Learn IT: How Spam Affects Email Marketing Campaigns

1. What's the difference between spam and legitimate email marketing?

Spam is unsolicited bulk email (UBE). Its defining characteristics are:

  1. Recipients have not agreed to have it sent to them.
  2. It is sent as a mass mailing.

From the sender's perspective, spam is an extremely efficient and cost-effective way to distribute a message, but to most recipients, spam is just junk email. Recipients sometimes fail to differentiate between spam and legitimate email marketing campaigns, but there are clear differences. The essential elements of a legitimate email marketing campaign are:

  1. It's permission-based: messages are sent to people that have expressed interest in receiving such mailings.
  2. Typically, messages are sent to a smaller, targeted group of recipients.

Although most spam is unsolicited commercial email (UCE), the term also encompasses other types of mass mailings, such as email chain letters, personal campaign mailings, messages with virus-laden attachments, and messages containing virus hoaxes, among other possibilities.

Here's a breakdown on spam categories by percentage:

(From a Brightmail Probe Network report, statistics as of September 2003)

  • 19%: Product marketing messages
  • 14%: Financial services marketing messages
  • 12%: Adult content marketing messages
  • 11%: Internet-based service marketing messages
  • 10%: Fraudulent messages
  • 8%: Health-related product and service marketing messages
  • 7%: Leisure-related product and service marketing messages
  • 3%: Political campaign messages
  • 1%: Spirituality-related messages
  • 15%: Other (spam that doesn't fit any of the established categories)


Related Links:
The Spamhaus Project is a comprehensive resource for information about spam.


2. How does spam affect the behavior of recipients?
People are becoming increasingly unlikely to open messages they haven't agreed to receive. Furthermore, the overwhelming volume of spam in people's inboxes makes them much less likely to open anything that isn't a personal message from someone they know. Because the number of messages is often so great, many just routinely delete all messages that aren't of a personal nature, whether or not they've expressed an interest in receiving messages from some of the senders. They might also add criteria to make their spam filters more stringent, which makes the programs more likely to flag legitimate mail as spam. Frequently, people maintain "throwaway" email accounts specifically for any mail generated by an online sign-up.

3. What does that mean for the legitimate marketer?
For one thing, it means that the legitimate marketer should be at the forefront of the anti-spam movement. While spam is an annoyance to most recipients, it's a real threat to the livelihood of anyone who depends on email marketing. It also means that legitimate marketers must, at all costs, behave in a manner that differentiates them from spammers. After all, annoying people has never been the key to long-term, sustainable success in the marketplace.


4. How can legitimate marketers further differentiate themselves from spammers?

According to Joseph Turow, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, there's a straightforward formula for successful email marketing: "Don't overload people with messages, get to them with exactly what you think they want to know, and don't bother them too much with it."

Here's a checklist for email marketing best practices:

  1. In a word: opt-in -- why bother sending messages to people who aren't interested in receiving them?
  2. Limit the frequency of mailings.
  3. Don't pester recipients -- tell people how often you intend to send them messages, and don't send them more frequently.
  4. Another important word: content -- try to engage the reader with interesting and informative messages. Make the reader look forward to your email!
  5. Include your physical address in your messages.
  6. Include a working mechanism for recipients to easily remove themselves from your mailing list.
  7. Welcome feedback on your messages, and use it to improve future mailings.
  8. Ensure that your messages are sent to the right demographic groups. One of the things that makes spam such a laughing stock is its inappropriate nature. For example, most 80-year-old nuns are not likely to be interested in Viagra, but they might get messages offering it just the same.

Related Links:

According to analyst Chris Selland, "Firms must follow spirit of anti-spam law."

5. What do spammers do that's so different from what legitimate marketers do?

Spamming is easy and lucrative; that's why it's getting more prevalent all the time. Spammers wouldn't do it if it didn't make them a profit. Ron Scelson (known as the "Cajun Spammer"), for example, claims to make $4,000-5,000 per mailing and to get a 1% response rate for his clients. Most spammers tend to think of themselves as entrepreneurs who are hard-pressed to dodge the stringent anti-spam measures imposed by ISPs. To get around such measures, Scelson has sometimes used offshore servers to send his mailings, though they can be up to five times more expensive than domestic systems. Scelson tests all his emails against spam filters to make sure they can get through. He claims that he can get spam through a new filtering system in less than 24 hours, and sometimes in as little as three minutes. Scelson said he will spoof email addresses if he has to. "It's a last resort for me, a backup system, but again, it can totally be done," he said during a recent webcast presented by messaging product vendor IntelliReach.

In direct contrast to spammers, responsible marketers do a great deal of preparation in advance to a mailing, selecting a target group according to its characteristics and interests, and preparing high-quality mailings to send out in a responsible manner. As a result, the campaigns of a legitimate marketer are much more expensive than those of the spammer, but they're vastly more likely to help establish good customer relationships.

Related Links:

Robin Good's article is called "Confessions of a Spam King Revisited.".

SearchSecurity expert Ed Hurley explores what goes on "In the spammer's lair."

Barney Beal's SearchCRM article explains "Getting email to click with customers."


6. What's the future of email marketing?
According to a report from Gartner's G2 research group, direct email marketing is likely to soon be more prevalent than postal mail marketing, for customer acquisition and customer retention mailings alike. It is likely that, through evolving technologies, it will become increasingly possible to generate highly accurate, detailed, and relevant customer data for more effective targeting. However, many in the industry believe that unless the spam problem is conquered, email marketing will never achieve its potential.

According to Ajay Segal, clickthrough rates on acquisition-based mailings has fallen from as much as 20% to as little as 2%, at least partially because people are less frequently even bothering to open their opt-in email. What has to happen to overcome this situation? First of all, we have to get a handle on the spam problem, so people are more interested in their email. Secondly, email marketers have to look to their own practices. Spam, almost by definition, is something that no one wants. Email marketing can differentiate itself, and ensure its bright future by delivering content that the recipient is glad to get.

Related Links:

Avant|marketer offers Ajay Segal's article, "The Future of Email Marketing: Special Briefing".

In "The Fate of Permission Email Marketing," avant|marketer interviews Quris CEO, John Funk.

In this press release, GartnerG2 Says EMail Marketing Campaigns Threaten Traditional Direct Mail Promotions.

7. How bad is the spam problem?

In September 2003, spam accounted for 54% of all Internet email -- up from 18% in April 2002 (source Brightmail Probe Network). The spam problem is bad -- and rapidly getting worse -- for a number of reasons. For example, in the U.S., the recently established National Do Not Call Registry has enabled people to add their telephone numbers to a list that telemarketers are not allowed to call. As a result, people and organizations that had relied on telemarketing campaigns have begun to look for other ways to get their messages out, and many have turned to the Internet as the least expensive means of doing so. The cost of using the postal system, and the further complication of the recent anthrax scare, has meant that a mail campaign is not a viable alternative to many who relied on telemarketing. As a result of these and other factors, the amount of spam clogging the Internet has expanded alarmingly.

Some other spam statistics:

  • Spam will account for 60% of all Internet email by January 2004 (source: Spamhaus Project).
  • In 2002, time and resources used to deal with spam cost U.S. companies almost $9 billion (source: Ferris Research).
  • An organization with 10,000 employees spends an estimated $71.91 per mailbox per year because of spam (source: Radicati Group).
  • Worldwide, spam is expected to cost businesses $30 billion this year, and $113 billion by 2007 (source: Radicati Group).
  • Over 70% of technology professionals believe the spam problem has reached epidemic proportions (source: TrendMicro).

Related Links:

Jon Panker's SearchNetworking article explains why "Spam is a pricey pest."

Panker's SearchDomino Survey finds that "Spam is the scourge of the messaging world."


8. What's the current status of anti-spam legislation?

Various European countries are drafting or enacting anti-spam laws. In Britain, opt-in e-mail legislation is currently being implemented. This legislation effectively makes it illegal to send UCE from within the country, although spammers located elsewhere would be difficult to prosecute. Another problem with the British legislation is that it only targets spam sent to private homes, which does nothing to alleviate the severe spam problem facing businesses throughout the country. Italy has implemented the European Anti-Spam Directive, which mandates jail time for sending spam.

The United States seems to be leaning towards an opt-out approach, which many fear will make the problem worse than ever. It would be illegal to send UCE to anyone who says they don't want to receive it. However, the only way to refuse future UCE from a particular sender is to respond to their message. According to experts, that's something you should never do: spammers use such responses to verify active email addresses, which can be sold for a higher price. As a rule, the result is even greater volumes of UCE. Various states are taking legislative action on their own. However, for anti-spam legislation to be effective, it really needs to be national -- if not international -- in scope.

A proposed "do not spam" list, similar to the telemarketing-targeted "do not call" list could be effective, although it would work in a roundabout way. Emails would be marked to attest that the sender abides by the list. One way of ensuring this would by using ePrivacy Group's Trusted Email Open Standard. The standard works by inserting small -- less than 1 KB -- digital certificates into the headers of emails. The certificates assure the recipient that messages actually originated from the addresses they claim to come from. UCE without such a certificate could be blocked by the ISP's mail server or the user's spam filter.

The "do not call" list itself has changed the way marketers conduct business. The "cold call" of telemarketers may soon be a thing of the past: an overwhelming number of people have added themselves to the list in order to avoid such calls. Spam is much like an online version of the cold call -- almost universally unwelcome. According to many industry experts, marketers should avoid both practices, and create a new marketing model in which the focus is on nurturing existing customer relationships and improving the intrinsic quality of future communications with customers.

Related Links:

Ed Hurley's SearchSecurity article asks "Could a 'do not spam' list really stop spammers?" .

SearchCRM features the Barney Beal article, "Anti-spam law 12-18 months away, consultant says."

Jon Panker's SearchCRM article explains how the "Do not call' list changes game for marketers."

9. Spam vs. Legitimate Marketing Words-to-Go Glossary:

Browse through the handy printable spam glossary.


10. Self-assessment:

After you've looked at the glossary, quiz yourself to see what you've learned about spam.

This was last updated in March 2007

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