The Fallacy Of The Hyper-Relevant Unsolicited Email

Everyone hates spam, but some Big Data evangelists have been making the claim that in time marketers will be able to send unsolicited emails that are so personalized and relevant that consumers will completely forgive that they were spammed. In fact, consumers will reward the marketing sophistication of these brands by opting in to receive future emails.

It’s a wonderful bit of boasting that’s sure to appeal to Old School direct marketers who are resentful that all the New School channels are permission-based. But it’s a claim that’s completely unhinged from reality, for three key reasons:

1. Legal and regulatory action will strengthen privacy over the next few years, making personal data harder to obtain without permission. Laws always lag behind innovation by many years, but social media and advanced data collection has now been around long enough that lawmakers feel that they understand it well enough to step into the market and rein it in.

Recent evidence of this include the Congressional Privacy Caucus sending inquiry letters to several companies, including ESPs Epsilon and Acxiom, regarding their practices in so-called data brokering; Google getting slapped with a record-setting $22.5 million fine to settle charges the company lied to users about its use of behavior-tracking cookies; the Canadian anti-spam law CASL going into effect; and the European Commission unveiling a draft of the European Data Protection Regulation, which will impose tougher regulations on the processing of personal data.

All signs point to personal data being harder for marketers to get their hands on, not easier.

2. Consumers are becoming more privacy-conscious. Paralleling the increase in government concern about abuse of personal data, consumers are also becoming more mindful about what they share, how they are tracked, and what companies do with that information.

A recent consumer survey by the Future Foundation found that over 60% of consumers agree that their definition of privacy has changed and that their use of social media is one of the main driving forces of that change. And 90% of the survey respondents said they would like more control over their data.

Microsoft’s decision to turn on Do Not Track by default in the forthcoming Internet Explorer 10 is early evidence that some technology providers are listening to consumers’ concerns in order to gain a competitive edge.

3. Email inboxes are becoming more guarded. ISPs have been adding engagement metrics to their filtering algorithms, making it even tougher for grey-hat email marketers to reach the inbox. It’s not enough now just to have low spam complaint rates; you have to have healthy open and click rates as well. It has become very difficult to game the system.

The continued adoption of smartphones will also raise the bar on permission, because more consumers will be carrying their inboxes around with them. In the same way that consumers get furious over unsolicited text messages, that same attitude will be increasingly directed to unsolicited emails, too.

Given just these three trends, it seems extremely unlikely that unsolicited emails will ever be powered by enough current, accurate and actionable data to overcome the violation of permission on any kind of remotely consistent basis, especially considering that most unsolicited email is marked as spam or deleted based on the sender name and subject line alone.

Of course, that’s not to say that Big Data doesn’t have a pivotal role to play in the future of email marketing. It definitely does. There are lots of internal data dots to connect. Rather than using scraped, purchased and bartered data to acquire new customers, the challenge is to use data from loyal, willing customers -- to serve them so well that they spend more with your brand, and their positive word of mouth attracts new customers for you.

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2 comments about "The Fallacy Of The Hyper-Relevant Unsolicited Email ".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 14, 2012 at 2:24 p.m.
    You think your entire life being invaded by unsolicited email is a good way to go ? Alien-like control or North Korea -like control is a good goal ? There will be a war against big data. Not yet, but it will come.
  2. Bob Frady from Zeeto Media , August 14, 2012 at 7:38 p.m.
    The huge Achilles heel of email is it's inability to recruit. It's the tail of the dog. While the day of the hyper-personalized "relevancy-based" email may be far off, I do see a role for using "big data" to reach out to potential users and say "we'd like you to sign up for our list." The permissionists would plotz...but the marketers who want to grow their list (which is a GOOD thing) might pay for it.