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Bulk Email (a.k.a. Spam)
and the So-Called
Internet Marketing Experts

Bob Schmidt
Provider Marketing Group

I've been discussing the merits of unsolicited bulk email since 1994. I am interested solely in the marketing related issues and in my participation in many places, including the Cyberbusiness section of CompuServe's Entrepreneur's forum (GO SMALLBIZ), the now defunct Internet Marketing list, the now mostly dormant  HTMARCOM list, and the the Online Ads digest, Internet Sales, Market-L, and IMARCOM lists, have argued strenuously against those who seek to make the use of this marketing technique a religious and ethical issue, instead of a marketing issue.

I agree with the anti-spammers that bulk email should be Judgetargeted. However, I find their definition of targeting to be unattainable, at least at the present state of development of the Internet. I agree that much of what we see in the so-called "spam" is get rich quick schemes and other marginal products and services. But I believe it is a mistake to judge a medium by a few practitioners.

I have heard all the reasons why bulk email is unethical, all the reasons why it will bring the Internet to a grinding halt, all the protestations of all the so-called Internet marketing experts. I have personally bumped into almost all of them on one list or forum or another.

I have butted heads with many of the confirmed antispammers and have written a rebuttal to Robert Raisch's Postage Due Marketing theory.

I find it understandable that those who have no experience in marketing, advertising or direct mail, and those who are simply long time Internet users, would not understand why all marketing and promotional efforts run the risk of turning off or offending some who are exposed to the message. But I do not understand how  marketers, especially those who claim to be Internet marketing experts, can take such a position and I have tried to hold them accountable by evaluating bulk email strictly on marketing and results terms. I am extremely disappointed at the lack of tolerance demonstrated by antispammers who are themselves marketers. I find that to be hypocritical. In addition, I find it to be a classic error for marketers to base professional marketing decisions on their own personal biases, opinions, likes and dislikes.

Since 1994 my position has been that I do not advocate the use of bulk email, but neither do I begrudge those who are taking very real risks to find out if it works. We all need to know.

I am constantly amazed by how so-called Internet marketing experts fail to see bulk email from a MARKETING standpoint. They, in their infinite Conventional Wisdom, prefer to turn this into a religious issue, and a nonsensical one at that. They never pass up an opportunity to express their belief about how terrible and dangerous bulk email is. But let's get right down to it, exactly how credible can a marketing expert be who refuses to acknowledge the obvious benefits of any given marketing technique?

Bulk email is simply using the net for what it does best-- communicating a message. It's not a "marketer's dream," and, despite what the anti-spammers claim, it is not without cost or risk. Rather, it is a valid tool in the Internet marketer's toolbox, and smart marketers will experiment with it to see whether it does indeed work, rather than take the word of Cassandra-like nay sayers who rush to judgment. That doesn't mean every marketer is going to drop 32 million email messages a day. It will be done on a much smaller basis, with most marketers test mailing to perhaps a few hundred or thousand users at a time. It's not necessary to mail everybody in order to obtain results.

The "experts" would have you believe there is no right or wrong way to use bulk email. They don't argue for, or even attempt to define, what would constitute responsible bulk emailing. They just don't want you to use it at all. Most Internet marketers realize that there probably are, indeed, better and worse ways to use it, and are eager to hear the results of those who are trying it.

One of the common complaints heard out on the net is that unsolicited bulk email is not targeted. Yet the definitions of targeting usually put forth by the Conventional Wisdom clan indicate that targeting is not at all what they expect. They will settle for nothing short of mind reading on the part of the marketer. The antispammers don't want to receive any ad message for any product or service that they don't already know they want to buy. And they claim to understand marketing! It's astounding. Shame on them. Some of this bunch have an excuse, because they have limited marketing qualifications - and limited qualifications of any kind other than whiners and complainers. Others do have enough marketing sense to know better.

They say the Internet is different. Yet they fail to recognize the limitations that are different. Marketers have far better qualifiers in other media. The fact is, very limited demographic, psychographic and lifestyle data is available for correlation against email addresses-- virtually none. And when marketers use what little there is and make do, they are criticized for, say, assuming that someone participating in a newsgroup on any given topic could be reasonably assumed to be interested in products or services related to that topic, just as any subscriber of, say Road & Track magazine could equally be assumed to be similarly interested, in say, automobiles.

Is there indiscriminate use of bulk email, sent willy nilly in completely untargeted mailings? Is most bulk email promoting multilevel marketing and get rich quick schemes? Sure, there is a lot of that going on right now, more than any of us would like. But let's not rule out the technique just because it's annoying, or being used badly by some, or being used to promote marginal businesses and products. If we were to use that standard, we would judge all radio ads by the screamer ads for car dealers, or TV ads by psychic hotline infomercials.

Bulk email is not a technique of interest solely to the bulk email services, MLM, get rich quick and bootstrap marketers. It is of equal interest to legitimate businesses of all sizes who are excited about the ways in which the Internet can enable them to reach new prospects.

Would Internet marketers like to know what users want to buy before they buy it? Of course-- so would marketers in every other medium. And we can all spend a lot of time dreaming about it, but it will never happen. More precise targeting will come with time, but the mind reading standard put forth by the antispammers is a figment of their overactive imaginations.

Will bulk email replace the other Internet marketing techniques? Not at all. The indirect techniques will continue to work just as they have been all along, and bulk email will take its place right alongside them.

Time will tell whether bulk email will break the Internet and drive users away. I doubt it.

The fact is, if it doesn't work, that is, if it does not prove to be profitable, marketers will not use it. If it does, they will. And this is as it should be, as any Internet marketing expert ought to know.

And, if everyone who tries it experiences poor results (not profitable) they will stop doing it. In other words, if the anti-spammers are correct, this whole business will be no more than a blip on the Internet radar screen and will pass in due course. Is it asking too much of the antispammers, who seem so sure of themselves, to demonstrate some degree of tolerance and patience while this happens? Or, are they worried that it may indeed be a viable means of marketing?

Note: While I do not hesitate to provide some "equal time" on this subject and argue the merits, I do not especially advocate the use of bulk email. Neither, however, do I begrudge the efforts of those who are experimenting to see if it works. We all need to know.

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Last updated: 04/25/10