In fighting the spam wars, mail wins û or does it?

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A recent survey by International Communications Research showed that consumers, by a very large margin, prefer postal mail to e-mail for receiving offers and information about new products from companies they do business with. There really was no contest: 73 percent prefer postal mail; 18 percent prefer e-mail.

The survey was commissioned by Pitney Bowes, and it is the fourth such survey the company has funded since 1999. Cynics might point out that a company that sells and supports postage meters has something of an interest in the question. But I salute them for going out, finding a reputable independent firm to perform the survey and then doing the research. It's the kind of information reputable marketers need in order to plan strategy.

I suspect that our professional community does not understand the depth of outrage inspired by spam. I don't see that much spam, because the company I work for has a good filter. But I talked recently with a NEDMA member who works in a home office, and he told me that he receives between 150 and 200 spam messages per day. No wonder there is outrage out there! No wonder there is anger and frustration in the corporate IT departments that fight the rising tide of spam.

The survey also found that consumers are less likely to discard unopened mail (31 percent) - including new product brochures, catalogs or other advertising materials - than they are to discard unsolicited e-mails about new products (53.2 percent).

Pitney Bowes is pleased with the survey results, and they issued a press release about it, which quotes various members of their executive team about the implications.

Jeff Marshall, VP of customer marketing for Pitney Bowes Global Mailstream Solutions, said, "In an environment crowded with marketing messages, it's important for marketers to utilize the most effective mail stream tools available. While mail is the preferred vehicle for reaching consumers, businesses and organizations need to remember that it is critical to target consumers with relevant messages at appropriate times to get a meaningful return on investment."

I couldn't agree more with Marshall, but I think there may be a little wishful thinking here when he discusses ROI. The problem is that spammers consider the cost of distribution and delivery of their messages to be, essentially, zero. And when your costs are zero, profitability is only one to two responses away.

The costs aren't zero, of course. They are simply borne by someone else. Spammers are grazing their livestock (and leaving their manure) on the commons. And we all know how long the commons lasts when that happens.

There is a legitimate role for commercial e-mail marketing. Many customers want to get regular e-mails from marketers they do business with. But for every legitimately requested e-mail message (newsletters, product news, purchase confirmations, sale announcements), there are hundreds of 419 scam messages, phony stock tips, online gambling come-ons, get-rich-quick schemes and counterfeit product offers.

Unless we find a way to clean up some of that mess, I think we could eventually lose e-mail as a legitimate marketing tool. The Internet is already groaning under the weight of it. If you don't believe me, ask the head of your IT operation.

It looks as if it is up to the direct marketing community to educate the public not to respond to spam. It's a tall order, because most spam is specifically designed to appeal to those with low impulse control: compulsive gamblers, drug abusers, as well as pornography addicts.

But our association includes some of the most creative minds in modern business. Can we apply some of our intelligence and creativity to this problem for the sake of preserving e-mail as a direct marketing medium?

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