Commentary

Turning Spam Into a Gourmet Dish

Email security provider MessageLabs, which monitors email messages for companies worldwide, reports that of the 104.91 million email messages it tracked in March 2003, roughly 38.1 million were spam messages. This means that more than 36% of all email to business in-boxes is considered spam.

Meanwhile, a Kansas businessman was awarded $500 in damages, plus $51 in court costs, by a small-claims court for receiving an unsolicited email advertising a business-analysis tool from Naperville, Ill.-based Market Advantage Consulting. (In violation of the Kansas Commercial Electronic Mail Act, which requires bulk emailers to include "ADV" in the subject line of commercial email and to include a physical address or phone number in the message.)

Hummm. Let's see, yesterday I got 224 emails. If 36% were "unsolicited," that's 80 spammers I could go after. At $500 a hit (less $50 in expenses), I could earn a nice living off $36,000 a day.

As ISPs and net-based email providers scramble to block as much spam as they can (with mixed results, since the Nigerian oil guys still know where I am,) consumers are beginning to think that anything that appears in their inbox that's NOT from a friend, relative or business associate is spam. Increasingly, consumers are hitting delete before they even access messages, even if it might be well worth their while to open.

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As more websites install audience management systems that allow them to collect user navigation and demographic data and merge them into audience segments of critical mass for marketers, targeted emails will become an important part of the marketing mix. These will not be "bulk" messages harvested from undifferentiated lists by third parties, but personalized messages based on preferences inferred from or expressed by users. They will be automatically generated by the publisher's own internal lists. This means they will be sent from a trusted source, a site with which the consumer has a relationship.

The next step in removing the stigma attached (so to speak) to emails is for trusted sources to deliver a mix of content and commercial messages. Audience management enables publishers to target based not only on demographic information but navigation or content consumption patterns. So, if, or example, if I am an investor news site like Kiplinger.com launching a specialty investment e newsletter, I can send a sample of edit to men and women who have recently visited my financial news section, or entered my weekly poll, or are using my portfolio tracking tool.

Now from a trusted source (Kiplinger) I am getting content (newsletter) about something that interests me (specialty investment). Down the road you can use email to sell me products and services from your advertisers, but ONLY if they track closely with my interests. That way I will know that you value my relationship with you and that an email from you is worth opening.

Adam Guild is President of Interep Interactive.

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