July 29, 2004, 12:00 AM

Legitimate e-mailers don’t spam, some don’t even mail

Researchers signed up for e-mail newsletters from 1,057 marketers. Only three resulted in spamóand 36% never sent a single communication.

Mike Adams has been a critic of the CAN-Spam Act since even before it took effect Jan. 1. It’s not that Adams, president of e-mail management software developer Arial Software LLC, likes spam. Rather, he believes legislation does nothing to prevent spam.

Adams set out to prove his contention with a survey of 1,057 legitimate e-mail marketers. His results confirmed his belief-only three of the companies spammed him after he signed up. One was responsible for 323 e-mails in six months, another for 167 and the third for 67. Arial defines spam as “porn spam, Viagra offers or random-word ‘poetry’ spam.” Says Adams: “CAN-Spam has had the unfortunate effect of placing a compliance burden on those organizations that weren’t spamming in the first place while having virtually no impact on hard-core spammers.”

The marketing sin

But he also found other interesting things. For one, 66% of the 1,057 companies failed to comply with CAN-Spam by not supplying an unsubscribe link (51%) or not clearly identifying the source of the e-mail (45%). Some violated both provisions. But that doesn’t mean they’re spamming. “This CAN-Spam compliance audit shows that even when organizations don’t comply with CAN-Spam, they’re almost never engaged in spamming in the first place,” Adams says. “You can’t legislate ethical behavior by online retailers, and as this study shows, nearly all online retailers follow ethical e-mail marketing practices on their own.”

CAN-Spam considerations aside, the most surprising result was that 36% of organizations to which Adams sent his e-mail address never sent a single piece of e-mail. “To gather the e-mails of people who are interested in hearing from you then fail to deliver even a single message to those people is perhaps rightly characterized as a marketing sin,” Adams’ report said.

Other interesting conclusions:

l 12 organizations failed to honor unsubscribe requests, even after as many as 60 requests to one company. Mitigating that dereliction, Adams points out, is the fact that none shared the e-mail addresses with others and none sent offensive material.

l Most e-mailers do not employ spam-resistant subscription processing. 72% of sites accepted an e-mail address sign-up with no acknowledgement, meaning anyone can sign up anyone else for an e-mail newsletter; 21.8% sent a single e-mail acknowledgement; 6.5% used double confirmation in which customers receive an e-mail instructing them to click through to confirm the sign-up.

A retailer doesn’t have to be big to meet all the CAN-Spam requirements and take the extra steps to do e-mail marketing right, Arial notes. On the list of 65 organizations that did everything right (see box) were giant Amazon.com and tiny AuntiesBeads.com, which has about $5 million in annual sales.

Technical solution

Adams believes that only a technical solution, not legislation, can stop spam. He advocates adoption of the Microsoft approach dubbed the "Puzzle Solution." Under that procedure, outbound e-mails must contain a mathematical calculation that requires computing power. The solution takes a few seconds to complete. The belief is that since the low cost of sending millions of e-mails can make spam profitable with a low consumer response rate, spammers would find the cost in terms of additional servers to compute the solution too high and would suddenly be out of business.

“As much as CAN-Spam was passed with the best of intentions, it has proven to be all but worthless in stopping spam,” Adams says. “Now, only a reworking of e-mail protocols offers hope for stopping spam and reopening e-mail channels for legitimate e-mail marketers.”

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