timone NetMarketing
disponibile anche in italiano

Marketing in the internet – as seen from Italy

No. 66 – October 2, 2002

Other articles on similar subjects
are published in English
in the monthly Offline column


loghino.gif (1071 byte) 1. Editorial: The spam disease (part two)

This issue of Netmarketing is about one subject: spam. The disease is getting worse. It was discussed in this newsletter several times – e.g. in March 1997, in December 2000 and recently in August 2002. Of course it isn’t new. Only recently it came to the attention of mainstream media and authorities worldwide, but discussions are confused and inconclusive.

Federal and state authorities in the United States are experimenting with ways of limiting spam, which so far have been totally ineffective. The European Union has “good intentions” but it’s unlikely that its actions will solve the problem.

Business interests ignored the spam problem for many years. Many appeared to believe that it could be tolerated, or even promoted, as a business tool. Now they are awakening for a selfish reason: they are getting hurt by the spam invasion. I don’t know how a source in Brussels worked out that the burden in Europe is ten billion euro in connection costs alone. Of course the actual damage is enormously larger.

Spam-like problems are multiplying in other communication environments. Phone (including mobile), fax, etcetera. None of this, of course, is new. Many online scams are variations of old tricks. Such as chain letters, confidence games, miracle drugs, etcetera. Some scams use a combination of media – such as those that trick people into using expensive phone lines. New tricks are invented every day, but most are essentially the same that were around many years ago and are endlessly repeated in search of new, unaware victims.

This jungle is so complicated that, so far, nobody has been able to untangle it effectively. There is no “universal” treatment for this messy combination of diseases. Several ways of fighting spam need to be applied simultaneously.

For instance swindlers should (and could) be persecuted, legally and otherwise, regardless of which tools they are using. There is no need for new legislation, though of course it isn’t always easy to catch the offenders across borders. But if international tracing of criminals is being developed for other reasons it shouldn’t be too difficult to do it also for spam. If more online swindlers were seriously fined or otherwise punished, that may help to discourage the constant proliferation of the same tricks.

Another important tool is information. People, companies, organizations and communities should be made more widely (and clearly) aware of the problem. Not to spread confusing scare and distrust (some types of spam are based on false alarms) but to disclose the tricks and traps and thus make spamming ineffective.

Technology, if well applied, could help to block spam. Several devices have been developed, but none, so far, have been able to solve the problem

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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 2. Privacy and fake “profiling”

Privacy and spamming are different problems. The two issues overlap, but they don’t coincide. Some control authorities appear to think that spam can be brought under control if privacy is protected. Some “e-mail marketing” advocates argue that spam is ok when it isn’t based on illegally captured data (or they claim that it’s to be accepted in any case, because they believe that data protection is unfair or exaggerated.)

Of course privacy and data protection are relevant issues, but spam is something else. List merchants claim that they are offering “selected” lists of people who are interested in this or that – while they are selling masses of randomly assembled e-mail addresses with no selectivity. Some of those addresses are taken from publicly available sources, some are “stolen” in a variety of ways. In many cases there are violations of privacy and there is “capturing” of personal data without consent, but spamming and list trading are a problem regardless of how the information was obtained in the first place.

Addresses are bundled indiscriminately in large masses. List sellers are spammers and liars. It’s a known fact that “unsubscribe” devices don’t work and are often used as a tool to generate more spamming. A few spammers appear to be naive (they genuinely believe that they have been buying lists of people who agreed to receive a certain type of offer) but in most cases it’s obvious that they are deliberately using junk lists to spread junk mail.

“Profiling”, in spite of the hype, doesn’t work. It may be useful in other situations, when people can’t be identified individually. A classic example is advertising in mainstream media, where analyzing demographics or lifestyles of prospects can help to reduce waste – but decades of experience and sophisticated computerized models aren’t enough to achieve precise “targeting”.

In the case of the internet, “profiling” is a practically total failure. And it’s useless, as I explained in anarticle tree years ago We can forget “segmentation”. (On this subject see also Trading in souls and They’ve sold my soul).

The problem is that e-mail is cheap. One reply in a hundred would be a disaster in any mail order business, but one in ten thousand can be cost-effective online. This is one reason why spamming continues to grow – and random lists of mailboxes (often falsely claiming to be “targeted”) are so widely sold.

Ironically, phony offers of privacy protection are one of the tricks for capturing e-mail addresses and personal data.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 3. Opt in and opt out

The old, useless debates about “push and pull” seem to be out of the way – but there is a lot of (often misleading) discussion about “opt in” and “opt out”.

In a healthy, well balanced relationship occasional “opt out” approaches may be reasonable, as long as they not too invasive and that the “out” option is true and easy. But in an environment so intensely infected by spamming and trickery, opt-in is the only acceptable solution. And it must be real. One of the most mischievous sources of spam is the trafficking in lists of addresses that are sold as “opt ins” while the people concerned were never offered an option – and there are countless traps in websites where people are tricked into clicking on something that doesn’t look like an “opt in” and find themselves inundated by offers that they never wanted to receive.

The European Union appears to have understood the situation and to believe that only clear and proven opt-in is acceptable. It remains to be seen how that correct concept can be applied practically.

Post scriptum

On this subject, in addition to two cartoons about spam that were included in issue 54, here is one more published by Illiad on November 5, 2002, that doesn’t need any additional comment.



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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 4. What spam isn’t

The disease that we call spam is a mixture of several different things. It isn’t easy to have a clear definition. It may help to understand what it isn’t.

It isn’t new

Spam, of course, is a type of canned food. It took a new meaning in net jargon after the 1970 Monty Python Flying Circus. It was clearly identified as a problem in netiquette documents in the mid Eighties.

The disease has been around for a long time. The relatively new fact is that it’s spreading more viciously and widely that ever before.

It isn’t only “commercial”

The current wave of spam originates mostly from attempts to sell something (or to steal money.)  But there are forms of non-commercial spam. Hoaxes and jokes (which often aren’t funny), wide spreading of “news” that may perhaps be interesting for two or three people, exaggerated copying of e-mail, etcetera.

Any attempt to treat the spam disease effectively should be able to remove, or at least discourage, also its non-commercial variations.

And... to make things worse... there are nasty viruses such as Klez that spread messages with a false “from” address – so we can find ourselves appearing involuntary spammers without even knowing that it’s happening.

Not all unrequested mail is spam

Of course we can’t call “spam” any message arriving from someone we don’t know. Meeting new people, who share our interests or have something interesting to say, is one of the pleasures of being online.

Spam can often be easily identified by its repetitive style and language, but it’s still a problem to get rid of it without eliminating things that we want to read. That’s one more reason why it’s important to get rid of spam – while it makes it difficult to set up effective automated defenses.

Chain letters

Of course there were chain letters before the internet. But obviously it’s easier to spread them online. The problem is clearly defined in all netiquette documents – and the solution is simple. Break them, always, no matter what the subject. Even when they are disguised as “good causes” or charities.

Anyone who wants to promote a genuine cause, or seek help for a real need, should use other forms of communication – never a “chain letter”.

Jokes and hoaxes

Humor is fun and a good joke can be amusing. Within reason, this is the most acceptable form of spam. But there is too much of it, quite often it isn’t funny, and three is some trickery disguising as humor (as in the case of “joke lists” that capture addresses and re-sell them for commercial use.)

And of course there are virus hoaxes. Some are fun, as the 1998 April Fool “Trout” joke. Some are treacherous, as they scare people into harming themselves (as in the case of SULFNBK.EXE.)

Hoaxes are generally easy to identify, because (like other types of spam) they often have a repetitive style. But, in any case, we should never forward to our friends any warning or “scare” message before double-checking if it’s genuine.

It isn’t “advertising”

We can like or dislike advertising, but it has nothing to do with spam. It’s in the media, we can notice it or ignore it, it isn’t forced into our mailbox and it doesn’t disguise as personal mail. Also, with rare (and illegal) exceptions, the advertiser has a clear identity and takes full responsibility for the claims and promises.

Spam advocates try to justify it as “advertising”. Some spam haters call it “advertising”. Both are wrong – and confusing the issue doesn’t help to solve the problem.

It isn’t “direct marketing”

Good direct marketing is based on minimum waste and maximum effectiveness – that is, direct communication with people who are genuinely interested in a subject. That is the opposite of spamming. Good direct marketing (as opposed to “junk mail”) seeks to establish long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

Unfortunately there has been a great deal of preaching about so-called “e-mail marketing” which in practice is just another name for spam.

It isn’t “sales promotion”

There are many different types of sales promotion, from straight discounts to assorted “rewards” or lotteries. They can be more or less interesting or boring, attractive or repelling. But they have nothing to do with spam.

It isn’t “customer service”

It’s ridiculous, but it happens. Spamming is sometimes disguised as customer care or CRM (customer relations management.)  The sooner companies learn that this is stupid, the better it will be for them and for their customers.

It isn’t “marketing”

In many environments “marketing” has become a bad word, because it’s used to justify all sorts of messy behavior. Spam is a typical example. This is a serious problem for all the people involved in professional marketing – as well as all companies that market goods and services (that means all businesses, including those that don’t have a marketing department or don’t practice marketing as an identified discipline.)  They should all be very actively involved in fighting distorted practices, of which spam is a particularly obnoxious example.

It isn’t good business

Spam can be making money for crooks and swindlers (including list traders) but it’s harmful for the economy in general, for online business and for all companies who want to operate in a healthy and rewarding marketplace.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 5. How to avoid spam

The most important tool against spam is knowing what it is. Ideally, if everyone online understood the danger nobody would answer and spammers would run out of steam. That, at the present state of affairs, isn’t a strong enough remedy – but making people aware of the problem is a vital step.

Authorities are beginning to act. But are they going to be able to find effective antidotes without making things worse with bureaucracy and interference?

Technologies? There are many, and more are being developed, but so far they haven’t solved the problem. There could be interesting improvements if ways were found to enable each person or organization to set its own filtering standards. Centralized controls aren’t the best solution – and they can be tricky. There are already several examples of alleged “protection” that are tools for piloting people online (that’s spam under another disguise.)

Individual people who use e-mail only for private correspondence have an easy solution. They can change their mailbox and so disappear from all lists except those of their choice. It will take several months for spammers to find their new address – if and when it happens they can change again.

It’s much more difficult for people or organizations that have an established presence online. And that is why effective remedies must be found.



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