The Fine Line Between Spam and Email Marketing

If I had a Viagra pill for every time I confronted a spammer who pulled the “email marketing” excuse…

There’s no debate, no exceptions, and no justification. If you’re sending out massive amounts of unsolicited email, you’re a spammer. Period.  You’re not running a legitimate or respected marketing campaign, you’re not helping anyone with their emotional or erectile dysfunction problems, and in reality, no one cares to read what you have to say.

A lot of hosting providers are cracking down on spammers – and from experience, I can tell you why:  Spammers are an inconvenience to everyone – even themselves. They are an inconvenience to me, the system administrator that has to sift through spam complaints and spend hours every week tracking them down.  They are an inconvenience to our customers, who find their email being blacklisted because of a spammer on their network. And finally, they are an inconvenience to you, the Internet user, that has to deal with getting spam on a daily basis because some people have nothing better to do.

And here’s how you know if you’re one of those some people:

  • You purposely find ways to circumvent your ISP or host’s mailing limits instead of simply asking
  • You’re harvesting or purchasing email addresses off of websites, other mailing lists, or third parties to compose your recipient base
  • You’re sending those people [unsolicited] email advertising yourself, a product, or a website
  • You use spoofing or other tactics to hide your email address or server information
  • You don’t give your victims recipients a way to opt out of your torturous email campaigns
  • You hide behind the CAN SPAM law to justify your behavior
  • You get the slight inkling that people hate you for what you do

So what’s the fine line between spam and email marketing?

It’s all about honesty and consent.  If I contact a fellow blog owner requesting a link exchange, I wouldn’t technically consider that spam. If I send the same email to 40 other people, I’m crossing the line.  A legitimate, non-spammy email campaign would consist of a database of opted-in users, and email content consistent with what those users requested to be in the loop for.  If any of those users decide they don’t want to participate anymore, they are given a quick and easy way to remove themselves from the list.  The fine line between spamming and email marketing is the concept of opting in. Simply put, email marketers use opt-in lists, spammers don’t.

And no, I’m not talking about purchasing opt-in lists that other people have compiled.

Spammers have ruined the concept of email marketing enough to where now even legitimate email marketers are being accused of spamming, and many hosts won’t even work with them.  That’s not all hosts are doing to fight back, either.  Many larger hosting providers are so tired of dealing with spammers on their network that they impose mailing limitations that tend to inconvenience other users. Here are just a few:

  • Limiting the number of emails sent per minute, hour, or day
  • Limiting the number of recipients that can exist in a single email or BCC field
  • Locking outbound SMTP connections so scripts can’t send email from remote servers
  • Blocking email sent from certain system users (like the Apache user), requiring the use of authenticated mail sessions

For everyone else, here are a few tips on dealing with SPAM:

  • Delete it – it takes two seconds
  • Learn what a spam filter is, and use it
  • Stop trying to play Internet police. Feel free to report spam to the ISP or host, but don’t start spouting off with legal threats. It’s not going to change the fact that millions of spam emails are sent every day, and no court is going to waste their time on you
  • Don’t assume that the ISP or host can read minds – do you think they would have intentionally allowed a spammer to sign up for their service?

And for ISP’s and hosts, you have responsibilities as well:

  • Don’t be afraid to impose the aforementioned limitations on your servers. Your goal should be to look out for the best interests of your customers as a whole
  • Require justification from users that want to send large mailing lists, asking them how much email they are sending, who they are sending to, and whether they have an opt-in/out method
  • Set up abuse@ and postmaster@ email addresses, which will usually be where complaints are sent to. This way you’re aware of users that may be abusing your network, even if
  • Sign up for feedback loops, so automated spam reports from various email providers are sent to you to review
  • Deal with spammers ASAP. Not doing so can end up causing your network to get blacklisted, or have complaints escalated to cancellations from your customers – or even legal threats
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