Should Email Be Free?

One of the most common “solutions” to the email spam and volume problem is charging emailers, as postal customers pay postage.

Comparing email to snail mail is obvious. Some say a reasonable tariff would roust spammers. They figure snail mail costs $0.30 and up for postage, printing, list rental, and so on, so charging for email is acceptable and would stop frivolous, nuisance mailing.

To evaluate whether email should be tariffed or what price is appropriate, we need to dig deeper.

Let’s make a couple assumptions. I get 300-400 emails a day. Most, you’d consider spam. My inbox can be used to draw some valid conclusions. In reviewing email from a typical day, I found many spam messages came from the same group of companies. In speaking with clients and industry associates, it appears major spammers number in the hundreds, not thousands.

My first assumption: The universe of major commercial spammers is fairly small. Let’s say 300, for the sake of this discussion. That’s right. Fewer than 300 companies practice aggressive bulk mailing.

Also in my inbox that day, accounting for less than 10 percent of all mail, were messages I don’t consider spam but that would be blocked by filters for one reason or another. These (not including personal email from known senders) include:

  • Five email newsletter subscriptions

  • Two news alerts
  • One stock alert
  • One drugstore reminder that my prescription is ready for pick-up
  • One vacation opportunity from my travel agency
  • Four emails from companies from which I requested information
  • Two unadvertised specials from suppliers I do business with
  • One resume from a potential employee
  • Three emails from mortgage companies
  • Twenty emails from business associates

This, coupled with other research and considering all email companies globally, led to my second assumption: There are probably well over 100,000 legitimate emailers who, by and large, play by the rules. These include:

  • Email newsletter publishers

  • Retailers and merchants sending promotional material people want
  • Reputable companies sending alerts for news, sports, weather, stocks, and so on
  • Companies sending information people specifically request

If you buy my estimates — 300 spammers versus 100,000-plus legit emailers, we’ve set the stage to determine if charging for email makes sense.

Some advocate a $0.10 fee, or even a $0.01 fee. Let’s assume infrastructure and technology for this already exist, and we won’t end up with a couple companies making the lion’s share of revenues as gatekeepers. Let’s only look at a per-email fee, not other pricing models.

If a fee of $0.01 or more were in effect, one of two things would happen to 99 percent of the legit emailers described above:

  • Their Internet activities would be hurt and/or they would be out of business.

  • They’d have to charge for content, subscriptions, alerts, and so on.

Most e-publishers don’t charge subscription fees. All those businesses would vanish. Retailers would send fewer emails. Email-generated commerce would decline. News, sports, weather, and stock services would charge for alerts or restrict them to the best customers.

Most spammers would be put out of business (or figure out how to get around the problem). So would 100 to 200 times as many legit businesses. Tens of millions of consumers receiving free email information would be ticked off. We get free information and news because there’s little to no cost to senders.

Is putting 300 spammers out of business worth risking damage to over 100,000 legit emailers? No.

What about charging a fraction of a cent per email? On the surface, it makes more sense. But the lower the price, the easier for all e-marketers to survive — including spammers.

Don’t put spammers out of business at any cost. We need a way that preserves a wonderful flow of free information from companies to consumers and allows legitimate marketers to do business and employ people.

The answer is penalizing any company that doesn’t play by the rules. For example, failure to honor an unsubscribe request is easy to prove. That might carry a $1,000 per-incident fine. That would force mailers to pay attention to what people want.

That’s what I think. What about you?

A Quick Update

The votes are in. I attempted to define spam and asked for your opinions. Seventy-nine percent agreed, 21 percent didn’t. Thanks for taking the time and effort to express your thoughts. I’ll pass the information on to the appropriate legislative powers for review.

Please join us at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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marc jacobs
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