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Commentary: Spam ineffective, but it's here to stay

Like junk mail on paper, unsolicited commercial email is an annoyance that people will have to live with, but Meta Group research shows that spamming is not effective marketing.

Spam, or unsolicited commercial email, is the junk mail of the Internet, and like junk mail on paper is an annoyance that people will have to live with. However, Meta Group's research shows that spamming is not effective marketing and can alienate customers.

While it will never disappear, it has become associated with untrustworthy, fly-by-night outfits. Legitimate retail companies seldom engage in spamming because they recognize that it drives prospects away rather than attracting them. As a result, the practice has gained an unsavory association for consumers.

Spam can be especially annoying to people who are paying by the minute to use their email and for business and vacation travelers who are checking their email over slow hotel connections. However, for most of us, spam is simply why the delete key was created.

See news story:
AT&T admits spam offense after contract exposed
Spam, however, can mean much more than an annoyance for companies. It can affect email system performance and cut into worker productivity. In extreme cases, spam can trigger harassment suits by employees upset by the often salacious content of spam messages.

Companies need to take serious action to block spam from entering their corporate email systems to protect themselves and their employees from this material and the legal exposure it creates.

Despite the efforts of anti-spamming organizations to raise the issue, anti-spamming efforts, even by industry giants such as America Online, which has sued spammers in the past, are often ineffective because spammers can just change addresses and operating names and go back into business. Ultimately, spammers will respond to customers who decide not to do business with companies relying on poor business practices.

While effective Web-based marketing strategies are still evolving, Meta Group research has identified the following email marketing rules, based on the early experience of retailers:

• Avoid spam. Never send email to customers or prospective customers who have not directly or indirectly, such as through opt-in lists, indicated their willingness to receive marketing-oriented mail. Anything else is spam.

• Manage bouncebacks. Between 5 percent and 30 percent of mail is automatically returned, or bounced back, to the sending company because of incorrect addresses, out-of-office messages, or down routers or gateways.

• Bouncebacks need to be managed properly. Incorrect addresses must be pruned from the lists, no further action is needed for out-of-office messages, and down router or gateway messages must be resent.

• Segment the list. Ways to logically segment the list should be continually examined. Inactive customers must be treated differently from active customers, and customers with specific interests--based on explicit declarations or tacit observation--should receive targeted content.

• Respond quickly. The minimum goal is 24-hour turnaround for all simple mail-based customer inquiries. More complex interactions such as annuity surrender in the insurance industry may take longer, but a short message acknowledging receipt should be sent immediately.

• Make it valuable. Customers' time should not be wasted with marketing blather. They should be sent early warnings about upcoming sales, receive 10 percent-off coupons, or learn the latest news about a declared topical interest. There must be something the customer considers to be of value in each email.

• Don't hide the humans. Most automatic email replies should be vetted by a human prior to sending. The call center should be aware of email interactions. A phone number should be provided in case the customer wants some voice-to-voice time.

• Capture that address. No opportunity to capture a customer or prospective customers' email address should be lost. Retailers should constantly troll for addresses, and offer promotions such as 10 percent off the next purchase in return for an email address.

• Exploit routine communications. Marketing promotions should be included in routine mail correspondence, such as shipment information or event notifications, because these communications are often read closely by recipients.

• Survey the customer base. Focus groups, electronic surveys and in-store surveys should all be used to determine what services customers would like to receive via email.

• Coordinate campaigns. If similar campaigns are run across multiple media, including email, traditional mail and phone, care should be taken not to target the same person twice.

• Put the customer in charge. Customers should be able to control the frequency and type of email they receive from a company.

• Respect privacy. Mail lists and demographic data should never be sold or rented unless the customer has agreed.

• Exploit the human touch. If data such as birthdays, kids' names or anniversaries is captured, it should be exploited. For example, discount coupons can be sent on customers' birthdays to make them feel appreciated.

• Reward good behavior. Good customers deserve good treatment. A club can be created for the top 10 percent of customers to offer special rewards, content, and advance notification of sales and product plans.

• Confess to mistakes. If the company fails to respond to email, sends an inappropriate reply, or mistargets a customer, the company should admit the mistake, send a discount coupon and move on.

The bottom line is that retailers need to manage their online marketing carefully and target messages to specific groups of customers or prospects. Spamming may look like an inexpensive way to reach large groups of people, but it is likely simply to annoy them and drive them to the competition rather than generate sales.

Meta Group analysts Jack Gold, Peter Burris, Matt Cain and William Zachmann contributed to this article.

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