Coping with Catastrophe: Email From the Front

Greetings from New York. What remains of it, physically and emotionally. We’re stunned, shocked into almost catatonic incredulity. We’ve witnessed the worst horror of our lives, but also heroic acts of selflessness and humanity.

I write this on the day the Mayor has asked us to return to work (if work is north of the 14th Street DMZ) to lend the city a sense of normalcy. So as New York’s Finest assemble below my 42nd Street window in full riot gear (Grand Central Station’s being evacuated — second bomb scare in two days), and I wonder if we’ll be evacuated from our building (for the second time this week), and assure the staff that they can leave if they want to (no one does — also second time this week)… where was I? Right. Normalcy. Gee, what should ClickZ be writing about this week? It’s my job to think about that. That’s normal.

Tuesday’s tragedy reminded us of what’s truly important in life, and it’s not click-throughs. It also proved that the Internet can be a lifeline of communication and support, despite tenuous connectivity.

While the good of the Web more than outweighs the bad, we’ve also been reminded how the Web is being abused, and how this abuse is more than annoying, inappropriate, or malicious. Given the fragile nature of New York’s communications right now, spam is more than an affront.

Here are (edited) selections from this morning’s email barrage. It seems inevitable that someone could have gotten any of these in tandem with a message about a friend or relative who’s missing or injured, or worse. From: downhome@attglobal.net
Sent: Thursday, September 13, 2001 10:29 AM

You are invited…to the wildest Dungeons of BDSM and fetishes in New York City and the hottest new adult film director, Mephysto… filming live erotic sessions… The sender is not such a BDSM devotee that she or he sent bandwidth-consuming HTML messages, but the rest of today’s spammers did: From: roker7665@mailandnews.com
Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 10:03 AM

Get Your Teeth Bright White Now!

Have you considered professional teeth whitening? If so, you know it usually costs between $300 and $500 from your local dentist! Visit our site to learn how to professionally whiten your teeth, using the exact same whitening system your dentist uses, at a fraction of the cost! Cosmetic tooth whitening is — or should be — the farthest thing from anyone’s mind right now. From: FaithandValues.com [mailto:faithandvalues@yahoo.com]
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 11:52 PM
Subject: Faith Groups Respond To “Attack On America”

Dear Concerned Faithful,

We share in the grief of our nation and the world following the recent terrorist acts. We invite you to please join us in prayer.

Compassionate and Loving God,

In the face of such violence, we come to you for your support and solace. We are angered by the hatred that leads to a ruthless disregard for the sanctity of life. Keep us in your loving arms and help us overcome the fear that destroys community and trust. Remind us constantly of your gifts of hope and all-encompassing love. Care for those who have been taken from us. Comfort with your healing touch the loved ones who mourn. Stay the hands of those who seek violence. Lead us in the ways of justice toward the promise of peace. Amen No less than seven copies of the above were in the morning mail. If I can’t reach my friends or family, or they can’t reach me, or my connection drops before I get news of people I know who are missing — I will still have seven copies of this email. “DietSmart” Subject: I Lost 40 lbs. in 4 months!!!!!

“I always felt like there was a much more beautiful version of me underneath all that fat…DietSmart gave me what I needed to let the real me out… This rich media pitch hogged the most bandwidth today, and the copy is loaded with metaphors that serve as unfortunate reminders of the bodies trapped a few blocks from where I sit writing.

You’ve likely read a great deal on this site about personalization, targeting, understanding customers’ needs, permission, and opt-in lists. What once was good marketing sense — this week took on dimensions of life and death. We need the full capacity of all communications media at our disposal right now. I’m preaching to the choir here, but if any spammers are reading this article: In the name of decency, stop doing this until we’re out of a state of emergency. Please. The rest of us, let’s remind legislators how the destructive frivolity of these “marketers” makes a grave situation worse.

Is ClickZ guilty of such indiscretions? Two or three subscribers said we were. This message from a New York subscriber arrived today in 18-point red boldface type: I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU ARE CLOGGING UP THE EMAIL LINES WITH THIS TODAY AND THERE WAS ONE FROM YESTERDAY. TAKE ME OFF YOUR LIST IMMEDIATELY. The writer of the message works at a cable company targeted to women. This week, I’m tuned to CNN. It’s reassuring to learn her station is there, somehow. We are too. You can read us, delete us, or save us for later. If you opted in, we’re going to deliver.

This issue isn’t black or white. Internet marketing has fallen sharply down on everyone’s priority list this week, ours included. On the other hand, we cannot simply succumb to this horrible attempt to undermine our society by disruption. We go to work and edit our copy and meet our deadlines. So many aren’t so fortunate. We knew some of them.

Last mailbag item — I promise. This one, sent hours into the crisis on Tuesday, from a Web consultancy in a bucolic part of the country: Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 3:46 PM
Subject: Address the news

Your homepage makes not even an allusion to the current goings. In the interest of your brand and common decency be responsive to these mind-numbing tragedies.

See Espn.com or Google.com as examples. (BTW, this person’s own company site continues to have no mention of the events.)

We’re all upset. But let’s not take this out on one another. Did ClickZ address the tragedy? Yes. We’re in Boston and New York, not Silicon Valley or Seattle. I could write reams about that day, but suffice it to say that despite server failures, dead phones, and disrupted email connections, an office evacuation, no transportation, not to mention fear, horror, and panic, we responded and continued to work and persisted.

How to sum up this week’s mind-numbing events as an Internet marketing case-study? That would be beyond presumptuous. Suffice it to say this is an opportunity to remember that words and messages are powerful weapons. Let’s be angry, but let’s also be smart. Think about what you’re saying to whom and when. Think about what’s real. Don’t attack Arabs or Muslims on message boards. Don’t kid yourself that we or any other Web site can post a message that will somehow make all this go away. Don’t use hurtful language, particularly when your intentions are good. If there’s too little goodness in the world right now, then let’s, in the way that we communicate, amplify what there is left. We’re marketers, after all. We’re supposed to be good at that.

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

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