Spamming Mechanisms

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It used to be a very clear line between what was considered spam and what was not.

Things have changed over the course of the past decade. I’m with the Wikipedia definition of spam: "to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately," but I would now willingly remove the words "bulk messages" and change it to just "messages." The sheer volume of spam is staggering. I’m not just talking about the ridiculous requests from Nairobi sheiks who wish to give you millions of dollars or creams that are guaranteed to correct any form of erectile dysfunction. A few weeks back, Sanford Wallace (aka Spam King) was accused of mass spamming on Facebook (more on that here: USA Today – Las Vegas man accused of mass spamming on Facebook).

Is nothing sacred?

Spam is most irritating not because it clogs up every channel of communication and not because it is clearly a speed bump in everyone’s productivity. Spam is most irritating because it gets lumped into marketing. Spam is not marketing. Much in the same way that shoplifting is not shopping. I get frustrated (beyond words), when the media portrays spammers as marketers. Then again, Marketing has not done a great job of distancing ourselves from these types of people. At the end of the day, there are many people who consider the advertising part of the marketing industry a spamming engine unto itself. If people can’t place their shoes in the bin at the airport or take a pee without being exposed to an ad, it’s hard for us Marketers to argue that spamming is not some kind of bastard step-child, isn’t it?

We do it to ourselves.

There’s no shortage of articles and conversations about visual pollution and advertising (see The Economist from 2007: Visual pollution), but when it comes to spam, we’re talking about a hybrid of both marketing and communications. I often say that I used to be a Journalist, but the truth is that between the Blog and Podcast and my columns in places like The Huffington Post, Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette, I still get treated like a Journalist by many public relations and communications professionals. The results of these interactions are often appalling (this is only augmented by the fact that I have spent some time working in a PR agency, so I’ve been on both sides of the equation). In the end, they’re spamming me to death. Just this week, I’ve received multiple lame press release pitches that were either immediately deleted or sent to my junk mail folder only to have these communication professionals re-email me with a follow-up to see what I thought of their initial spam. On multiple occasions, the follow-up emails included PDF attachments and more (as if a PDF press release or picture of their thingamajig was what was holding the big story back). I’ve even had instances where their spam messages are "recalled" by the sender (with an email message being sent to notify me of their "error) and then the "corrected" version is sent later in the day.

All without permission.

In February 2009, I published a Blog post titled, Attention PR People: Here’s How To Pitch A Writer. While some considered that Blog post to be a little harsh (check out the comments!), I stand behind each and every point. If you’re sending a message to anyone in any of the communications channels that we all have at our fingertips, and you have not received my permission to communicate or reached out in an earnest attempt to create rapport and gauge my interest in the work you’re doing, you are spamming. Too harsh? Possibly. But now that every channel has become a spamming mechanism, maybe we need to reverse course and get overly rigid in what types of communications are really "fair game." Perhaps by getting this serious about what constitutes spam, it will force the Marketing, Communications and yes, even the real, nasty and evil spammers, to think differently about hitting that send button, messaging people on Facebook, blasting out tweets on Twitter… and more. In the time it takes to be annoying, you can use that same amount of time to make your marketing and communications moment shine.

Why waste it?


  1. People are inherently lazy, especially the ones who “have seen it all” and have “experience”. Spamming will never cease because someone will always be willing to charge for 1,000,000 impressions even though you may get a CTR of 0.0001%.
    Marketers as a whole need to get smarter. Mass media isn’t dying, the creative genius is getting diluted with what execs “think” is good marketing. If they’d just step back and understand that every unsolicited message they send is an intrusion of privacy they could go back to the drawing board and really figure out a unique way to get in front of their ideal audience.
    As long a spam is around, filters will increase in value, Gmail priority inbox, the “No Junk Mail” sign on your mail box, PVR, Satellite Radio, iPods. The more messages throw at us the more we rely on word-of-mouth and our peers, hence why Twitter is such a dam good reference for local recommendations. It’s authentic and trustworthy, two things advertising hasn’t been able to achieve in a long time.
    Nice Post Mitch, and to answer your question, no, nothing is sacred.

  2. Spam proliferates on every medium because there are no barriers to entry, no actual costs per message, and all it takes is a percentage of a percentage of a percentage to make “nothing” pay off. But I agree with Jeph; the real winners of the bombardment of spam are really those who are in the filtering business.
    In fact; during a recent trip with a buddy, I was commenting that I wished my email could be configured to let me “go shopping”… To hold all my (opted-in, not spam) commercial offers emails until I desired to see them. Then I could choose to go wander through the latest offers rather than have them interspersed with my personal and professional correspondence throughout my day. Not a spam problem; more of a “UX” wishlist.

  3. “Spam is not marketing. Much in the same way that shoplifting is not shopping”. That is a brilliant phrase that I intend on borrowing (with full credit to Mitch)!

  4. I would add to the spam list ” free community newspapers.”We receive a couple of issues a week at our home which I routinely deposit in the blue box, elastic still attached. One could argue this form of spam requires more effort per incident to dispose of and creates a bigger burden on society than email spam.
    Continue the fight Mitch, be harsh.

  5. This raises a lot of questions in my mind and calls me to review the definition of permission marketing. Please note I am asking these questions sincerely, I am not being snarky in anyway.
    If I stick with this definition of spam: “[If] you have not received my permission to communicate or reached out in an earnest attempt to create rapport and gauge my interest in the work you’re doing, you are spamming.”
    At what point does this start. For example: is cold-calling spam? By this definition, it is. But what if my cold call was a legitimate attempt to create rapport? What if I was a mere reader of your articles and wanted to contact you about a series I wanted you to write for my blog? At what point does permission start? Do I have to meet you in person? In today’s world, do I have to totally focus on inbound marketing methods (having customers come to me) instead of me going out and seeking customers?
    Another example: if I see a potential customer that has a need that could be met with a service I provide, how should I approach them? If I email them first, it is likely, by above definition, to be spam. If I call (a cold call), then spam. What if I walk in the door to introduce myself? Still an in-person cold call. So are all those methods, in this day and age, now void?

  6. Bill – Totally hear you on that “free community newspaper” deal. Straight to the recycle bin! However, the one that I receive in the mail? I read it. Interesting how that works.

  7. Completely agree with Paul. The line defined for spam is really fine. Do I want ads in my email? No, they are distracting. However, one ad brought to my awareness a product that I now constantly use. I’m happy, the marketer is happy. There is too much information bombardment, that’s true. Has anyone invented a better way to build awareness? A very interesting topic to think of and discuss!

  8. Great quote Karen, I couldn’t agree more. Spam is not marketing in any shape or form. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though spam is going to go away any time soon, so we will continue to have to deal with it.

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