Spam finally has a definition

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Jordan Cohen
Jordan Cohen

When industry groups first started tackling deliverability best practices a few years ago, the struggle to define spam raised some controversial questions. Marketers, ISPs, consumer groups and government agencies alike wondered: Should all unsolicited commercial e-mail be considered spam? Or just unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail? Or perhaps it's any e-mail sent without permission; bulk, commercial or otherwise?

Eventually, attempts to define spam were abandoned, as no one could agree on a meaning that would encompass all unwanted messages while excluding legitimate e-mail. Besides, a definition seemed irrelevant when an estimated one-in-five commercial e-mails were getting caught in filters for failing content checks or poor bounce management, even when specifically requested by the consumer.

Fast forward to 2007, and we may finally have a definition for spam. Yahoo's top e-mail operations executive, Miles Libbey, senior product manager at Yahoo Mail, probably put it best at the Federal Trade Commission's recent Spam Summit: “Operationally, we define spam as anything users don't want in their inbox,” Libbey said. It's short, sweet, highly understandable and 100 percent consumer-centric. But it's also a definition that may frighten the many marketers who previously believed that acquiring affirmative consent meant they would never be considered spammers.

As we move closer to a time when consumer spam complaints will weigh heaviest on a marketers' deliverability and ROI, successful firms will increase their focus on making sure that every e-mail they send is relevant, valuable, welcomed and wanted by its recipients. To survive and thrive in the next phase of e-mail marketing, keep these two core principles in mind:

  • How you give notice trumps how you get permission. Getting consumers' permission is meaningless unless you are clear about what they are agreeing to when they sign up. At a recent industry conference, AOL's postmaster, Charles Stiles, told attendees, “I don't care if they triple opted-in and gave you their credit card number.” He drew chuckles, but made his point loud and clear: Opt-in is meaningless if consumers subsequently click the “Report Spam” button.
  • Relevancy rules. There are no “throw away” communications in the e-mail world, where consumers provide immediate and constant feedback about what they think of your programs to their ISPs. Before clicking send, always ask yourself, “Is the individual recipient I'm sending this to going to find it valuable?” And while you're at it, “Would I be happy to receive this message.”

Jordan Cohen is director of industry and government relations at Epsilon. He can be reached at

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