To some, 'spam' is palatable commercial email

Daniel Crean Special To The Austin Business Journal

People use email more than any other part of the Internet, and businesses have found email a low-cost tool for communicating with existing and potential customers. The popularity of email is easy to understand: It's considerably less expensive than real mail and delivers your message directly to the buyer's desk. Nearly every business you need to contact has email access, as do a high percentage of consumers in the United States and around the world. Although often disparaged as "spam," unsolicited commercial email is legal and valued by many recipients. You can use email for a number of different messages, and it can be an integral part of your marketing communications program and your sales effort. Spam The word "Spam" refers to a pork product of the Hormel Foods Corp., and although it's not known exactly how the word became attached to a certain type of email, some observers think the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus played a part. One of the classic Python skits was about Spam, and as Monty Python was popular among nerdy early Internet users, it's thought they adopted this term for a processed commercial food and applied it to commercial email. The Direct E-Mail Advertisers Association is attempting to substitute the more benign term "unsolicited commercial email," or UCE. But without the punchy comic sound of "spam," it's unlikely this name will catch on widely. Federal laws So far, there aren't any federal laws regulating commercial email. Several bills have been introduced in Congress during the past few years. Now, the most likely to pass appears to be the Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act. As written last year, the bill would allow both criminal and civil penalties against people who send commercial email and try to hide its origin. The recipient should be able to tell where the message came from. This is intended to slap the lowest form of commercial emailers -- ones who want to spam but don't want to take responsibility for it. The proposal also would prohibit sending UCE unless the message contains a valid email address to which recipients may reply to "opt out" of future messages. Further -- and this might turn out to be a big administrative challenge -- the measure would prohibit sending other unsolicited commercial email messages to anyone who has given opt-out notification. Senders of truly unsolicited email would be required to include information that identifies the message as unsolicited commercial email. Also, the measure would allow Internet service providers, or ISPs, to institute a policy against bulk commercial email and would back up this policy with the force of law. ISPs would be exempted from liability if someone used their systems to send UCE. Further, the government might require violators to delete mailing lists and disallow any contact with the children of the recipients on the deleted lists. Organizations that violate the law could be sued. The Senate version -- called the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2000, or CAN SPAM -- is similar. As written last year, the bill would outlaw software designed to make the falsifying transmission and routing information easier. State laws Eighteen states, but not Texas, have passed laws to control email. These laws apply to situations where the sender and/or recipient are within the state, although as a practical matter, both must live in the state for there to be active policing and legal action. Most require opt-out instructions and false routing information. Some require labeling of commercial email. There also are statutes involving unsolicited pornography. Organizations The Direct E-Mail Advertisers Association is a trade group that lobbies against restrictive laws. This group distinguishes between UCE and spam. It encourages members to practice responsible mailings, including: Using your own ISP's resources only. Honoring removal requests. Identifying the sender's name in the header. These are good rules for any responsible business to follow. Some ISPs don't like mass mailings, as it puts demands on their bandwidth, and your ISP might object if you send too many. Organizational considerations Management of your direct email campaign within your company also is important; having a single person or group in charge can eliminate a lot of headaches. The bigger your email effort, the more likely you are to get into trouble sending multiple emails to the same recipient or sending the wrong message. Allow one person to keep the master schedule of mailings, and you'll reduce the chances of sending a thank you to someone who never bought from you or a special offer to someone who just made the purchase at full price. This is especially important in multidivision companies or companies selling more than one type of product. You also should immediately update email lists in response to removal requests and to new subscriptions.

DANIEL CREAN is president of Astir Marketing in Austin..

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