How do you seduce a customer?

For the first time in my life I recently shared the full stack of my online financial services login credentials in combination with core PII (username and password for bank, credit card, investment accounts + SSN, DOB, and address). In light of all the recent hacker disquiet this might seem like an odd time to cross the rubicon, so I feel like it’s worth exploring what exactly happened.

The site that seduced me into surrendering my credentials is called Earnest. It’s a startup that offers merit-based personal loans and I learned about it from a WSJ tweet. Though the credibility of the WSJ and the authenticity of the founder’s story undoubtedly played a role in my decision to trust this site with the keys to my small digital-financial kingdom, the most powerful force at play here was lack.


The logic of seduction is premised on differentiation, and one of the most efficient routes to differentiation is the defiance of stereotypes. This is all over the semiotics of online and mobile dating – consider the way men clamor to share photos of themselves playing with dogs or other people’s children (“I’m not like the other men out there, only interested in sexual conquest, I’m sensitive and caring I swear!”) or how women fill their profiles with photos from exotic locales in which they’re not just sunning themselves on beaches but doing cartwheels (“I’m not like the other women out there, showing off my body and my travel budget, I’m fun and spontaneous I swear!”).

There doesn’t seem to be much difference between courtship and customer acquisition. Anyone who’s ever applied for a loan online is intimately familiar with its idiom of hyperbole and vocabulary of urgency. These sites raise hackles for good reason: you can’t help but suspect that the people behind them are merely trying to fuck. When I stumbled upon Earnest I slowly came to believe – maybe erroneously, maybe wishfully – that the people behind it were trying to make love. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what factors, from the tone to the design, help Earnest position itself as a potential partner without completely obscuring what it’s really after.

It once occurred to me that if a sentient alien arrived at a bar it might have a difficult time discerning the difference between a scenario of seduction and a brewing altercation. In both cases two apparently unfamiliar people exchange uncomfortably pressured words with a clear possibility that they won’t continue speaking or interacting for much longer. The same ambiguity and indeterminacy applies to the sales pitch (and thus the landing page, the email subject line, etc). The task is to convince someone that in a world of brow-beaters you’re uniquely interested in civility.

Supposedly Jacques Lacan said, with oracular simplicity, that “Love is when you give away something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist.” Seducing customers consists of getting them to believe you offer difference in the sovereignty of the same – they have to believe a business is capable of love.


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