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My Dearest Spammer

A love letter to the tech marketers who buy my contact information.

Stop using my first name in your marketing emails. It isn't cute or clever. And it's certainly not going to increase your response rates. There will never come a day when I think, "Geez, how's my old friend Noreply doing?"

Forget for a moment that it's unimaginative and desperate, especially if you have a legitimate product or service. When you pay some bottom-feeding company like DiscoverOrg for my work email address or phone number (necessarily without my consent!), your marketing smells of V1agra.

Even if your tone is professional -- even if you use your real name -- and even if you somehow sound authentic, you don't deserve a meeting or even a response. It's like a mugger returning your empty wallet with a crayon-written note: "Check this box if you want to be my BFF." I don't. You're a spammer. You deserve a framed picture on some wall of shame. The problem is that we don't have said wall. Spamhaus has its 10 Worst Spammers list, but they're all predatory asses selling placebos to your grandmother in Kansas. And it should irk us all that most of the faces on the Spamhaus list have smug smiles. The lesson there is that you can't shame someone who is proud of his "ingenuity."

But a market-based solution would work for enterprise spammers because most are legitimate businesses. They just saaaahuck at marketing. They don't create useful, consumable, edutaining content. If they blog, it's completely self-serving. And their definition of a white paper is a way to play buzzword bingo without stock images of women in business suits (the lowest possible bar for demonstrating diversity).

Look, no one likes spam. So writing an anti-spam column is like finally coming out against racism. The problem is that our cultural understanding of spam lets craptastic sales organizations rationalize their "marketing" (in giant air quotes) as legit simply because there's a real company behind it.

I get hundreds of these emails and calls a week. From people at real companies, mind you. And trust me when I tell you that I'm not alone in thinking that this approach cripples their credibility and increasingly delegitimizes their business.

What follows is a proposal for how to end this behavior (with or without the cooperation of the offending parties).

First, a threat posing as a weekend dev project
All right, team, for this exercise we're going to need a website. But what to name it? Let's be generous and say that only one out of every four marketerssucks all the marrow out of our lives. Not marketer A, B, or C but that lazy fourth one, leaving us a high-concept domain name: Someone trademark it. Quickly.

Now imagine a world where every time someone receives an unsolicited email at work, they forward it to [email protected]. Heck, most people are even sophisticated enough to create Outlook auto-forwarding rules that zero in on words such as unsubscribe, big data, cloud, and hello. (Seriously, who in 2014 starts emails with "Hello"? It's creepy.)

The owner of the domain would just need to parse out the original sender/text of all inbound emails, making sure to strip out their original recipient (i.e., the victim). Then the system could extract, store, and score the spammer's email address and domain. After that, it's relatively simple to publish a wall of shame à la Spamhaus. For extra credit, the site could offer a simple service that lets Ops folks access a blacklist.

The site could even have two ironic cherries on top. First, a monetization strategy that lets offenders reduce their scores for a fee. Rich! Second, it could offer a weekly automated email to all offending violators that shares everyone's marketerd rankings. Just make sure there's a clearly visible unsubscribe link at the bottom of that email, the marketing world's legally sanctioned equivalent of saying the Rosary twice.

Note: If anyone spends a weekend building this site, I'll do more than just transfer the much-sought-after domain to them. Lunch, baaaby! Plus, a promise that after your death, I personally will fill out all the forms needed to grant you sainthood.

The longer-term answer: Polish that marketerd
Before I give any marketing advice, let me just say that I'm not a marketer. I had other options in life.

That said, I'm of the Fred Wilson school of marketing, which boils down to "build products that don't suck." How? The Steve Blank school of product development: Start with a customer, not a product. It's not about the damn product. Sale No. 2 should come from a rabid introduction from customer No. 1.

Still not making sense? One last clue: Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame doesn't actually cobble shoes. It's not about building the product; it's about creating the culture that produces evangelists, internally and externally. Note that unlike with Fred and Steve, I didn't link to Tony's writing. The lesson there is that sometimes books can feel like chloroform.

If there's a theme here, it's 1) read a non-marketing book every once in awhile; and 2) assume that the best way to transform a process is to transform its adjacencies.

You know this: Your sales and marketing teams are actually everyone in your entire company. Act accordingly. Hire people who leverage their creativity and their networks on your company's behalf. Apply what you've learned from social.

Here's how I explain old-school salesmanship to the social generation. Back in the day, when grandpa hired a really great salesman, he was actually paying for that person's Rolodex (a social network made of cardboard). That salesman would systematically reach out to all the businesspeople he'd ever met (anyone who'd ever given him a "like"), and he'd use his phone or face-to-face meetings to "tweet" how impressed he was with grandpa's company/product. What grandpa was really paying for was the salesman's willingness to exert his social influence (his Klout Score) on behalf of grandpa's company/product.

You know how Facebook's real product is you? Well, if you work at a company, a variation of that rule applies. You're its product. So when you spam, that's the company's product. And it's nearly impossible to look past that fact.

If you're not personally guilty but you do work at this kind of company, start a conversation and persist until it changes its practices. I certainly press on it at Big. Our entire industry is still sending unsolicited snail mail by the truckload. Snail mail! Tiny countries worth of trees! So when it comes to choosing between opt-in and opt-out strategies, outspoken is my middle name.

Should your company continue to market via email? Absolutely. People who actively opt-in to receive content actually consume it. But don't let them confuse the question of email's effectiveness with the ethics of non-consensual marketing.

If you're directly responsible for the "Hello Coverlet" notes that I receive, take all that money and effort you're putting into hiding in my virtual bushes and instead invest it in building a company culture that doesn't suck.

Your love is like a fever
I use an app called Clear to keep a list of my favorite spammy transgressions. True to my New York state of mind, I call the list "Aggressive Panhandling."

My recent favorites are 1) the guy who asked for a read receipt on his third "why aren't you answering my note" email; and 2) my proof that there's no war on Christmas: all of the spamilicious greetings I got last month. Nothing -- and I mean nothing! -- follows "Merry Christmas Coverlet" quite as joyously as a note about the mysterious power of Hadoop.

I almost cried.

To be fair, I'm not sure I need a list of transgressions given that they're all burnt into my psyche, but Clear is brilliant: minimalist in design and fun to use. I'll never get a marketing email from the app's makers because they don't need the hard sell.

They had me before hello.


Originally posted on InformationWeek on January 14, 2014. The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. 

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