SPAM LEAVES BAD TASTE IN CONSUMERS’ MOUTHS
Byline: Rusty Williamson
DALLAS — Spam is spreading rapidly — and e-tailers are fast finding it’s a double-edged sword, when it comes to courting consumers on the Internet.
Spam, the unsolicited e-mail used by online merchants as promotional tools, has earned a loathsome reputation among busy Internet users, who view the marketing device as cyber-junk-mail that’s little more than a distraction, waste of time, and, at worst, an invasion of privacy.
Conversely, when a consumer grants permission to receive the marketing e-mails, known as opting in, spam can be a valuable tool to promote products and build brand loyalty and store awareness, especially when closely targeted to the recipient’s lifestyle and demographic profile.
In any event, the pesky, unsolicited e-mail is proliferating rapidly.
According to Brightmail, a San Francisco-based provider of e-mail content filtering solutions, spam attacks have increased by more than 400 percent in the last year. Gary Hermansen, Brightmail’s chief executive officer, noted that a sample of about 400 users of various Internet service providers showed spam attacks on the group climbed from a combined 2,000 messages a day, or five per person, during the first quarter of 2000, all the way to a total of 15,000 daily, or about 37 per person, during the first quarter of this year.
As a result, many ISPs have started blocking repeat offenders from sending further e-mails, meaning even businesses and consumers who have opted in will stop getting e-mail from those companies. And Yahoo, for one, is now allowing its e-mail users to route spam into a separate bulk e-mail folder that’s easy to ignore. Spam isn’t an acronym — it’s a play on the canned meat product.
E-tailers such as JCPenney.com and qvc.com, among others, continue to refine e-mail marketing efforts by tailoring them to specific groups of shoppers and limiting their frequency, typically spamming customers once every week or two. One of the quickest ways to offend or lose users, according to some Internet analysts, is to bombard them with spam and then ignore the recipients’ instructions to stop sending it, known as opting out.
The ability to opt in or out, in fact, is the foundation for permission-based marketing, buzzwords among a growing group of e-tailers and a concept that lies at the heart of the privacy issue online. But when e-tailers ignore pleas to stop spamming, there’s little immediate recourse available to consumers other than continuing to opt-out on every piece of spam and hoping the e-tailer will take heed. Other options, such as calling the e-tailer, require tenacity and time, that valuable and limited asset that spurred the proliferation of e-mail in the first place.
House Bill 630, currently under debate in Congress, would make opt-out choices mandatory on most unsolicited e-mail. Under federal law, it’s already illegal to send unsolicited advertisements via fax machines, since fax recipients bear the cost of each printed page. The law, outlined in Title 47, Code 227, allows individuals to sue the sender of illegal junk mail for $500 per copy. Most states permit such actions to be filed in small claims court.
“There are unfortunate instances of companies who don’t stop sending spam instantly,” observed Will Anglin, president and chief executive officer at Aspen Systems, a Dallas-based Internet consulting firm. “When vendors continue with spam after a consumer has opted out, they’re creating negative brand awareness that’s often hard to reverse.” Particular offenders, Anglin said, are the adult sites.
Anglin noted that spam not only causes loss of e-tail business but also is a workplace detractor that causes employees to waste time weeding out their e-mail boxes. “Using e-mail for mass-distribution marketing, as opposed to permission-based targeted e-mail marketing, is just as offensive as direct mail that gets stuffed in your postal service mailbox at home,” Anglin contended. “The premier e-tailers are starting to recognize the real cost of offending people and are embracing permission-based marketing.” Examples, he added, include ColdwaterCreek, Travel-ocity, and CDNow.
“Spam, or unsolicited e-mail, rarely works and it makes consumers furious; at its worst, spam is offensive,” said Elaine Chen, director of strategy at kpe, a New York-based marketing communications firm that specializes in media and entertainment clients. Legitimate marketers rarely use spam, Chen contended, and, she noted, those who do risk getting lumped in with get-rich-quick schemers and adult entertainment sites. “Although steep discounts would seem to be the best way to attract new buyers,” Chen added, “shrill offers from obscure sites will actually come across as too good to be true and will probably get promptly deleted.”
Nevertheless, analysts said there are still a number of e-mail techniques that can sustain consumer’s attention, enhance loyalty and win dollars.
“Most e-tailers do not send spam but instead send permission-based e-mail communications,” said Kim MacPherson, president and founder of Inbox Interactive, an e-mail marketing agency, and author of “Permission-Based E-Mail Marketing that Works” (Dearborn Publishing). “Chadwicks.com, Nordstrom.com and JCPenney.com do fantastic jobs of e-marketing,” MacPherson offered. “They limit it to once a week max; most send every two weeks. They send mini-catalogs or promotions that are memorable and inspire consumers to forward them to friends and associates, too.”
Links within opt-in messages, which can be zapped to friends, like racy Abercrombie.com ads or hot offers at SaksFifthAvenue.com are popular components of those e-mails, according to marketing consultant kpe.
“Our intent is to never send an e-mail to anyone who has not asked to receive it,” said Melanie Angermann, vice president of marketing for JCPenney.com. “Every e-mail we send contains an opt-out option. It’s as simple as clicking the link. We try to make it as easy as possible to opt out.”
Angermann acknowledged that consumers who’ve opted out may have already been preselected to receive the next JCPenney.com e-mail campaign before the opt-out notice was received. “But our goal is for them to never get more than one additional e-mail,” she said.
JCPenney.com typically sends four e-mails per month, at most, to each opt-in e-mail address.
“E-mail does work for JCPenney.com,” Angermann assured. “We measure the success of our e-mails with sophisticated metrics that tell us if a specific purchase was instigated through e-mail.
“We utilize media tagging, which is a hidden code within the URL (embedded in an e-mail’s link to a product). Such measuring devices are really important so that we know how to design our e-mail going forward.
“If an e-mail didn’t get much response,” she added, “we look at the reasons why: confusing wording, prices were wrong.”
QVC.com, the e-commerce Web site of electronic-shopping network QVC, also aims to carefully craft its e-mail. “If e-mail is done correctly, the customer will perceive it as a valuable service, rather than an unwanted solicitation,” said Stephen Hamlin, vice president of operations at iQVC, who pointed out QVC newsletters and e-mails provide an opt-out feature.
“For example, if we know a customer is an avid collector of a certain brand-name product, and we are planning an upcoming show that will feature that specific brand, we will send them an e-mail to let them know when that show will air, thank them for being a great customer for that brand and give them a chance to place an advance order before the items sell out on air.”