Spam vs. e-Mail: Take the Smell Test!

In the world of e-mail marketing, dancing the fine-line between e-mail and spam can leave you more unsettled than a Michael Flatley DVD played at high speed. What to do, is it spam, is it legitimate? Sometimes it is hard to say but you know that this is a line you don’t want to cross. 

E-mail marketing is alive and well in the era of Web 2.0, blogs and streaming video. In fact, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Overused and badly abused in the days gone by, e-mail marketing has had to evolve, undergoing some changes to keep it from being labeled Spam.

Spam, we have hated it for years. It is the e-mail equivalent to those annoying commercials that pop-up in the middle of cable TV movies and shows. You are paying to watch these shows, why in the world are you seeing commercials? In fact, one of the chief selling points of cable over free broadcast TV was to be the lack of commercials. The point is that you are also paying for your Internet service, so why is your e-mail box filled with spam each day? 

For the same reason your snail mail box is filled with junk mail that does little more than fill dumpsters, recycling cans and bird cages: Because we do not stop people from trying to make a buck. It is that simple.

Of course, the real problem with spam is not the time you waste deleting it, hoping that you delete something that you actually want. No, the problem is malware: Viruses, worms, trojans, spyware and the like. They can ride in on spam e-mails and if you open them, infect your system, exposing you to data loss, identity theft, the theft of your contacts information and so much more. That raises spam from a nuisance to a threat and one that cannot be ignored. You can see why spam has such a bad name. At least the Bed Bath and Beyond circular won’t kill you if you open it! 

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) established an e-mail's "From," "To," and routing information – including the originating domain name and email address – must be accurate and identify the person who initiated the email; that the subject line cannot mislead the recipient about the contents or subject matter of the message; that recipients have an opt-out method and that the e-mail addresses of those who opt out cannot be sold or transferred; and that commercial email be identified as an advertisement and include the sender's valid physical postal address. 

For each violation of the above regulations, the spammer is liable for a fine of up to $11,000. Additional fines can be levied upon spammers who also "harvest" email addresses from web sites or services with published notices prohibiting the transfer of email addresses for the purpose of sending email; generate email addresses by combining names, letters, or numbers into multiple permutations. This is called a “Dictionary Attack.” You may also be fined if you use scripts or other automated ways to register for multiple email or user accounts to send commercial email and relay emails through a computer or network without permission. 

In addition to these, criminal penalties, including imprisonment, await spammers who use another computer without authorization and send commercial email from or through it; use a computer to relay or retransmit multiple commercial email messages to deceive or mislead recipients or an Internet access service about the origin of the message. You can also go to jail if you falsify header information in multiple email messages and initiate the transmission of such messages; register for multiple email accounts or domain names using information that falsifies the identity of the actual registrant; or falsely represent yourself as the owner of multiple Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that are used to send commercial email messages. 

So, now that you know what the FTC has to say on the subject, how do you put together an e-mail marketing campaign that will give a great return on investment (e-mail marketing still offers a high ROI) and stays on this side of the spam line? There really is no clear guideline for most e-mail. One man's e-mail is another man's spam, so to speak. So, begin by asking yourself a question: Why do I keep some e-mail and toss the rest? It is an important question because the answer will help you identify spam.

Eliminating the obvious—pornography, phishing scams, etc.—what is it about the rest that makes us think spam? Retirement investments, work at home, check your credit score, payday loans and more all go into the trash. The one thing all of these have in common is that I don’t know any of these senders. I have never requested information from them, I have never purchased anything from them, but there they are trying to seduce me into a three-day, two night vacation in a beautiful tropical resort for an amazing and improbably small amount of money. I say improbable because I cannot conceive of a luxury resort being so hard up that they will let their rooms go at Holiday Inn rates. Still, why should I trust any amount of money to someone known to me only through an e-mail? 

That is the point. I don’t know these senders so I am not going to do business with them. On the other hand, places that I have done business with of my own accord, their items I keep. So now ask yourself another couple of questions: Do the people to whom I am sending this e-mail know me? Also, Do I know these people are interested in my products?

You are pretty safe if your e-mail list is generated from your client or customer contacts. They know you and they’ve done business with you. It is when you do things like buy mailing lists that the waters get a tad murky. You need to do something to build a relationship. Give your recipients a chance to opt-in or out of receiving your e-mails and if they opt-in, make sure you verify their subscription. If they opt out, honor their wishes. There are too many stories of people who opt out finding themselves getting twice as much spam from the original sender and from all the people who bought the e-mail address from him. Then, be honest. No relationship built on lies and deceit will last and consumers don’t like being directly lied to. Make sure that your business is clearly identified and that what you are saying in your e-mail is the truth. 

Finally, remember that quality will always win out over quantity. Make sure that your e-mail is top-notch with solid text and brilliant graphics. Once you have said your piece, you’re done. Do not bury your recipients under a pile of unwanted e-mail. It doesn’t make your recipients happy and it makes you and your business look awful.

There it is, three questions and a little common sense. Happy e-mailing!