Spam: Not Just for E-Mail Anymore

It isn’t often mainstream television delivers insightful commentary on the interactive marketing space. This weekend, however, I was surprised to find just that on a repeat episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

The episode featured a sketch called “The Spammies,” which spoofed awards shows like the GRAMMY Awards. The categories, however, were all related to the best unsolicited email messages of the year.

Among the presenters for awards, which included “most compelling spam message,” were some of the better-known spam offenders. Even the wealthy Nigerian looking to donate his fortune was there (who hasn’t gotten that message?).

Apart from being amusing, the sketch got me thinking about the incomparably dominant role spam plays in Internet marketing today. For years, a vast proportion of consumers have been annoyed by unsolicited email messages. But seeing the issue mocked by the mainstream media really put things into perspective.

You’re probably thinking your email messages are always CAN-SPAM compliant or that you don’t do enough email marketing to worry about offending potential and existing customers. But spam doesn’t only come in email form — at least, not in consumers’ minds.

Wikipedia defines spam as “the abuse of any electronic communications medium to send unsolicited messages in bulk.” Replace the term “unsolicited” with “unwanted” (a valid trade), and a good portion of the Web’s online ads falls under this definition as well. They may not officially share a name, but that’s of little consequence to consumers. If it looks to be immaterial and appears unwanted, it’s going to be viewed as spam.

That association is bad news for online media buyers and marketers. Your online ads may not get you blacklisted from a site the way an email could (though they may induce a symbolic blacklisting through lack of action), but is that any comfort when your target audience perceives your message as spam? Like spam messages, unwanted online ads can be effective at inciting results. But are you willing to risk offending potential customers for a few quick bucks?

Most shocking of all is most marketers don’t realize their messages are perceived this way. As long as they produce results, what would tip them off? Unfortunately, not much. But that doesn’t mean they can’t redeem themselves by analyzing how their ads fare on a makeshift spam scale.


Consumers make little distinction between unsolicited marketing messages and messages they consider irrelevant. To most people, they are one and the same and are instantly decreed spam. Once, we interactive marketers might have declared this generalization inequitable. But in today’s online advertising environment, where contextual advertising products are a dime a dozen, we really have to reap what we sow.

If your ads aren’t contextually relevant (meaning the product, service, and message relate specifically to the content on the pages on which they appear), you may deliver what consumers perceive to be spam. Give them a reason to take interest in your ads, and show them you respect their time and space.

Targeted Delivery

For many, the term “targeting” evokes the off-putting image of an arrow being aimed at a bull’s-eye on an unsuspecting consumer’s chest. Think of it more as a quest to find the perfect customer — that ideal match for your product or service offering. Does your product and message relate directly to the needs and wants of your site audience, based on its demographic and psychographic profile (which most sites will provide)? Or are your ads in a general rotation, with cost and convenience alone motivating your placement choices? The latter could have Internet users equating your ads with spam.

The exception to this rule is those few products that appeal to a virtually unlimited audience (think Coca-Cola and Burger King). And even they benefit greatly from delivering a relevant ad message versus speaking to the masses.


One of the aspects of email spam that annoys consumers most is the frequency with which the same messages make their way into an inbox. For marketers, the practice denotes desperation (the phrase “grasping at straws” comes to mind).

Online ads that appear repeatedly to Internet users, particularly those that are irrelevant and untargeted, ultimately have the same effect. Capping the frequency with which you deliver a single ad impression to each Internet user, therefore, can help you differentiate yourself from ad spammers.

Consider the preceding online advertising best practices and the degree to which you’re making them a part of your campaigns. I’d wager the last thing your company needs is to be nominated for a “Spammie” next year.

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