What I Have Learned From Spammers

In my last column, I took a look at the ways that professional spammers innovate using e-mail, and pointed out a few points we could all take away and apply to our future efforts. While some people loved this column, others laughed, and a few others pointed out that life is not all roses in the professional spamming world.

So in this column I wanted to look at the underbelly of professional spamming. I asked good friend and long time privacy and e-mail expert Ben Isaacson, (privacy and compliance leader at Experian) to chime in with the impact that spam has on our infrastructures, client relationships, and brand reputations that we may not always consider.

Jeanniey Mullen: In my last column, I positioned spammers as innovation leaders in e-mail. While you can’t disagree that they have been early adopters of some tactics that are now best practices in driving response, the damage they have done to infrastructures and reputation systems has been significant. How big of an issue is this today, and is there any end in sight?

Ben Isaacson: There’s actually a bit of irony in that question. There’s no argument that spam continues to be a major cost-center for networks, with no end in sight. Yet, I can’t help but to point out how sophisticated spam filtering has become because of the constant changing nature of spammers. The truth is that spam (and malware sent via spam) has actually helped innovate an entire industry to the tune of $4 billion in 2008 revenue, according to the Radicati Group, with projected revenue to exceed $6.2 billion in 2012. It should also be pointed out that the competitive nature of the business has led to some truly exceptional results, and I would spin the perennial political question; is there less spam in your (filtered) inbox now than there was four years ago? I suspect most of us will say yes.

JM: While complex filters have helped reduce spam volumes, what type of consumer education or messaging is out there to help people avoid falling into spammers’ traps?

BI: The main education initiative today is not so much how to get off a spammer’s list, but rather how to not become a spammer. And I’m really speaking about consumers, not businesses. The majority of spam today is sent via compromised and coordinated computers, aka, botnets. Companies like Commtouch even track these “zombie” computers.

The best offense is a good defense; so the more we can educate users not to click on potential malware links or programs, or simply force-feed better anti-virus software upgrades, then we’ll stop most spam.

JM: What is the biggest challenge a legitimate e-mail marketer has when it comes to battling spoofing and spam to break through the inbox clutter?

BI: I no longer see the inbox as a marketers battle against spam, but rather a battle between themselves and each others’ mailing frequency. Online advertisers have become incredibly sophisticated with their targeting efforts, yet e-mail marketers have significantly more relevant demographic and user-specific behavioral data. I have always been amazed at how few marketers overlay offline demographics to their e-mail data, or even how long it’s taken most e-mailers to set up a re-marketing program integrated with their Web site data. With just a few more data points, e-mail can be much more dynamic and triggered rather than set on a regular (and increasing) schedule. I again commend you for bringing up the spammers as innovators angle, and warn that if legitimate e-mailers don’t equally innovate their own targeting efforts, then they too will go the way of spam.

Wow! As always, Ben’s insights are spot on and inspirational for all of us in the e-mail marketing industry. I hope you enjoyed reading this column. I learned a lot and am even more energized about our future.

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