Multichannel Spam

Spam, or unsolicited commercial email (UCE), has become a uniquely reviled form of marketing. Unlike any preceding form of direct contact or straight-to-consumer technique, UCE has inspired retaliation, legislation, and endless debate. Why?

The PC Is Personal

Consumers hate spam for several reasons.

  • It interrupts their computer activities, like work, writing, or communicating with friends; this is similar to telemarketing’s interruptive nature.

  • It uses the recipient’s resources, such as disk space, bandwidth, or email-box space. This is analogous to customer-borne expenses in commercial faxes.
  • It is also perceived as a waste of time; it’s just that much more clutter and noise to filter out. Like junk mail in your mailbox, it’s simply inconvenient and messy.

In many ways, then, spam is no more irritating than other push or contact marketing methods. So why has spam created such a backlash, in a way that telemarketing or direct mail has never managed?

Because Internet technology is new and started out with a different paradigm, consumers had different expectations. Simply put, consumers are used to getting junk mail and telemarketing calls at dinnertime; they are not used to spam and probably won’t be anytime soon. When PCs arrived in their homes, people started out with a different perception — they had invested heavily in buying a piece of equipment that was intended to serve their own productivity and was for their own personal use. More so than TVs, mailboxes, or phones, PCs were considered expensive and private. Spam simply did not fit into this framework.

Mass-Market Attitude

Marketers used to believe that this guarded attitude would change. The assumption was that, eventually, everyone would own a computer and would accept it as a TV-like device, designed to deliver ads and otherwise foist marketing on the user. But this assumption ignored the core differences in perception that had already been established. Users were using the PC to do something. When you sit down at a desk, you have an objective: to do your taxes, to work on a report, to email your grandmother. Anything pushed at you when you are in the middle of doing something is, by definition, an intrusion.

So the Internet has failed to achieve the passive acceptance of ads that characterizes other media.

But it’s worse than that: The emergence of a new anti-ad medium has taught consumers that perhaps push marketing is bad in other media, too. Consumers were empowered, so to speak, by the ability to kill off the electronic marketing being thrown at them. Sure, they have tossed junk mail straight into the recycling bin for years. But they couldn’t stop it from arriving (very easily), nor could they tell the direct mailer how they felt about it or get the sender’s U.S. Mail account terminated.

Spam is uniquely responsive: Recipients can easily retaliate, get the sender disconnected or blocked by their Internet service provider, or otherwise express their sentiments. This new attitude of empowerment and consumer activism is starting to transform the mass-market attitude. Ethical marketers have rejected spam for years, but now antispam sentiments are starting to bleed over into other channels.

Privacy Paranoia

Blame part of the anti-intrusion uprising on empowerment, but don’t forget all the privacy hype in the media that has helped push along the movement. Scare stories about credit card theft, viruses, people hacking into your online bank account, massive online invasion from unknown overseas hackers… Most general consumers couldn’t articulate what all that really means or how it affects their own personal lives. But consumers will often justify spam-hate with “They are invading my privacy!” Spam is, in fact, an invasion of their hard drives, their email accounts, their time, and their productivity, but it is not necessarily a privacy issue, unless their email addresses were obtained through hacking or the unethical sale of a list.

Still, privacy paranoia has become pervasive. It may have started as a online-driven fear, but it’s now creeping into other media. I’m surprised now to hear people protesting all forms of “private” marketing — a ZIP code survey at the checkout line or cashiers asking for a phone number when accepting a check. When a local grocery store chain implemented a card system for discounts, the media covered the “issue” for several days as a privacy violation. The store ended up providing an anonymous alternative for customers who wanted the discount without giving up their addresses or phone numbers. I can’t prove that this reaction against identification was the result of the Internet, but I can suggest that it typifies a trend in consumer attitudes.

Spam Backfires

Consumers have learned a lot from the Internet: how to communicate, how to research, how to spot a scam, and the benefits of anonymity. It is ironic that email was originally touted as the ideal one-to-one device — cheap, fast, and automated. But instead, the Internet has managed to educate consumers to the point that they are rejecting spam — and now even banners.

It shouldn’t surprise marketers that this “education” will spill over into other forms of direct marketing: Once consumers learn to revile spam, it’s only a short jump to reviling telemarketing, direct mail, and door-to-door sales. You may not use spam in your current marketing mix, but do your customers perceive your direct mail pieces as “postal spam”? Are your telemarketing and sales calls perceived as “phone spam”? Marketers already know that spam is ineffective and even dangerous — to tempt retaliation and consumer wrath is just too scary. But if spam has the effect of turning consumers against all direct marketing, marketers may have a whole other reason to fear spam.

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