The Trouble With Spam

This may be the season for giving, but so far I’ve received mostly spam. In the last few weeks, my email box has been inundated with spam — noxious emails from marketers hawking items, including electronic appliances, books, and self help. So far, the most intriguing piece of spam I’ve received has a subject line which asks, “What can email do for you?”

I wonder.

One of the worst things about these unsolicited emails in my mailbox is that I know where they come from. They began arriving just after I wrote my first article for this publication. Located at the bottom of this column each week is my personal email address, which readers have used over the past several weeks to send me some terrific feedback. Unfortunately, by putting up my email address, I’ve also put it in a place where it can be “scraped” by unscrupulous marketers who add it to their lists for daily spam blasts.

But this isn’t the worst thing about receiving spam regularly. The worst thing is that some of it might actually be good, at least in terms of its effectiveness. There are techniques here from which legitimate marketers might learn. This may be scary. It may be sad. But it is also true. (For a comparable analogy, just think of where we’d be if it weren’t for the innovation demonstrated by your average porn operator. The development of videotapes, secure shopping carts, and America Online have all been helped along by the porn industry.)

Here, then, without further caveat, are a few gems I’ve received from spammers.

The best pieces of spam I’ve seen are those that presume to know me. With subject lines such as “Are you there?” or “Found you…,” these emails have tricked me into opening them more than once. Then there is the email whose subject line reads only “Private.” This has also worked on me for some reason. And my favorite of this category asks, “Are you single?”

Clearly, those emails that offer “half-price” or dramatic offers have their place. Just ask me, and I’ll let you in on a deal for anything from cheap flowers to healthcare insurance to weight-loss pills. I can also get a cheap high-speed Internet connection, up to $1,000 in credit, or a free cell phone if I sign up now.

In another category are those spams that rely not on cunning for their effectiveness but on their use of technology. I’ve recently received an email that says, “Send Flash Ads or HTML Mail to your customers.” And guess what? While still in preview mode, this email displays animated letters dancing across my screen and begins playing synthesized music over my computer speakers. My neighboring coworker tells me that this email is “definitely evil.”

This puts things in perspective. “Evil” is not a word to be tossed about lightly, and I think my coworker is serious. In the grand scheme of things, spam is clearly not a major wrong. But it is not right, either.

Though it can be clever, spam violates many of the more important rules of marketing. Spam is never anticipated, not personal, and rarely relevant. In addition, spammers are often cheats. They are in the same category as those marketers of “membership programs” that do nothing more than bilk honest consumers. Rotten marketers can sometimes be very effective. Our challenge is to tell the difference between effective marketers and good ones. I think most people can spot evil when they see it.

So, this week’s lesson is a timely one, in tune with the holiday season (and perhaps the traditional holiday airing of “Star Wars”). Even in our little corner of the world, where we discuss relatively innocuous topics, the battle between good and evil rages. If you’re a clever marketer, you can learn from some of the things that spammers do to be effective. But don’t become one yourself, young Jedi. Use your powers for good rather than evil.

Analyzing Customer Data will return on Monday, January 7th. Happy holidays from ClickZ!

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