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What is spam, really?

We talk about spam all the time. We talk about it as consumers and we especially talk about it as email marketers. We get emails labeled as spam! And we all think we know spam when we see it. But it’s really not that cut and dry.

When it comes to spam, there are two viewpoints: that of the sender and that of the recipient.

From a sender perspective, there is a gray area that people in our industry often avoid talking about where it’s technically not SPAM (by the letter of the law) but at the same time it’s traffic that won’t be accepted by most ESPs. Third party affiliate emails are a perfect example. I opt-in to a site and check the box that states that I’m willing to receive third party partner offers. These emails have a much higher complaint rate, but are they SPAM? In theory no, but in practice they are considered by many to be SPAM.

Because we have to suffer with spammers sending medical, dating, and who knows what other emails, sending these legitimate (legitimate in terms of not being SPAM) emails are very difficult to manage.

No one has come up with a good solution thus far, but this part of the industry is growing at a steady pace with the industry overall that some sort of solution or fix will have to be found.

SPAM from the perspective of the recipient is different as it’s up to the recipient to determine if it is or isn’t. Interestingly enough, I personally don’t get aggravated when I receive a flyer in the mail that does not interest me in the least bit – I simply recycle it. Yet email seems to trigger a different reaction in me and, I suspect, many other people. It seems to be more of an invasion of privacy. Maybe it’s seen as something that takes away from one’s productivity, or possibly can harbor malicious code.

I remember when I purchased my first house over a decade ago, those flyers I kept recycling suddenly became worth their weight in gold! Yes, I need windows! And a new roof! Thank you! Our perspective is different, as are our actions.

Email SPAM will never go away as I’m sure someone, somewhere is buying the Viagra or the property in Costa Rica and the spammers are in fact making money. At the same time, the industry is evolving with more and more filtering sophistication and things like priority inbox. Similarly, companies that might have been the solution, like GoodMail, are either gone or otherwise don’t have significant market penetration – where will we be in 5 years?

Again, I think there are two sides to this – that of the sender and that of the recipient. From the sender’s perspective, there will be a need for continuing the trend towards relevance. A combination of the evolution of technology, combined with more effort from the marketers will enable this.

From the recipient’s perspective – today – we are too quick to label emails as spam. The problem arises partly from our societal mindset. We are in a hurry. We don’t want to be bothered. And we don’t think things through. So we’ll report an email as spam–even if it’s from a company we signed up with as an email subscriber–just to be rid of it. We’re not thinking through the consequences, we’re simply reacting and taking the easy way out. It’s not really spam. It’s just that we don’t want it anymore, so we’ll call it spam to make it go away. I think that over time we will become more aware of the consequences of simply hitting the SPAM button and will do it less. The industry can and should help with awareness campaigns. We could all benefit from this.

In fact, this just might be what is needed. If we follow the lead of political parties and companies that face serious perception issues like Toyota who has recently faced with a string of safety related issues, we will come together as an industry and launch a campaign to educate the consumer on what we’re doing to be relevant and the sensitivity around the spam button.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic! Please comment.

Marco Marini
Latest posts by Marco Marini (see all)
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  • by Alex Wolski
    Posted September 1, 2011 12:06 pm 0Likes

    One answer could be that spam is any email that is sent without the recipient’s permission – either express or implied consent, implied consent being situations like making a purchase, requesting information from a company, requesting a price quote, etc. Both of these scenarios create a business relationship between sender and recipient.

    But the gray area, and part of the reason why deliverability is such a complex topic, is in the implied consent area. Many consumers’ gut reaction is that they should not be receiving promotional email “just” because they purchased a product or requested a price quote.

    This is where I think creating a clear and transparent relationship from the beginning can be very useful. Tactics like avoiding prechecked boxes in sign up forms, being extremely careful with coregistration and affiliate relationships and sending welcome messages can be useful to delivery.

    • by Scott Hardigree
      Posted September 1, 2011 12:13 pm 0Likes

      Thanks for contributing Alex. Your thoughts are a great addition to Marco’s post.

  • by Ruby Garson
    Posted September 1, 2011 5:14 pm 0Likes

    Hello Scott,

    Thanks for asking this question.

    Email Spam to me is when someone sends you something without your permission and then does not give you a link to unsubscribe–or gives you a link that does not work. To me this is SPAM!

    If I can unsubscribe, it’s no big deal, but when I cannot and I continue to get bombarded with multiple emails I didn’t request and cannot get rid of, That is SO Wrong!

    Thank You Very Much Scott, for allowing me to ad my 2 cents in to Marco’s post.

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