What Fighting Spam Taught Me About Marketing (and Market Forces)

Yesterday I reflected on the emergence of the spam problem and some early work on anti-spam strategies. I'd like to continue the topic today with a second observation from early in 2001:

2. A lot of people want to receive relevant offers.

This is not the same as observation #1 in my previous post: Some people like unsolicited email. Back in 2001, point #1 was true: a not insignificant percentage of email users were open to getting email they didn't ask for. This percentage dropped rapidly over the next few years as the quantity of unsolicited email that these people received increased, together with the proportion of that email which was deceptive and distasteful.

What did not change is point #2; it is human nature to be receptive to a good deal IF it is relevant. We realized this... ...when we researched spam in 2001. Back then it was not unusual for fairly "respectable" companies to send out commercial email to consumers even if those consumers had not explicitly asked to get email from that company. The reason is another side of human nature: what business person could resist the temptation to contact, tens of thousands, possibly even millions, of potential customers, at virtually no cost?

So, one might occasionally get a coupon or other offer, out of the blue, and relevant. For example, you might get an email offering 20% off new drapes from Beyond Beds and Things just as you were deciding your living room needed new drapes; or an invitation to test drive a new model of pickup truck, just as you were deciding you were in the market for a pickup. While such happy coincidences were not, at least in my experience, all that common, they pointed out the fact that people like relevant offers. Furthermore, just like many of us don't want to miss out on a good deal IF it is relevant, many of us are prepared to share, to a certain degree and under certain circumstances, what our interest are, in order that we recieve relevant offers.

Now, in 2008, no respectable company is going to send out an email blast to people who have not given permission for that company to send them email. That's because anti-UCE sentiment increased dramatically, at the same that the smarter of the marketing folks figured out there was a big difference between putting junk mail in your snail mail box and putting junk mail in your email inbox. The latter is a. way more annoying, b. way beyond the control of the postal inspectors (a lot of spam content, if sent through the U.S. Mail, would result in heavy fines). Furthermore, the sleazy nature of a lot of spam threatened to give all commercial email a bad name.

So, we saw a shift of behaviour in which market forces--namely the desire to make friends with customers as opposed to annoy them--put the brakes on UCE from "legitimate" companies. Some firms saw the light sooner than others. Some had a hard time reigning in their marketing people, some of whom tried to weasel their way around the issue of permission (e.g. pre-selecting permission boxes on order forms or otherwise implying permission to email someone when that permission was not explicit). But in general, a new and acceptable standard was set. In retrospect the shift was fairly rapid.

Pretty soon most companies had policies in place to prevent themselves from sending spam, together with procedures by which consumer could reliably opt out of any email list the company used. Assisting the shift was the realization that it was much more productive to send email to customers who had asked to receive it, rather than just take a chance with an unsolicited mailing (a chance which included the possibility of annoying the recipient to the point where you soured the relationship even before you got started).

Which brings me back to the question of how technology can help companies communicate with those consumers who are prepared to share, to a certain degree and under certain circumstances, what their interest are, in order to receive relevant offers. If UCE was not the answer, then what? I will get to that in my next post on this topic.

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