Annoyance Doesn’t Help, Action Does

I learned a lesson from my recent column about spam: people have very strong feelings about this topic. Here are a few comments I received:

“It’s people like Jared Blank who bear responsibility for the current sad state of affairs that make it difficult to do legitimate email marketing.”

“…typical spam apologist.”

“…mindless drivel.”

and my favorite, “&%#@ing coward.”

It’s difficult to have a reasonable dialogue about this issue when people feel so strongly, and, I suspect, don’t bother to read the entire column. I suggested, putting it simply, marketers need to stop complaining about spam and start working with ISPs to solve the problem.

Fueling the fire are surveys like the one released by Harris Interactive in January, which found nearly three-quarters of respondents wanted to make spam illegal. Myriad newspaper articles across the country pointed out that 96 percent of respondents said they find unsolicited email messages to be annoying.

That’s all fascinating information. Unfortunately for marketers, it will not help them out of the predicament spam has caused. Consumers’ distaste for spam will not encourage them to open, read, click-through or purchase from your marketing emails. People’s annoyance will not unclutter their email boxes, causing your legitimate messages to stand out. Their feelings will have no bearing on whether your email messages end up in a recipient’s primary folder, or in their bulk folder.

In short, spam is clearly a problem that is irksome to consumers. The fact that it’s annoying does not help you, the marketer, deal with the issue.

That said, consumers and businesses are taking steps to curb the flow of spam. This column will look at four approaches to stopping spam, which are being implemented with varying degrees of success: legislation, consumer solutions (client-side solutions), server-side solutions, and marketer-side solutions.

Legislation: Right now, there’s a confusing mish-mash of laws in varying stages of passage in many states. SpamLaws.com has a thorough state-by-state overview of current anti-spam laws. Constituents are turning to their representatives for help fighting spam, and legislators have felt the need to do something to show they are doing their part. Spam will not be stopped by legislation alone. U.S. laws will not protect consumers from pornographic email originating in China. Second, many messages consumers perceive to be spam are actually legitimate acquisition emails. Last week, a district court in Utah threw out a suit against Sprint filed by a consumer who received what he thought was a Sprint-sponsored spam email. Turns out Sprint legitimately received his email address through a partnership with Audio Galaxy (where the plaintiff provided his email address). This plaintiff opted-in at a site many used to illegally download music (I don’t know if he did), then sued when Sprint rented his address. Makes you think.

Consumer-Driven Solutions: Many consumers want control over spam themselves. Several companies have products for this market. MailFrontier, Qurb and SpamCatcher are just a few of the products that integrate into a user’s email client. Each takes a slightly different approach to determine which emails are spam. MailFrontier, for example, essentially allows recipients to vote on which messages are actually spam. SpamCatcher’s network tracks the volume of email sent from individual senders and filters messages based, in part, on that volume. All these solutions work to some degree, but all require a largely lazy consumer base to actually download (or, heaven forbid, purchase) the product.

Server-Side Solutions: ISPs and corporations look to server-side solutions. There are two approaches to this type of service. MessageLabs and Postini attempt to stop spam before it reaches a corporation’s servers. Brightmail, probably the best known solution, stops spam after it reaches a corporation’s (or ISP’s) servers, but before the recipient sees the solicitation to smuggle $35 million out of Nig^ria. These solutions are effective in slowing spam for corporations and ISPs, but their biggest pitfall is the false positive rate (the rate at which they mark legitimate messages as spam). In general, lower false positive rates mean more spam still gets through.

Marketer-Side Solutions: Habeas, Vanquish and Ironport ask marketers to take on the onus of ensuring their emails are not marked as spam. Habeas embeds a haiku into the body of the message, then works agreements with ISPs to ensure email containing the haiku are delivered to users’ primary inbox. Ironport and Vanquish ask marketers to post a bond to ensure their emails are legitimate. Each spam complaint levees a fine against the bond. Both solutions are interesting approaches, but neither has garnered widespread acceptance.

Each solution is effective at stopping spam to some extent, but none is completely effective on its own. The best solution will be a combination of legislation, client-side spam filtering, server-side filtering and marketer-driven solutions. Nirvana isn’t right around the corner, but we’re getting closer every day.

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