Fishbowls Aren’t Always As Transparent As You Think…

About a week ago, I received a “spam” message promoting a virus protection company’s anti-spam products. At first, I was a bit floored that it was from an anti-spam company when I didn’t ask for it, but eventually got over it thinking there was no telling how they got my e-mail address. Could it have been a mistake? Or did they go the easy route and buy a list?

I, like some of us in the anti-spam world, looked into who or what exactly sent the e-mail by checking the full headers of the message. Not to my surprise, it was sent by a known e-mail service provider (ESP) in the market and from an ESP which I’ve worked with on several industry-related projects. I contacted a friend there and asked them to look into how this company got my e-mail address since it was not an opt-in e-mail or a company I’d ever done business with. I received a response from my friend at the ESP abuse department who informed me that the company received my business card from a giveaway “fishbowl” at an anti-spam conference…wait for it…back in 2008! Yes, it took them three years to send me the first e-mail. They didn’t get permission from me just by taking my business card, and the anti-spam conference they are a part of actually has a best common practices document that frowns upon this sort of non-opt-in stuff.

So what’s the problem here? After mentioning this to my wife, she gave me the slap-over-the-head response, which was: “You didn’t think they would ever spam you when you tried to win the Apple product by dropping your business card into the fishbowl?” Of course, I come from a different kind of animal in which opt-in is the best practice and simply dropping my business card in that bowl isn’t marketing permission. Not once did I hear: “By registering for this free item you will get an e-mail from us.” What I heard was: “Drop your business card in here to win an iPod.”

Just because I gave you my e-mail address, doesn’t mean I wanted your newsletter. I didn’t want it nor did I expect it. Aside from my wife’s beliefs, it didn’t constitute permission. You might have assumed I wanted it, but that was a dead-wrong assumption. Assumption does not equal permission.

I can guess that I wasn’t the only person from that conference who got the spam. Can you imagine just how many anti-spammers listed you in their blacklist or tanked your reputation by clicking “This Is Spam”? You shouldn’t rely on the recipient to take the action of opting out either, because many will use the “This Is Spam” button. In this case, I hit delete and filed a complaint with their ESP.

My suggestion would be to either let people know that they will get a marketing e-mail from you three years later (sarcasm) if you put your business card in the fishbowl, give them the option to scribble out their e-mail address if they don’t want that (don’t go append them either), and/or send them an opt-in e-mail first vs. just throwing it onto your lists. If you want to be the company who can tout “100 percent” deliverability to the inbox, don’t use implied consent with giveaways. Get explicit consent, because receivers have no issue with relegating your e-mail stream to the junk box if enough people complain. Also, understand that when I give you my business card, I am giving it to you so you can individually contact me, not so you can spam me.

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