A Spammer? Not me!

I've never yet met anyone who would admit to being a spammer. Even the infamous Sanford Wallace of Cyberpromotions, whom I interviewed in 1995 for an article, wouldn't come right out and say, "Yeah, I'm a spammer." It's a label nobody seems to cherish.

However, plenty of us email publishers and marketers have been accused of spamming at one time or another. Generally, the reaction is denial and outrage: 'I'm not a spammer! I don't forge my headers or hide my identity. I always target my mailings. And I'm a legitimate business -- I'm not selling a get-rich-quick scheme or herbal Viagra or Britney Spears porn videos. How dare you accuse me of spamming!'

My article "Can Bogus Spam Reports Hurt Legitimate Marketers?", which appeared in the May 31, 2001, issue of Email Marketing Results, yielded the largest volume of reader responses of any column in this series so far. In that article, I discussed "email cold-calling," the practice of approaching sales prospects one at a time by email or through Web forms. I gave a list of suggestions that might help the marketer get a better response from this kind of effort and avoid charges of spamming.

The most interesting response to that article came from a reader named William who tells me that he is "opposed to all direct marketing," whether by email, postal mail, or telephone. If you decide to use email cold-calling, don't approach William. He writes:

"One of your subscribers may look at my website ... and conclude that I may be interested in their naval history books. They could then get my email address from my feedback page and send me their information.

"Their message _will_ be reported to their ISP as spam. Even if the message is about a subject I am interested in, it will be considered spam if I did not request information from the sender."

As I'm fond of pointing out to readers, email marketing and publishing engender risk. Even if you make efforts to double-opt-in all your newsletter subscribers, even if you only rent opt-in lists, even if you carefully customize and personalize all your cold-call messages, there is still some level of risk.

And William proves that point. If you approach William with an unsolicited offer, you will get reported. You might feel that his viewpoint is extreme, but I can assure you that he is not the only person who feels that way. And on the Internet, he has the power to fight back if he thinks a marketer is abusing email. You might feel that this is unfair and unreasonable. But to be frank, that's just too bad, because William has the power in this situation.

I've witnessed endless debates about what constitutes spam, and I have my own opinions about that issue. But to a large extent, it doesn't really matter how you or I think the term should be defined, because if the consumer thinks it's spam, that's what matters. Looks like spam, smells like spam, must be spam.

Consumer control is one of the realities of email marketing. The life of the spammer is not a glamorous one. He never knows whether the next knock on the door will be the sheriff; he can't tell his mother what he does for work; and he has to resort to endless subterfuge to hide his identity. This is because Internet users will go to great lengths to track him down and get him kicked off the Net.

Now if you're running a campaign and only William reports you to your ISP, your ISP will probably chalk it up as an aberration and let it go. But suppose the ISP hears from two people like William? Or five? Or 10? You could be in trouble.

This is why I recommend that every company carefully examine its email marketing practices and set strict policies for how lists are built and how email prospecting is carried out. As I've often said, the risks of email marketing are directly proportional to the number of people who don't want to receive your message. Because the greater the number of unwilling recipients you hit, the more likely it is that one of them will cause trouble for you. Just ask William.

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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