This Week’s Agenda: Email Arms Race

The folks at Blue Sky Factory in Baltimore sent me a demo of their new email technology, eyebox, the other day, and my reaction was very different than it would have been not long ago.

The demo featured whirling colors and loud music that displayed once I highlighted the message in my inbox. (I didn’t have to open the message to get this rich media experience — just highlight it in the inbox list.) I opened the email in WordPad and found that it built a frame and table, then performed a call to a server that streamed its message.

The folks at Blue Sky were very excited about the possibilities this holds for marketers. A few years ago, I would have been excited, too. The reason I’m not any longer can be found in my spam folder.

I predicted a few years ago that spammers would grab advanced email marketing tools and run with them; critics dismissed this idea. But the inbox doesn’t lie. Here are some highlights from just the last two weeks:

  • I’ve gotten spam from porn sites that try to load dialers onto my system.
  • I’ve gotten a phony virus warning with a remove link that builds a list of responders to be sold to other spammers.
  • I’ve gotten spam from an “Executive Guild Registry” that throws a pop-up at me when I pass over it.
  • I’ve gotten a spam from China that throws up two pop-ups, but both they and the message are in Chinese so I have no idea what they’re about.
  • I’ve received a lot of spam that automatically starts trying to load foreign-language support from inside my own system when I highlight the email.
  • I’ve gotten spam that claims to be an auto response to a message I supposedly sent.
  • I’ve gotten spam that claims to be from Business Wire, which links to stories supposedly on Yahoo Finance, but that actually comes from China.
  • I’ve gotten political spam aplenty since September 11, from radical Christians, peace activists, and thieves claiming to be selling American flags.
  • I’ve gotten spam that draws phony gift certificates on my screen, spam that claims to be opt-in newsletters, and spam that is so nasty, I had to delete it, delete my deleted items folder, empty my recycle bin, and take a shower before proceeding with my work.
  • I’ve also gotten a lot of “semi-spam” from mail-order vendors who think my purchase was an opt-in to whatever they want to throw at me. Offenders here include, Microsoft, Best Buy, TravelSmith, and PeeperSleepers, which sells sleep masks. Though these direct marketers routinely age their paper lists and delete names that don’t respond, they don’t seem to do this with email because they don’t see the cost.

I’m not trying to start an argument about what is spam or whether it should be legal. What I’m saying is that spammers have taken the entire arsenal of email marketing — opt-in requests, rich technology attachments — and run with them. I have no doubt that, within a very short time, they’ll do the same with Blue Sky’s invention.

The problem isn’t just that spam clutters inboxes, clogs the Internet’s arteries like cholesterol, displays porn to kids, and often represents attempts at fraud.

The problem is that spam is destroying the goodwill of all of our customers, misusing every advance created for legitimate marketers, and creating an arms race between filter companies and anyone who wants to broadcast a message using email.

The Direct Marketing Association has spoken out against spam and said that it’s unethical. But the group has also actively resisted attempts to legislate against spam. At this point, it’s probably too late to do anything to save the medium. By protecting those who run on the ragged edge of the law, the industry has hurt both itself and those who, like the folks at Blue Sky, merely want to serve us.

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