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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

February 16, 1998

Targeted e-mail opens a can of spam

Spam... unsolicited commercial e-mail... junk e-mail... whatever you call it, it's annoying at best and downright intrusive -- even damaging -- at its worst. Everyone agrees that spam is bad.

But what is it? It turns out that there's not so much agreement on that question -- although some people have very strong opinions on the matter, as I discovered recently.

I unwittingly sparked a minor controversy with my recent "Ten Commandments of I-Commerce" column. Some readers felt there was a contradiction between Commandment #6, "Thou shalt promote thy site" and #9, "Thou shalt not spam." The former commandment recommended promoting your site by using, among other things, targeted e-mail.

Missing the target

As it turns out, "targeted e-mail" is, in many people's minds, synonymous with spam. And many people don't take kindly to receiving unsolicited commercial e-mail messages -- targeted or not.

I can't say that I blame them. Some spammers justify their indiscriminate bulk e-mailings by calling them "targeted," when in fact they're not very targeted at all.

As one reader pointed out, if no one on the Internet knows that you're a dog, how are they going to tell that you're a mid-level IT manager interested in new server products?

Other readers disputed the right of companies to send unsolicited e-mail of any kind -- targeted or not. They argued that unsolicited e-mail is tantamount to theft, since the recipient must pay his or her ISP for every minute spent downloading unwanted e-mail messages.

Follow the rules

If your company is considering sending out bulk e-mail, give some careful thought to how you're going to do it before you start.

There are legal precedents that may have a bearing on the subject of unsolicited commercial e-mail. Many ISPs also have internal policies against delivering unsolicited e-mail.

If your company violates these rules, you run the risk of civil suits, criminal prosecution, or of being dropped by your ISP.

And there could be more insidious consequences. There are people on the Internet who take spam very personally and will retaliate against those who they believe are abusing the Internet with in-kind e-mail attacks, denial-of-service attacks, and other kinds of hacking.

For more information on spam, visit the newsgroup news.admin.net-abuse.email, and read InfoWorld columnist Ed Foster's recent columns on the subject.

Basic guidelines

For starters, every mail message your company sends must have a valid return address. You must actively monitor this address, so you can respond to complaints, answer questions, and, yes, even take orders.

You can send bulk e-mail to people who have actually requested to be on your mailing list. Of course, it's a good idea to give recipients an easy way to remove themselves from that list if they change their minds.

If your e-mail is targeted only at current customers -- people with whom you have an existing business relationship -- that's OK, too.

But sending e-mail to recent or past customers who have not requested to be on a mailing list is not a good idea. Many companies -- including InfoWorld -- have suffered a stinging backlash when they sent unsolicited e-mail messages to a list of recent customers.

And it's definitely a bad idea to use bulk e-mail for cold calling. Such mailings, if nothing else, are against the policies of most ISPs. And they can really get you in trouble with the anti-spam people.

First principles

For me, it all comes down to being polite.

Don't send rude messages. Don't send anonymous messages. Don't pester strangers. And if someone asks you to leave them alone, leave them alone.

It's a principle that will not only keep you from running afoul of the anti-spam contingent, it will also help improve your company's image on the Internet.

What are your thoughts on the business uses of e-mail? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney is the editor of InfoWorld's Focus on I-Commerce section online and in print.

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