Under the "Draft-A-Friend" program, customers give Fogdog the email addresses of up to 25 friends, and the company sends those people a $10 coupon for the site. In return, the original customers get 20 percent off their next purchases and the chance to win free merchandise if their friends use the coupons.
If two friends use the coupon, the original customer gets a Fogdog cap; for five friends, a sweatshirt; 10 friends, a fleece jacket; and if more than 20 friends redeem their coupons, it means a $250 gift certificate for the original consumer.
"(This promotion) doesn't pass the sniff test for spam," said Barry Parr, e-commerce analyst for research firm International Data Corp. "It crosses the border of being a legitimate promotion to an abuse of people's relationships on the Net."
Such marketing programs are becoming standard practice for online retailers looking to lengthen their customer lists. But to many analysts and Web users, promotions that hinge on sending unsolicited commercial email, or spam, walk a fine line on the Web, even among "friends." Critics say turning friends into marketing bait breaches the code of ethics, or netiquette, of the online world.
Mark Welch, a marketing professional in the San Francisco Bay area and a Fogdog customer, says that no matter how you cut it, promoting the use of spam is wrong.
"My initial reaction was 'Gee, (Fogdog's) doing this, but they don't understand what they're doing is wrong,'" said Welch, who called Fogdog to complain.
John Mousseau, director of sponsorship and promotion for Fogdog, says the company looked at this promotion carefully before launching it, taking consumer privacy into account.
"When people join the program they can only send email to friends. We're checking for fraud, and if people are posting on newsgroups, we kick them out of the program," he said. "We've had less than a handful of complaints."
IKEA, a widely regarded home furnishings retailer, launched a similar online promotion earlier this month, but revised the offer after several complaints.
Spam is a close relative to "viral marketing," in which companies recruit current customers to promote their product or service. The difference with Fogdog and IKEA's promotion is that they offered merchandise or savings in exchange for their efforts.
Several other online start-ups are trying variations on the theme. Asimba, a health and fitness site, gives customers a fleece jacket if they coax 10 friends into becoming site members. Online gift site Flooz.com offers a $1,000 sweepstakes entry for each email shoppers send to their friends.
The mitigating points of Fogdog's promotion are that it involves savings to a consumer. In addition, the email is sent only once, and if they choose not to participate they aren't contacted again. And because Fogdog is sending the email, they will receive complaints directly, instead of the friend.
Fogdog, however, is encouraging shoppers to send up to 25 emails, and no more. Michele Slack, an advertising analyst from research firm Jupiter Communications, questions how close the original sender is to these 25 people.
"Above 10, you risk getting people to send email to others they don't have a close relationship with. That's not something you want to encourage consumers to do," Slack said.
Privacy is another great concern for consumers, and because they may not know how Fogdog got their email address, it could lead to ill effects for the company.
"Fogdog's sending unsolicited email, and because there's a huge sensitivity to spam right now, this could lead consumers to ask, 'What kind of company is Fogdog?' and 'Why are they sending me this email?'" Slack said.