Trying to define spam is like trying to define porn -- you know it when you see it, but everyone has a different idea. Is a clear definition possible?
The first step in dealing with the spam problem is finding a definition that makes sense. It’s a process already started by lawmakers, and their effort is probably the only way the final definition will ever be truly standardized.
However, so legislators don’t proceed in a vacuum, I’d like to take a stab at developing a definition that is fair to everyone. If you’ll send me your comments, I’ll discuss them in another article and send our final definition to Congress.
To do this objectively, I suggest we start afresh by looking at how email is received, opened, and read, rather than beginning with any current industry definition. Let’s start by sorting a typical day’s stack of emails into actionable categories:
I could name another hundred cases in which there are more questions than answers. In doing this exercise, it became clear to me (and I hope to you) that no matter how impossible it seems, we need to find a definition that fits all these diverse situations.
Then suddenly, in the middle of my slumber the other night, the only possible definition came to me: Spam is an email message that the recipient -- and only the recipient -- deems inappropriate, unwanted, or no longer wanted for any reason.
The key words are "inappropriate," "unwanted," and "no longer wanted." Those words cover every case I can think of.
And here’s another epiphany: The words used in the email message are irrelevant!
Who cares whether an email uses "blacklisted" words such as "free," "offer," and "limited time"? Individual words don’t determine if a message is appropriate, unwanted, or no longer wanted -- the full content does!
To illustrate my point, here are two subject lines for home mortgages:
If you’re not in the market for a mortgage, both emails are inappropriate and unwanted.
But if you are in the market for a mortgage, you may prefer one to the other. I can guarantee some people will appreciate -- and respond to -- each. That’s why I say the words in the message are irrelevant. And when you have finalized your mortgage, you’ll undoubtedly reclassify all mortgage emails as "no longer wanted."
If it’s appropriate and wanted, it ain’t spam as far as I’m concerned. Which leads me to my next profound statement: The only person who can determine if email is appropriate is the recipient. Not the ISP. Not the corporate IT director. The recipient.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to embrace Email Power to the People, because only the people know what’s appropriate for them.
And because people often forget where they signed up for something, the key is to give them a valid, real way to unsubscribe. In the same way there are rules and regulations governing postal mail (people who mail Hustler magazines play by the same rules as those who mail Eddie Bauer catalogs), the law should enable spammers to be prosecuted as spammers for only the following reasons:
This kind of legislation, coupled with giving people power to block and filter what they wish makes all the sense in the world. Spammers who ignore unsubscribe requests and continue to abuse people will be caught and prosecuted, and legitimate emailers who respect what people want will not.
Here’s that definition one more time: Spam is an email message that the recipient -- and only the recipient -- deems inappropriate, unwanted, or no longer wanted for any reason. Do you agree?
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Paul Soltoff is the chief executive officer of SendTec, Inc., a direct marketing services company specializing in customer acquisition. SendTec combines extensive direct response experience with proprietary technologies to produce scalable results. Principal services include performance-based online marketing, offline direct response marketing and direct response television. SendTec represents advertising agencies and advertisers such as RealNetworks, AARP, Monster.com, AAA, Punch Software, MyPoints, Grey Worldwide, CosmetÍque Cosmetics, Columbia House, and Euro-Pro. Prior to starting SendTec, Paul was a founder and EVP of Saatchi and Saatchi's DRTV division in New York and has over 25 years of advertising, media and direct marketing experience.
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