Is Targeted Spam Still Spam?

An interesting debate is developing in email marketing between those who’ve been burned by the charge of spamming and those who believe targeting makes the whole issue moot.

MessageMedia is in the former camp. They practice opt-in email marketing, but find their clients don’t always close the loop in the right way, through a direct email from the recipient confirming they have joined the list. Too often this isn’t done until a name is added to a list.

The difference may not mean much to you, but failing to close the loop can get you in trouble with the Posse Comispam-ee, the Mail Abuse Prevention System’s Real-Time Blackhole List. Derek Scruggs, who is MessageMedia’s permission advocate, says these are tough hombres. Whether the anti-spam vigilantes represent a majority view is not the point. The point is that they represent real trouble.

On the other side are folks like Bill Herp of e-Dialog, who says the “spam” issue goes away if email is properly targeted. Bill’s view is gaining currency within the direct marketing community. For a message to be spam, these marketers say, it must not only be unsolicited, but irrelevant and off-target. If it’s on-target, it’s not spam.

There are already rumblings against this view in the anti-spamming community. The e-Dialog software, dubbed EMMIT, is also being dubbed “spamware” (and them’s fighting words) by anti-spammers like Mike Fluggennock, writing on newsgroups like

If Mr. Herp has the time this week, he might want to visit this thread: He might also want to take a good long look at the sites of the people participating in it. These are not the kind of people you want to meet in a dark web alley.

And make no mistake, this is a very dark web alley indeed. One of the surest predictions for 2000 is that there’s going to be a rumble there, especially after the Direct Marketing Association launches its “universal opt-out list,” which the anti-spammers hate like Vladimir Putin hates Chechen guerrillas. But the DMA thinks it’s Putin, and that the anti-spammers are the rebels, and the DMA’s heavy artillery consists of the law and lawyers.

When a lot of knowledgeable advocates hit a host of lawyers, what you have is nothing less than cyberwar. I see DMA members getting put on the RBL list, the DMA suing to destroy the RBL, and (especially if they win) a lot of anti-spammers going underground.

More important, I can see this confrontation spilling over into our politics, a very volatile mix indeed. Marketers have stopped anti-spam legislation from getting through Congress so far. But a highly publicized fight of lawyers vs. programmers could move Congresspeople anxious to preen before voters into doing something the industry won’t like at all.

That’s my fear, anyway. What’s worse is that the whole fight is unnecessary. The real issue at stake is prospecting, and calling on targeted prospects. Even if you get a clickthrough of 10-20 percent, 80-90 percent of your targeted prospects won’t bite, and your message risks their anger.

For hundreds of years, direct marketers have had effective methods of dealing with this – they paid people for their attention. The Fuller Brush man had his free sample, the magazine industry had Ed McMahon’s contests, and emailers need similar mechanisms to get around the fact that their contact method costs them no money. If a targeted prospect is worth money to you, why risk angering them for the “principle” of free contact?

I guess all I’m saying is give email peace a chance.

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