel in public, they put the data out there in the open. Is it unethical to use that public data to your advantage? I don’t think so. You didn’t steal it, you did some research and built a list. Mark Cuban did the same thing when he was selling newspaper subscriptions at his first job. He found that newlyweds were very receptive to purchasing newspapers subscriptions, so he regularly went down the the courthouse and got a list of the previous month’s marriage records - all public data. At the end of the day its going to come down to who has the better product or better perceived value. But the way you use the data and how you approach these prospects will decide whether you’re reaching out to them respectfully or being an unwanted solicitor.

As far as the self-check of “having to ask strangers in a forum” - isn’t the point of this forum to bring people together and discuss issues relevant to bootstrapping a business? Connecting people in this way should help establish that we’re not strangers to each other. The truth of this is that not everyone here is experienced in business, sales, marketing, etc. So there are lots of questions that someone who’s been running their own business for a decade will be able to answer based on experience, but the first-time entrepreneur is unsure of. You can’t expect to help people if your answer to their question is - “if you have to ask strangers in a forum…” There are some things that on the surface may seem odd or questionable to the inexperienced, but in the business or sales worlds are common practices. Answering the question and confirming that something isn’t ethical may be the exact guidance that someone needs. And on the other hand, helping them gain a better viewpoint of different sales or marketing tactics may give them the information they needed to let them come to their own conclusion - whatever that may be.

I wouldn’t call spamming targeting an audience known to have interest in tools similar to yours, per se.

The collecting of contact information without an explicit permission is what makes me frown. If the very same list was collected by some other means, e.g. if competitors’ customers signed up for a mailing list, there wouldn’t be anything unethical in emailing them, even repeatedly.

The gift is too rich to let it go. One just must use the provided information somehow… may I suggest, instead of mass-mailing, to select a few of the most active/most useful users among those @ handles, read their tweets, blogs, whatnot? Learn them and may be contact them personally when you believe you can provide something of value to that particular user. It is not as quick, but it may help to understand real customers (though not yours yet) better and adjust the product/copy to their needs.

Right, well if the question is is it ethical then I’d continue to say no. Your example of blanket calling everyone in the phone book is just as unethical. Every single person in the world hates those phone calls. Maybe it’s not illegal, but it’s certainly not ethical.

And just because you individually click a button in some “cold emailing” automation tool to send the same email to 10,000 people and that lets you skirt the spam laws doesn’t make it ethical either, it just means it’s not illegal. Let’s not pretend those are personal emails where the sales person really looked into you and saw if you were a good fit, it’s still just spam.

This relates to our latest podcast actually, @andrey thinks I’m being too cynical about the current state of startups. I offer this thread as evidence to the contrary.

We agree on “cold emailing”, that’s spam whether a law says it or not. My point was that the execution here matters. If you’re going to try and approach all of these people at the same time with a blanket statement then you’re being sleazy and you’re not representing your product well. If you want to target someone, reach out to them personally, if anything.

I look back to your original quote - I guess it’s not coming across, but agree with this.

I’m not sure what you mean here. Most everyone here is in agreement that a personal approach to a prospect is the right way to go and that data mining and bulk contacting these people is not wise or reputable.

I really like listening to you guys, I’m glad that you share your experiences and opinions and I respect them. That may not come across in text, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I think the unfortunate recent arrival of people looking to use the forum as a marketing channel has added a new lens with which to view the members. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s easy to judge someone on a single post or answer(which may not be communicated well) and shove them into a bucket of undesirables. I wish there was a better way to judge someone not based solely on a dissenting opinion - the only way is probably based on time and contribution to the group.

In my 9 years of so of contributing to forums such as this one and BOS, whenever someone asks “Is it ethical to…” the answer is (IMHO) almost always “No”. Hence I formulated my (slightly tongue in cheek) ‘rule’.

But, of course, there is a world of difference between blanket spamming and careful and respectful 1-on-1 ‘cold calling’. As always, the devil is in the details.

That last section wasn’t actually about you directly, just that in general it seems a lot of startups these days are fine pushing the envelope of what’s OK and I think there’s several posts in here that show that.

Also, I think it’s fair to say we disagree. You said:

I say that’s sleazy. Of course they do it, and that’s fine. Nobody expects anything more of them. To me bootstrapping has always been about more than the money. Of course, calling a million people and converting 0.5% of them is probably a worthwhile exercise from a straight financial perspective, I just have a higher expectation level for bootstrappers.

For me bootstrapping is the name today that we give to what pre-VC people used to call “starting a business”. Pull yourself up by your boot straps and you make it happen. Generally you saved up the capital yourself or got a non-traditional loan(maybe friends or family) and you were bootstrapping.

Being a good citizen and using customer friendly tactics isn’t assumed, but its certainly a core of how I operate my life and how I treat my prospects and customers. I guess we do disagree, because I just don’t think cold-calling is sleazy. It’s sales. I’m not talking high-pressure tactics here. But how else do you put yourself in front of your prospects besides either walking around door-to-door or spending cash(which you don’t have) on marketing and advertising? When I started my first business ten years ago we failed because we didn’t sell enough. We didn’t cold-call, but we did target customers we wanted to work with. At our initial contact - whether we sent them a letter or if we had called them - they had no idea who we were. It was a cold introduction. We hated doing it, but we had no other options and I wish we had done more. We relied on word of mouth of our first clients and when that network dried up or brought the wrong clients and we didn’t have the cash to advertise it was time to re-evaluate the business and do something else.

I’m considering starting another thread on this topic, because I’m genuinely curious to hear how others started their businesses without using any ‘cold’ tactics. What are your thoughts on that?

Perhaps so. In the microISV era there was a different aspect to it or at least with the people I associated with as part of that movement. We’ve all kinda moved over to calling ourselves Bootstrappers but I don’t think the rest of the values have necessarily come along with the new name.

Though if it’s all just about business I find that much less interesting honestly. Maybe because I’ve been doing it so long.

For what it’s worth UserScape has never done any cold techniques. I’m not 100% against them, but I’d personally be very selective about them, ideally not being truly cold but with at least some kind of initial lead or interest indication.

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