Spam Buyers: ‘Who Are These People?’

I’ve always been a big “Seinfeld” fan. I even remember watching his first appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” back in the day. One of Seinfeld’s most quoted lines from his standup routine was, “Who are these people?” He’d ask that question in his signature, whiny tone before describing dozens of quirky and annoying habits exhibited by our fellow citizens.

I wonder what Jerry would say about people who buy from spam messages. “Who ARE these people?”

The Software Business Alliance commissioned Forrester Research to help us begin to find out. One thing that jumped out is there seems to be a lot more consumers opening and buying from spam than I’d thought.

According to the study, respondents claim to open and read more than 20 percent of unsolicited e-mail they receive. Twenty percent is a pretty good open rate for a spammer. I know a few permission-based e-mail marketers that don’t enjoy open rates that high. Also, the study concluded that more than 40 percent of U.S. respondents admit to having bought something from a spam message. Results from their international studies are even higher.

Most of the other estimates for “spam purchasers” I’ve seen hover around the single digits. For example, anti-spam software company Mailshell released a study in 2003 indicating that 8 percent of the online population had purchased from a spam message.

Why the discrepancy? Maybe it involves the consumer definition of spam, or lack thereof. If you asked 10 people to define spam, you’d probably get a number of differing interpretations. Moreover, if you gave those same 10 people 100 e-mails and asked them to separate the spam from the legitimate messages, you’d almost certainly get 10 different combinations. Most people define spam as an e-mail they don’t want. Maybe they signed up for it. Maybe they didn’t. Perhaps they wanted to hear from that company at some point. Perhaps not.

Forrester has done a great job quantifying “spam purchasers,” but now I’d like to see someone qualify the spam-purchaser segment. I’d like to better understand the people who buy from spam messages. Previous estimates of “spam purchasers” peg the segment around 8 percent of the online population. If extrapolated to the U.S. online population of 204.3 million (Nielsen//NetRatings), other online demographic and behavioral segments can be examined:

· Hispanics: 6 percent of U.S. Internet users (12.6 million) are Hispanic.

· Gays: 6 percent of online consumers (12.26 million) identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

· Seniors: 4 percent of U.S. Internet users (8 million) are 65 or older.

· Affluence: 4 percent of U.S. Internet users (7.87 million) have incomes of $150,000 or greater.

· Hyper shoppers: 11 percent of U.S. Internet users (23 million) spend $500 or more both online and offline after first seeking product/service information online.

· Paid music downloaders: 5 percent of U.S. Internet users (10 million) 12 and older are paid music downloaders.

· Content purchasers: 8 percent of U.S. Internet users (16.4 million) paid for online content in fourth-quarter 2003.

It’s interesting to note that every major anti-spam initiative has approached the problem from the supply side. The focus is on keeping spam out of our inboxes by impeding the efforts of spammers. It might be useful to pay attention to the demand side. Why do people buy the products and services offered in spam? Are spam purchasers old or young? Rich or poor? Do they enjoy deciphering the nonsense words found in many spam messages that sometimes remind me of a Burroughs novel? In other words … who ARE these people?

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