Column: A Business Model Built on Tantrums

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The latest well-intended but questionable idea in the spam wars comes from a Marlborough, MA-based start-up called Vanquish Inc.


The idea behind Vanquish is straightforward enough: place the economic burden of commercial e-mail on the sender rather than the recipient. By making marketers pay for unwanted outbound messages, the economic governors that limit, for example, unwanted commercial postal mail will come into play on e-mail, and, viola!, problem solved.


"The idea is too good not to spread, one way or another," Internet guru Esther Dyson wrote in a recent column.


Well, I'm not so sure. Rather than charge marketers for all outbound messaging, under Vanquish's business model recipients decide whether they've been spammed and, if so, trigger a charge against the sender that is distributed to ISPs and mail providers.


Here's how it works, according to copy on Vanquish.com:


"Vanquish requires e-mail from non-exempt senders to include a 'satisfaction guarantee' in the form of an embedded bond and an encrypted back-channel. The sender bond is backed by either cash, credit or a company with whom the sender has an established billing relationship. The sender pays against their guarantee only if the recipient feels annoyed, irritated or harassed. If a recipient feels that a message is spam, they trigger a fee that transfers its distribution cost from the Internet providers to the sender."


Great, an anti-spam tool subject to recipients' moods.


Has Amazon.com failed to answer a complaint satisfactorily? No problem. Simply search your inbox for the last outbound marketing message from the company and hit the "you spammed me" button.


There, that feels better.


Better yet, let's apply Vanquish's business model to other media. For example, every time a commercial from Chrysler's "Drive = Love" campaign appears on my TV, I want to be able to hit a button labeled "ka-ching!" on my remote and charge Chrysler for it. Childish? Maybe, but I'm beginning to see some advantages in the Net-head "consumer-is-in-control" mantra.


Also, I want to apply retroactive annoying-marketing charges to Apple. Its grammatically incorrect "Think Different" campaign was like an advertising version of the woman who sat across from me on the A train this morning cracking her gum all the way from 190th Street to 14th. "Ka-ching!" Take that, Apple.


Or how about a "fire the VP of marketing" button? Heck, the age of interactive television is almost here. What's the point of interacting with marketers if we can't take our petty frustrations out on them? If, say, one-third of the people who view an ad hate it, "click," that VP is gone. Think of it as a new economy version of Roman coliseums. Never mind if the irritating ad in question resulted in mega-sales, as irritating ads have been known to do.


Meanwhile, there's more from Vanquish:


"Until now, spammers abused the privilege of e-mail, because they saw no incremental cost for each addressee. Other media, such as direct mail, TV, etc. have costs associated with development, production, and distribution, yet they support a thriving commercial industry. That's because the inherent costs ensure that messages are targeted, coherent and limited."


Vanquish's creators and supporters seemingly ignore of one of the most basic tenets of direct sales: Even the most responsible marketers with the best data cannot know beforehand to which offers and creative approaches people will respond. Marketers can know only those to which people have responded and work incrementally from there. This is why "test, test, test" is a direct marketing rule of thumb.


And testing requires planning, which requires fixed costs. Imagine marketing-department dialogues otherwise:


"How long do you plan for this campaign to run, and how much will it cost, Bob?"


"Gee, Susan, I don't know. It depends on how many people get mad at us."


Vanquish claims that when its service rolls out sometime in the first quarter of next year, the pricing will be such that fly-by-night spammers will be knocked out of the game immediately, but that costs to legitimate marketers will be minor.


"This, in the end, will facilitate legitimate commercial e-mail while maintaining end-user control over what gets in their inbox," said Jeffrey Asher, chief marketing officer at Vanquish.


At the start of writing this column, there were 521 e-mails in my inbox, the vast majority of which were spam. Lately, there also has been an astronomical increase of spam from so-called responsible companies claiming I opted in somewhere when I know darned well I didn't.


That the good guys need better guns in the spam wars is not lost here. But it is not clear that Vanquish in its current form is a better gun.


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