Spam Solution: Charge for Commercial Email

I hate spam.

I also hate the fact that a number of self-appointed people are censoring email as spam, blocking messages all over the Internet. School book depositories are emerging on the Net manned by zealots — the Lee Harvey Oswalds of spam. The movement is small, but it’s growing — along with the insane amount of spam.

As you read this, after sifting through hundreds of spam messages in your inbox, you may wonder how all that spam gets through (read TalkBiz News’s excellent assessment of this online movement). What you should be wondering is whether your email reaches your recipients and if your affiliates’ emails could hurt your business. What they do reflects on your company. They could cause your email to be blocked without your knowledge.

If your messages do one of the following, they could be tagged as spam and blocked:

  • Talks about “a limited time offer” (0.841)

  • Offers a “money back guarantee” (1.489)

  • Discusses “a strong buy” (3.838)

  • Claims to honor removal requests (4.536)

The list is from SpamAssassin, one new tool that may be blocking your email from intended recipients. SpamAssassin is not widespread, but its techniques are. The numbers next to the phrases indicate how “spam relevant” a message is. Exceed 5.0, and the message will be blocked.

Blocks and blacklists are determined by the whims of individuals and organizations. Most are sane, solid marketers trying to limit an overwhelming proliferation of junk email. Some judge email by their own standards, such as SpamCop. SpamAssassin and its ilk are the first wave of antispam tools. The next wave will come with a cost — the cost of making sure your email is delivered.

I advocate the creation of a Network Solutions-like company, a quasi-official body that will sell guaranteed access to email addresses. That third-party solution would possess a master list and database, along with a controlled blacklist. It would audit and regulate commercial email, and marketers would pay for email it tags for delivery. After a few years, this work could be deregulated and delivery companies could compete in the space.

The idea may be optimistic, but it’s not completely unprecedented.

A Brief History of Direct Mail

As Santayana once said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the early 19th century, U.S. mail could be sent for free, but only within urban areas. Rural delivery began at the turn of the century.

When mail started reaching the entire country, the marketing onslaught began. It was the end of the world! The horror of all those commercial messages! Companies mailed literally tons of catalogs. A new industry was born, and postal carriers’ backs were aching.

When mail was free, users often did not accept delivery or bother to go to the post office to collect it. The postal service bore the cost. In large part, this accounted for the introduction of fees to ensure delivery.

That’s why a new cost structure will evolve for email. The spam issue will not be solved by random, anarchic filtering of email subject to specific individuals’ definition of marketing. The pain is now borne not by the backs of postal workers but by end users, ISPs, and overloaded servers, not to mention legitimate marketers unjustly labeled spammers.

Marketers are not evil, nor is commercialism. The Net is becoming mainstream, and the amount of spam is increasing. Charges for commercial email will hopefully protect everyone. In some way, shape, or form, spam will continue. You can’t stop bright minds from finding holes in the code.

The Price of Admission Is a Commercial Fee

Marketers want to reach their audiences. Commercial marketers will be charged to guarantee email delivery. That will tube most of the “I’ve got 50 million opt-in emails in my permission-based spam list” brokers. How fees will be structured is debatable. Certainly you’ll no longer see huge email lists; rather you’ll see focused, targeted lists at a higher cost.

I hate spam. As a marketer, I hate that my good email is hurt by all the garbage out there. That’s why I’m willing to pay for delivery of my commercial messages.

Like direct mail, the charge is coming. In the meantime, keep on top of blocking issues. Your email may not reach end users, even if you think you’re not spamming. You say it’s opt-in, but someone else might not think so. This lack of standards is a direct threat to your business. Your affiliates are on the front lines of the battle. Keep a close eye on them. One bad affiliate could ruin your business with one carelessly worded email.

Though I wouldn’t eliminate email from my affiliates’ arsenal, I’m much pickier about who are permitted to send it.

P.S. I’ll be at the conference in New York next week. Feel free to email me if you’d like to say hello.

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