Will Spam Kill the Golden Goose?

Is it time to ask whether or not direct marketing as we know it can survive in a world increasingly crowded with commercial messages?

I started thinking about this recently after a slightly embarrassing experience with @Home Internet service. Having recently moved, I went to @Home to find out whether or not it was available in my area. I filled in a form asking to be notified when it was, hit “Submit,” and then forgot about it.

A couple of weeks ago, an @Home representative started calling and leaving messages. Unfortunately, the representative didn’t say who he or she was. All my wife heard was “Hello, this is a message for Mr. Sean Carton from Comcast. Could you please call us back at…”

Not knowing that I had requested the information, my wife deleted the messages. After all, who would call asking for me (and calling me “Mr.”!) if he or she wasn’t trying to sell me something? Eventually my wife picked up the phone when the @Home representative called, and she found out that @Home was performing some good customer service by letting us know when the upgrade would be available. We were happy.

But it got me thinking. How many legitimate (and helpful) commercial communications are being filtered out by people who’ve grown increasingly sick of telemarketers, spammers, and the like? How many letters have I thrown in the trash without opening (I look at my mail over the trash can) because they looked like sales pitches? How many phone calls have been ignored by people who needed to hear them because the callers sounded a little too much like the telemarketers we’ve all been trained to ignore or hate in scenarios like the following:

    Customer Service Person: “Hello? Ms. So-and-so? Yes, I’m calling from…”

    Consumer: “No thank you; I’m not interested.”

    Customer Service Person: “But I’m calling to…”

    Consumer: “I’m not interested. I’m eating dinner. Can I have your phone number so I can bother you at home? No? Goodbye.”

    Customer Service Person: “But I just wanted to…”

    Consumer: CLICK!

    Customer Service Person: “(sigh) …tell you I’m calling from Home Depot and your blinds are in…”

Email is just as bad. When I got to work this morning, 67 of the 92 messages in my inbox were what I considered spam. Whether it is unsolicited from unscrupulous operators or from marketers I’d given my “permission” to at some point in time and haven’t been able to remove myself from their lists, I’ve just gotten into the habit of deleting nearly everything that doesn’t come in from people I know. I realize it’s not always in my best interest — there may be some stuff I’m really interested in among the chaff — but I’m suffering from “info overload.” I can’t deal with it all, and I’m beginning to tune out.

Direct marketing and its sophisticated cousin, “permission marketing,” obviously do work to some extent. With the right creative and the right list and an eye for the numbers, the percentages can work out so that the cost of conversion does exceed the cost of the program. I’m not disputing that. It’s a fact.

In this electronic age where sending a message via email costs nearly nothing, many of the traditional barriers to mass marketing are gone. In the past, consumers’ exposure to direct messages were fairly limited because mouths on the phone and stuff in the mail cost money. Email removes that barrier, making “throw it against the wall and hope something sticks” untargeted marketing a lot more attractive to unsophisticated or unscrupulous operators. Tie this in with the relative anonymity of the Internet (and the unenforceability of the laws currently in place), and we may have a situation where the golden goose is rapidly getting cooked.

The situation is bad now, and it’s going to get worse. Jupiter estimates that the average user will receive 950 Internet-based marketing messages (ads and emails) per day by 2005. The average number of commercial emails per customer per year is expected to grow from 40 in 1999 to 1,600 in the same period.

A study by Pitney Bowes estimates that U.S. workers today receive 196 messages per day by email, fax, voice mail, pagers, etc. And new developments in the wireless world are going to add to the noise: More than 9 billion short text messages were sent globally in August of this year, according to the GSM Association, and Logica estimates that the global volume of short text messages will increase 170 percent per year.

Whew! That’s a lot of messages! But as channels increase and the volume of information does not decrease, what does the future hold for marketers who want to use these channels to communicate to their target markets?

If consumer cynicism keeps heading up (and there’s no reason to think it won’t), and the trend toward increasing consumer control continues (as Yankelovich says it will, and I agree), will more and more consumers start to tune out?

As I wrote last week, many users are increasingly reporting that they’re bored with the Net, bored with the hype surrounding the web, and want real-life solutions, not more irrelevant marketing messages. Just as click-through rates have precipitously declined over the past few years as the novelty of banners wore off, it may soon become impossible (if it hasn’t already) to reach certain savvy populations with outbound messages — “permission based” or not.

As an industry, we need to seriously start considering what the explosion of noise is going to do to all of us and start actively taking steps to stem the tide of people who don’t follow the rules and don’t care about the consumer. As a lot of dot-coms are finding out as they slide into dot-bombs, the web has an amazing ability to commodify everything. Differentiation through superior service may be the only way to maintain a foothold in a world where all businesses are virtually a click away.

The Wireless Advertising Association, an offshoot of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), has taken a pretty hard stance on spam because it realizes that the future of any marketing via wireless devices will be in jeopardy if the medium gets abused the same way Internet-based email is now.

We all need to follow suit with some tough professional standards of our own. If we don’t act now to make a commitment to think of the consumer first, that same consumer is going to think of us last when it comes to making a buying decision in the future.

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