Can Bogus Spam Reports Hurt Legitimate Marketers?

Most of us who have been involved in email marketing and publishing for some time have been accused of spamming at one time or another. It's one of the risks of the medium. You can whine, rant, and demand to know who made these unfair "anti-business" rules, but it won't do a bit of good.

Unwarranted spam complaints are possible even if you take extreme care. You could be using a permission- based list that you have carefully built up yourself, but some people (especially newer Internet users) will forget or not even realize that they signed up. People will sign up their friends (or enemies) without asking them. The husband will sign up for your newsletter, but the wife will be checking the email the day the newsletter is sent out.

If you're doing email cold-calling, you might take pains to find just the right person to contact, and to personalize and customize the messages. Unfortunately, there's still the chance that one of your messages will go to an unusually sensitive person who will take offense.

People tend to feel differently about their email boxes than they do about their postal boxes and telephones -- many Internet users get livid about the invasion of privacy and theft of computing resources. And they're in a position to do something about it by complaining to the ISP of a suspected spammer.

This is one of the risks of email marketing (there are others, such as technological retaliation and legal action), and it's possible that one of your efforts could generate a complaint to your ISP.

Fortunately, most ISPs recognize the value of email marketing and publishing and realize that it will sometimes generate unwarranted spam complaints. So they set a threshold and won't take action against a marketer unless complaints exceed that threshold. That was the issue in this interesting court case:

In this case, an ISP has been trying to eject MonsterHut from its service because of spamming. MonsterHut exceeded the ISP's 2% complaint rate and got cut off. 2% is an extremely liberal complaint rate (that's 200 complaints out of 10,000 emails!), so you know MonsterHut blew it. In fact, the day this news report came out, I received a spam email from MonsterHut. I know it was a spam, because the address they sent to could only have been obtained by the use of spammers' extractor software.

So I recommend that marketers and publishers continue to use email as a marketing medium, but do everything they can to avoid generating complaints. Here's a little maxim I've come up with:

"The risks of email marketing are directly proportional to the number of people who don't want to receive your message."

So the risks can be minimized by adopting opt-in procedures in order to upset as few people as possible (preferably nobody).

Many of us have had success by email cold-calling, as mentioned above -- emailing people one at a time, using contact information derived from Web sites. However, even this kind of communication can be interpreted as spamming. Here are some steps to take to reduce the risks and show courtesy:

  • Carefully research contact information on the prospect's Web site, to make sure your approach is appropriate and that you are reaching the right person.
  • Use a low-key, non-promotional subject line that won't sound like spam.
  • Address the person by name if possible.
  • Don't just send everyone a one-size-fits-all promotional message. Take the time to customize it.
  • You might be able to re-use content from one prospect to the next, but avoid writing anything with a promotional sound to it. Write in a natural, personal, conversational style.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Never use extractor software to find contact addresses. Many Web sites contain email addresses that are not meant as contact addresses. You will end up sending email to an address you shouldn't be using.
  • Avoid the trappings of spam email messages, such as a claim that your message is protected by some federal law.

As with any effort in business and marketing, email marketing has its risks. But the benefits are worth taking the risk, as long as you exercise a few reasonable precautions.

Understanding the request form...

  • What are you selling: Most email campaigns are selling a product or service. Name that product and/or service in this field. (for example: security services, accounting software)
  • Target Market: Name here who you see as the market or potential buyers of your product/service. (for example: home owners, accountants)
  • Size of your mailing: How many emails do you plan to send -- this will affect your potential revenue and cost. (for example: 100,000 to 250,000)
  • Your Time Frame: When do you plan to do your mailing? (for example: mailing within one month)
  • Campaign Details: Give a more complete description of what you are planning. (for example: I plan to do 3 sequential mailings to homeowners in New Jersey in order to sell a new security system.)
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