In today’s internet society, a common complaint among users is the consistent use of bulk emailing referred to as “Junk Mail” or “Spam.” Opt-in advertising campaigns, a permission-based marketing practice, though technically not considered spam, are nevertheless viewed as intrusive. Strictly speaking, permission-based email advertising refers to email from a business that the recipient has done business with but may not have specifically asked for emails from that business. “92 percent considered unsolicited commercial e-mail from a sender they don’t know as spam, while 32 percent said that unsolicited commercial email from a sender they’ve already done business with is spam” (Dean, 2003).
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Proponents of permission-based emails argue that the receiver can hit the delete button or use an opt-out option listed in the electronic advertisement if they do not want to view the email. Opponents charge anything that arrives in the inbox that the recipient didn’t request is spam and that just because a purchase is made doesn’t give that company the right to inundate them with junk mail. The debate is joined whether this tactic serves to generate trade or to drive potential customers away, concluding that spam is considered not only intrusive but is generally viewed as a scheme of some kind.
Spammers have long attempted to justify their intrusive form of advertising. So-called permission-based marketing is just another example of spam. If a consumer is required to type in an email address to visit the site or bought a related product from another company that, in turn, sold their email lists, this is all considered permission to inundate an email box with spam. Many companies, including utility and service companies, assume that an individual has been granted spam permission if they have used a product or service of that company (Godin, 1999). Regardless of technical differences of definitions, when most people speak of spam, they are referring to an unwanted email that requires time and effort to delete.
By requiring consumers to spend time dealing with their advertisement or newsletter during some portion of every day, advertisers force their way into the consumer’s subconscious like the child seeking attention, not caring whether it is positive or negative. Consumers rightfully resent this enforced attention and feel as if something is being stolen from them. “Spam is like shoplifting. It costs the recipient a few seconds of time to open and delete unsolicited mail, thus representing a tiny amount of a very valuable asset” (Godin, 1999, p. 159).
The theft of a few seconds will not cause a person to lose their livelihood, but that is similar to saying stealing one item from a chain store won’t bankrupt the company. Wrong on a small scale is still wrong. “Imagine if only 1/10 of 1 percent of the users on the Internet decided to send out spam at a moderate rate of 100,000 per day, a rate easily achievable with a dial-up account and a PC. Then everyone would be receiving 100 spams every day. If one percent of users were spamming at that rate, we’d all be getting 1,000 spams per day. Is it reasonable to ask people to send out 100 remove messages per day?” (Levine, 2006). It seems clear that our national, business, and personal productivity suffers from spam, not to mention the daily aggravation caused by unwanted ads taking the place of needed business and personal electronic correspondence.
Those accused of being spammers often argue that the definition of spam is unclear and what they are doing is not spam but is, instead, opt-out email in which the burden of proof lies on the individual consumer. Spam is universally defined as unsolicited emails sent in the bulk of many thousands of messages at one time. The definition of unsolicited is less than clear. By this definition, “spam can be a message asking for a donation to a non-profit organization, an upcoming bond issue or the announcement of a free concert” (Sterne & Priore, 2000, p. 11).
By including opt-out options and requiring users to check a small box to indicate that they wish to receive news and offers from a particular website, usually conveniently pre-checked, many companies engaged in what they term ‘permission marketing’ argue they are not participating in typical spamming activities.
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Permission marketing is an ethical way of advertising, as is billboards and commercials on television or in the newspaper. Permission marketing has been in our culture in many forms long before the Internet was born. Television doesn’t ask if the program can be interrupted for a commercial that may or may not be of interest to the consumer. Certainly, doctors, lawyers, or accountants have unwritten permission to give feedback, advice and to recommend products they believe would be of interest to a customer (Godin, 1999, pp. 120-122).
We don’t consider any one of these methods of mass advertising as spam when it is undoubtedly defined the same, reaching bulk numbers of people, none of whom asked for it. Permission Marketing, unlike other forms of email marketing, targets only consumers who have volunteered to be marketed to. Indeed, these marketers, while using the same techniques and tools of the companies they talk about, claim “Spam is hurting email and it is eroding people’s trust in email and the Internet …and 70 percent of email users say that spam is making their online experience unpleasant” (Deb Fallows cited in Dean, 2003).
Despite these claims, some of which are valid, consumers still regard the time necessary to delete daily or the even lengthier process of removal as spam regardless of whether the email is from their new washing machine salesman or the latest get-rich-quick scheme.
Trust is the issue in internet marketing. While the overuse of spamming techniques has given a negative connotation to all electronic marketing, opt-in, permission-based emails are of great benefit to the free market system. There is little debate on that. What is of debate is the definition of permission marketing. To stifle this specific form of advertising over others, such as television, is unfair, yet if restrictions are not laid down, the free flow of essential global communication is already slowed and may eventually grind to a halt. What advertisers need to realize is that consumers will give permission if given an honest choice and become customers faster as a result.
The receipt of product knowledge congruent to their interests within their email box is exceedingly convenient and time-saving. The abuse of this practice, though, has the opposite effect. If a person trusts a company, a relationship can be built and maintained. Unwanted email destroys that confidence. To build a trusting relationship with consumers and still take advantage of the enormous power of the Internet and email marketing, companies need to realize that the best option for developing mailing lists are not enforced membership based on the opt-out approach but instead a simple offering for the consumer’s benefit to which they must consciously and specifically opt-in.
Dean, Katie. “Survey Confirms It: Spam Sucks.” Wired News. (2003). Web.
Godin, Seth. Permission Marketing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Levine, John. “Why is Spam Bad?” Barracuda Networks. (2006). Web.
Sterne, Jim and Priore, Anthony. Email Marketing. New York: Wiley Computer Publishing, 2000.