Not too long ago, someone drew my attention to an article published online by InternetWeek, under the title, "There's No Such Thing as Legitimate Spam," by Mitch Wagner:
Wagner heard a National Public Radio program that provided a brief overview of the spam problem. The program quoted some marketers who were defending the practice of unsolicited email advertising, stimulating the raising of the hackles of this irascible InternetWeek columnist.
I thought his published rant exemplified some important misconceptions about email marketing, so I sent in a response, which I am reproducing here in Email Marketing Results.
(Note: Out of fairness to Mitch Wagner, I should point out that I had a subsequent email exchange with him, in which he showed a more balanced and informed viewpoint on email marketing than his 'Legitimate Spam' article would suggest.)
My response is below, sandwiched among quotes from Wagner's article:
Ironically, the email newsletter that contained this anti-marketing rant included an advertisement right above Mitch Wagner's essay:
>Focus on... LANs
>Want to learn more about LANs?
>Check out these sponsored links from Gateway.
>Gateway(R) Servers for Business:
>Networking accessories at the Gateway(R) Store:
In fact, the publisher of InternetWeek, CMP Media, makes its email lists available to marketers. See this web page:
Here's a partial quote from that web page:
Opt-in Email List Rental
Opt-in email gives you instant reach to qualified, highly motivated technology buyers, without the printing and postal costs. The TechWeb opt-in email file consists of more than 130,000 readers, segmented by the products and services they are most interested in.
Our opt-in email lists get results! Our lists have generated response rates of 5% to 15%, and the majority of responses occur within 24 to 48 hours.
As far as I can tell, the writer of this essay feels that there is no "legitimate" use of email as a tool for marketing. He seems to equate all email marketing with spam:
>The legitimate marketers want to clear the spam field of porn, con
>games, and other sleaze so that they can then spam us themselves with
>ads for their legitimate businesses.
I know many email marketers and publishers, and most of them agree that email communications should be permission-based, that nobody should be placed on a commercial email list without their permission.
I have received about 20,000 spam messages in the past year in my personal inbox, so I can certainly sympathize with the author's frustration. The seriousness of the spam problem emphasizes the importance of marketers' and consumer advocates' working together to establish best practices for permission-based email marketing. Wagner seems to think this isn't happening:
>But here's where the NPR report got my blood going: It said that
>anti-spammers and legitimate marketers are fundamentally in agreement
>about the spam problem, except for some details. That's just plain
>wrong; in fact, there is a fundamental disagreement about spam.
Only the most extreme anti-spam activists feel that there is no legitimate commercial use for email, and those people are very few (though sometimes vocal). In fact, legitimate email marketers have been working with anti-spam advocates for several years to educate businesses about how to use email in appropriate ways as a communications tool. For example, see this page on the website of the SpamCon foundation, "Help for email marketers":
The viewpoint Wagner seems to object to most is this one:
>legitimate marketers think that spam is A-OK so long as its recipients
>can unsubscribe, the e-mail comes from a legitimate business, and the
>e-mail is not obscene, a con game, or in egregiously bad taste.
However, this in fact does not represent the position of legitimate email marketers, who believe that email lists should be built on an opt-in basis -- in other words, no one should be added to a commercial email list without their explicit permission. This, in fact, is how InternetWeek builds its commercial lists -- here's a quote from their "Ad Opportunities" web page:
How it Works
Whenever users visit any of our sites, they have the option of requesting to receive information about new products and services. They can select from one or more categories, which are based on our advertisersí products and services.
Once a user submits their information and email address, they receive an email message to confirm their registration, and are then asked to verify the subscription before they can begin receiving messages.
This is called a closed-loop or double opt-in subscription procedure and is recommended as best practice within the permission email marketing industry for building commercial email lists.
There are marketers and industry groups that advocate a more "liberal" view, which is what Wagner seems to find most objectionable. Most spam legislation in the U.S. (which is largely ineffective, in my opinion) allows businesses to send email advertising, as long as they don't use fraudulent headers and as long as recipients can unsubscribe. These laws don't get at the essence of the spam problem, which really doesn't have much to do with how "legitimate" the marketer is, but with how the email list is created. A spam list is built without permission, which results in people receiving commercial email they don't want.
The fact that spam is a huge problem doesn't mean, though, that there's no such thing as legitimate email marketing. I think Mitch Wagner's publisher would agree with me.
What do you think? Do you think the problem of spam is misunderstood by the public in general? To reply to this article, click on the "Post Letter" link in the top right column of this page.
Al Bredenberg is publisher of EmailResults.com (http://www.emailresults.com).