The War On Spam Requires Military Discipline

I was at a meeting the other day with legitimate marketers struggling to sell a legitimate product. Suddenly we were shocked by the news that a once carefully maintained list had nearly completely failed a confirmation test, a sort of third opt-in that’s a good idea if a list is old or neglected for a while, and this list was both. Suddenly 1400 prospects were whittled down to only the 20 loyalists who confirmed that, yes, several years later, they were still as interested as ever in the product.

At some point the inevitable suggestion was made that maybe the confirmation test itself was the problem. Could the confirmation email have been somehow unclear? Maybe a few ISPs were down that day? Maybe blindly following the rules today could needlessly condemn 1380 eager prospects out there to wait at their computers for an offer that tragically will never come. Bending the rules just once to sell a good product may be the right thing to do since our list members’ quality of life is at stake–after all, we’re not the spammers!

Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit, but while attributions have been altered to protect the drama, the sentiments behind them were very real and spreading. In the end, wisdom prevailed, and the group agreed to delete this unsolicited e-invitation from the Dark Side. The problem was the list, not the confirmation email. Had the group broken the rules, the resulting sales, if any, would have been negligible and the cost substantially more.

At times like this, it’s important to remember the problems spammers cause, who spammers are and how to avoid becoming one. Central to that is reminding your client, your boss, your colleage or any other decision-maker of the definition of spam. I prefer Paul Graham’s “unsolicited automated email” over “unsolicited commerical email” from his seminal 2002 article, “A Plan for Spam”:

If someone in my neighborhood heard that I was looking for an old Raleigh three-speed in good condition, and sent me an email offering to sell me one, I’d be delighted, and yet this email would be both commercial and unsolicited. The defining feature of spam (in fact, its raison d’etre) is not that it is unsolicited, but that it is automated.

It is merely incidental, too, that spam is usually commercial. If someone started sending mass email to support some political cause, for example, it would be just as much spam as email promoting a porn site.

I propose we define spam as unsolicited automated email. This definition thus includes some email that many legal definitions of spam don’t. Legal definitions of spam, influenced presumably by lobbyists, tend to exclude mail sent by companies that have an “existing relationship” with the recipient. But buying something from a company, for example, does not imply that you have solicited ongoing email from them. If I order something from an online store, and they then send me a stream of spam, it’s still spam.

Companies sending spam often give you a way to “unsubscribe,” or ask you to go to their site and change your “account preferences” if you want to stop getting spam. This is not enough to stop the mail from being spam. Not opting out is not the same as opting in. Unless the recipient explicitly checked a clearly labelled box (whose default was no) asking to receive the email, then it is spam.

Spam costs us all more in time, money and trust than we can count, and we long for the day when our goverment will enforce strict penalties on those who profit from such great losses. In the meantime, it’s better to rebuild a neglected list, slowly and carefully, from the ground up: better for your branding, your long-term sales and our global online health. And, therefore it’s better to maintain discipline in our ranks.

Sometimes all we need is a reminder of why we fight — even one from those wistful days of 2002, on the eve of the spam war.

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About NSI Partners

A digital marketing company with almost two decades of experience, NSI Partners helps clients achieve robust results in search marketing, social media, and other digital marketing spaces.

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