What Phishing Scams Can Teach Us About Content Strategy

January 30, 2017 Nicola Brown


I come from a generation that basically believes we are the masters of technology. We are digital natives, right at home in the world of internet and smartphones and naturally equipped to navigate this complicated universe without a hitch.

When phishing scams land in my inbox I simply scoff. A Nigerian prince desperately needs my help for a complicated inheritance situation involving millions of dollars. All I have to do is provide my bank details and he’ll kindly give me an enormous share of the money. How on earth does this person believe that this kind of thing works?

But actually, while we may all think of the Nigerian prince’s inheritance as a classic example of a phishing tactic (Canadian author Will Ferguson even wrote an award-winning book on this one called 419), that’s not at all what they look like today. To be honest, while I’ve always worried that it might be my parents who could fall for such things, I’ve come to the realization that I am far more vulnerable to phishing today than they are. Let me explain why.


The Evolution of Phishing Scams

Phishing used to be painfully obvious to spot. Giant inheritance, sick child, complicated cross-border money situation. They were usually accompanied by quite a lengthy explanation, a long desperate letter hoping to find the last good person on Earth who would accept this $50,000 payment to allow them to solve their problem. You may have even received duplicates from different Nigerian princes. How many Nigerian princes are there, anyway?

Today, phishing doesn’t have an obvious identity. It’s not plagued with spelling and grammatical errors, or odd uses of the English language. Instead, attacks are polished, the result of thorough creative thinking. They often come from an email address you recognize or trust, and they don’t make big requests. Just something small. Can you just sign in again quickly to your email? Great, got your password. You’ve signed up for this service you need to pay for. Opt out here. Great, got your credit card details.

According to Forbes, once an attacker has your email password, some even go as far as to scan your email for attachments and subject lines and copy the attachment image along with a relevant subject line to send a phishing scam from your address to all your friends. Your friends see what looks like an email subject and attachment they recognize and don’t think twice about clicking on it. Clicking the attachment then takes them to a web page that is cleverly disguised as a genuine Gmail page asking them to sign in again (right down to the URL in the address bar) that it has been fooling even the savviest users.

Why These Scams Work

Phishing scams today prey on two facets of our digital existence: we’re all too busy to look too closely, and we’re all overconfident that we know what we’re doing.

Ah, yes, that overconfidence sounds familiar. Up until quite recently I assumed that because I was more digitally savvy than my parents, I was safe from phishing. Then I started reflecting on some of the things I do. I download apps without reading the terms, sometimes without bothering to look at the permissions they ask for. In my defense, I don’t have time to read all that! Sometimes I just need to play Candy Crush immediately, okay?

And that’s exactly why I’m vulnerable to phishing.

My parents would never be so flippant about downloading something they hadn’t researched carefully ahead of time (a practice to which I recently responded with, “Oh, come on, don’t be so paranoid!”). Actually, I don’t think my mum even downloads apps. She doesn’t even know how to. Now, her digital illiteracy is actually keeping her safer than I am when it comes to phishing.


How to Protect Yourself from Phishing

A recent psychological study confirmed that these scams work because most people believe they’re smarter than the criminals. We forget that phishing evolves with the internet. (That seems rather obvious now that you mention it.)

The researchers in this study offer some tips for how to protect yourself against today’s sophisticated phishing tactics:

1. Spend more time and effort inspecting various different aspects of an email, an app, or a website. When we put this effort in, we can often spot something that doesn’t look right—a small detail that might typically get overlooked.

2. Be just as critical of content that seems familiar (from a friend’s email address or a company you know) as content that seems unfamiliar. When we assume we know what we’re looking at we can miss the tip-offs that would tell us these are actually sophisticated phishing tactics.

3. Read and research phishing tactics on a regular basis. Knowing what’s possible with current technology can help remind us of the ways in which phishing can fool us. Keep in mind that scams evolve along with technology, so don’t assume you know it all already.

What Marketers Can Learn from Phishing Tactics

Let me be clear here: I am not advocating you use phishing scams in your marketing strategies. But marketers can learn some important things about how we conduct ourselves in the digital realm.

We’ve seen that phishing tactics can work simply based on a lack of time paying attention to the finer details of a message. This tells us that marketers should keep the big picture in mind when crafting content and not get too hung up on the details. Those details are important, but it’s the overall efficacy of your content that makes a difference to how we act on that content. It’s important to remember that people are always too busy. Make calls to action simple, don’t ask for too much, and put them up front.

Don’t underestimate the power of a strong, trusted brand. When you build trust as a brand it makes all future communications with your audiences easier and more effective. Additionally, the more you’re able to use language that your audience is familiar with, the more they will feel comfortable reading and acting on that content. This means considering those times when you need to shift from your brand voice to a more casual tone.

Lastly, as marketers, we constantly need to be innovative in our approach. We need to evolve as quickly as technology evolves to stay ahead of the curve. We’ll always need to be using our creative thinking skills, continually learning how to become more experimental in our strategies and more agile in our delivery. We can’t simply assume that what’s worked in the past will continue to work into the future.

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