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If it's spam, the message is "delete"

Frustrated consumers are zapping unbidden messages without reading past the subject lines, making it hard for e-mail marketers to get their message through.

When Emily Sachar got back from vacation recently, she had an e-mail inbox full of hundreds of messages. Unfortunately, most of them were spam.

"That took a good half hour. And by that time it was time to make dinner, and I didn't get time to open that L.L. Bean ad that I might have ordinarily read," said Sachar, site director for Better Homes & Gardens Online and Ladies' Home Journal online.

Even though Sachar says she'd be happy to read some spam--like coupons and ads from companies she frequents--the ongoing deluge of risqu? and get-rich-quick spam makes her less likely to dig for the few pieces of mail she actually wants.

"I think I'm less inclined now to open even the spam that I semi-want because I'm so annoyed by the time I've gone through all the (junk)," she said.

Sachar is not alone, though everyone's idea of what makes unsolicited e-mail welcome--or loathed--is going to be different. And as people become increasingly frustrated with spam, e-mail marketers are finding it more difficult for their messages to get through.

Spam, or bulk e-mail sent to people who didn't request it, has increased in the last year from about 8 percent of all e-mail to 36 percent of all Internet traffic, according to experts. By comparison, the U.S. Postal Service reports that "advertising mail," which is everything from catalogs to what most people think of as junk mail, accounts for 56 percent of the total mail.

In a recent Forrester study, 70 percent of respondents said they get too many e-mail offers and promotions. More than half of respondents said they delete most e-mail advertising without looking at it, an increase of more than 20 percent over the past two years.

In another study, about a third of 1,700 companies surveyed said they've noticed an increase in spam complaints in the last year, according to Intermarket Group, a San Diego-based market research firm.

Clear cutting
"All this junk mail that's coming through is harming e-mail marketing, because it's conditioning people to just go in and delete everything," said Joe Nardolilli, senior marketing manager at Ritz Interactive, a network of e-commerce Web sites.

Sometimes it may not even be the recipients who are overwhelmed, but their company or Internet service provider, Forrester analyst Kate Delhagen said. Many companies and ISPs have begun filtering e-mail messages in an attempt to cut down on spam. But filtering tools aren't perfect, and e-mail that consumers actually want may get lost in the shuffle, she said.

"Some messages aren't even showing up anymore. And you can't count on a consumer to go back and resubscribe, or wade through the spam in the filter pile to find the message they want," Delhagen said.

E-mail marketing is not always the most effective method of reaching consumers, but that hasn't hurt its popularity with companies. The Intermarket survey reported that 64 percent of consumer marketers and 65 percent of business-to-business marketers planned to increase the use of e-mail newsletters in 2002.

Most retailers are reluctant to discuss their specific success rates with e-mail marketing, but there are a few signs that problems are increasing. About 10 percent of the companies surveyed by Intermarket noticed a drop in click-through rates--the number of times recipients click on a URL in the e-mail message to go to a vendor's Web site--for messages sent to their customers. When messages were sent to a third party, or rented, list, the number of companies that noticed a drop in click-through rates rose to 38 percent.

Macys Direct President Kent Anderson said the company has not seen a decline in e-mail response rates, and the number of customers opting out of messages hasn't risen.

"But I think common sense tends to tell us that (an increasing amount of spam) can't be good in the long run," he said.

So what do concerned companies do to make sure their messages don't get swept out with the trash?

Online retailer follows three rules for its messages, said Chief Executive Ken Sieff. One: Make sure the e-mail offers some real benefit to the consumer, such as news of a sale or exclusive access to new products. Two: Make sure consumers have a way to unsubscribe from the list. Three: Have a "respectful" privacy policy.

The privacy policy is particularly important, Sieff said: "Just listing the policy on your site isn't sufficient. The policy itself needs to be respectful of the consumer. Whether you get spam in your inbox or junk mail in your mailbox, it is a theft of your personal time."

That would resonate with Denise Tilles, a Web editor based in New York. She said that one company sends her so many pitches that she just automatically deletes them without reading the message.

"I go through and erase, erase, erase, and oftentimes I realize later that I threw away a $10 or $15 coupon," she said. "I've gone through old e-mails trying to find possible coupons."