Are Tell-a-Friend Programs Spam?

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FreeLotto.com's "Tell A Friend, Win a Car" promotion, which runs through the end of the month, has experts questioning whether such contests can be considered spam.


The promotional model encourages participants to give as many as 10 of their friends' e-mail addresses. For every e-mail address entered, they earn a chance to win one of three cars, including a 2000 Chevrolet Corvette. The friends then are contacted via e-mail and encouraged to click through to a hyperlink to also participate in the contest.


iWon.com has an almost identical program that wraps up at the end of the month, called "Tell A Friend Car Giveaway," running on its site.


According to the Forum for Responsible and Ethical E-mail, Irving, TX, this type of promotion is spam. "It's clearly spam. It's unsolicited, commercial e-mail," said Andrew Barrett, media coordinator at FREE.


Both FreeLotto and iWon dispute the notion that these promotions fall into this negative category.


"When it is sent from friend to friend, it ceases to be a commercial message," said Kevin Aronin, chairman of PlasmaNet, New York, the parent company of FreeLotto. "We don't engage in spam. We do respect the privacy of our players. We're growing at a rate of 50,000 players a day, and a good deal come from referrals."


Neither company sells or rents its database of player names.


"There's no big corporation buying names and sending things out," said Jon Brod, vice president of marketing at iWon.com, Irvington, NY.


If a user doesn't click on the hyperlink to register to play, he is not contacted by either site.


Whether these programs fit the definition of spam is not the issue, according to Stuart Gibbel, vice president of marketing at Cyber Dialogue, a New York research firm. The issue is that consumer patience for random e-mails from friends is wearing thin.


"Its more annoying than it does good. People are so tired of e-mail that even winning a new car is like, 'Enough already.' "


The proliferation of junk e-mail has also jaded consumers.


"The [car offer] sounds like a come-on. It sounds too good to be true. People are so skeptical," said Gibbel. "This is a major hurdle because there's so much spam. Even though it might not be spam, it could look like it to someone else."


That perception could be damaging to the brands that participate in these programs. "People will think it's another pyramid scam or a 'Forward this e-mail' hoax, and that's a shame," said Barrett. "A lot of good companies won't deserve the reputation they'll gain by using this marketing method. Those advertisers are at the risk of losing a lot of good will in the marketplace and a bit of their integrity in the mind of the consumer because if, in the end, the recipient thinks it's spam - it's spam."


The bad rap that some forms of e-mail marketing has received is unfortunate, said Aronin. "There are a whole lot of hoax e-mails. [As a result,] there will always be people who will perceive [the contest] as something other than what it is."


FreeLotto has been helped by the promotion and its other marketing efforts. According to PC Data Online's Jan. 1 report, FreeLotto ranked No. 1 in the entertainment, sweepstakes and lottery and promotions categories with 4.84 million unique users.


Additionally, 80 percent of the site's advertisers have come back to run new ads. "We have $20 million in advertising [locked up] in long-term commitments," said Aronin.


iWon also has labeled the campaign a success. "There are a nice percentage of people who are becoming members as a result of the [contest]. It's proving to be an effective marketing vehicle," said Brod.
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