The Five Flavours of Spam

I recently wrote a blog post looking at Russia’s latest attempt to combat illegal spammers. It struck me that I had to couple the word ‘illegal’ with ‘spammer’. Surely this is a bit redundant as spam is by definition illegal? In the minds of the consumer however, spam is “a message that I don’t want”.

This definition is akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s admission that he could not define what constitutes pornography but ‘I know it when I see it.’  The consumer perception or definition of spam is loose enough that it potentially classifies many of us and our clients or customers as spammers (at least in the eye of the recipient), even if our intentions were totally legitimate and above board.

In my mind, ‘spam’ can be classified in five different categories:

Wrong email at the wrong time – the sender is a legitimate brand and the recipient has signed up to receive email messages from them. This is all totally legal but, for whatever reason, the recipient feels this message is not right for them at this point in time.

This is the classic scenario where, just as your customer is opening your well crafted and highly targeted email, their four year old spills Ribena on the white carpet, the phone rings, and the postman knocks on the door.  Suddenly your message goes from being value-added content to being an added stressor and therefore spam in their mind.

Legitimate business that makes a mistake – this is a sender that usually abides by all the rules, but by accident, someone uploaded the wrong data list or sent the email to the wrong segment of customers.  We have all done it – accidents happen.

Legitimate business but don’t know any better – this is a sender that just isn’t aware of the legal requirements of email marketing. They take the attitude that if you send enough email, you’ll eventually get returns. It is frightening how often this happens. I recently had a rather heated debate with a client who is a very well respected and successful businessman who really struggled to get his head around why you couldn’t just trawl the web for email addresses for prospects.

Illegitimate business selling fraudulent products – this is where we start to get into the more illegal territory. These senders might be actually selling you something, but the product will be substandard or fraudulent and the data won’t have been collected in a legal way.

These are your classic snake oil salesmen selling a product that may or may not live up to the dubious claims of the pitch but a product nonetheless. I saw one recently where the email and landing page promised to sell me an Adobe Acrobat Reader License with one year’s maintenance for $1.50. Not a bad gig that; selling a ‘license’ for something that is free with maintenance on something that doesn’t break. Now this could (and in fact very likely will) be a way to collect credit card details for the last flavour of spam…

Illegal operation trying to get your personal details – this sender is a phisher and is trying to get you to click on a link that takes you to a phishing site or worse.

The recipient who sees a spam message in their inbox is unlikely to make these distinctions, however, as they simply click the junk box.

So what does this mean for us in the industry?

Well, for starters, I think we need to be very careful about how we use the word ‘spam’ because, as I’ve just shown, it covers a wide array of bases.

And it’s exactly for this reason that I was concerned about some recently released research that apparently found that the UK is one of the “most dangerous places to surf the internet in the world”, with one in every ten UK websites responsible for spamming recipients.  The specifics of this research have been thoroughly covered, but you can read both the research and the rebuttal and decide for yourself.

I think we all need to be careful and considered when using the word ‘spam’ and clarify which of the five categories we are talking about. Not only do we need to keep raising the standards in our industry by promoting best practice through industry guides and individual research like dotMailer’s Hitting the Mark report. We also need to start changing consumer perceptions too and move them away from categorising all unwanted email as spam through direct outreach and indirectly through the mainstream press.

We all have a role to play, but it’s not something that is going to be solved overnight, if ever.

This entry was posted in Best Practice, Legislation, Research and tagged , , on by .
Skip Fidura

About Skip Fidura

Skip Fidura who is the Group Digital Director and Client Serviecs Director to the dotDigital Group has been in marketing for over fifteen years, having worked in contact centres, direct marketing, customer analysis, and digital marketing. 

Most recently Skip was Email Partner at OgilvyOne London and prior to that he was the Director of European Operations for Acxiom Digital.  He has worked with clients such as Hallmark, BT, Kodak, hp, and

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  • @mailblaze

    Thanks for laying it all out so clearly. Yes-it's hard to believe that some people would genuinely not have a problem with blasting emails out to a bought email list. The entire concept of opt-in boggles their minds completely. We got a call just the other day from someone who wanted to know if we sell lists with our packages. We don't. We explained how people go about building their lists by having sign-up forms on their websites etc, but he thought that was too slow and wanted to just be able to start sending emails out to 10,000 from the word go.

  • Graham Downs

    Spam is ANY unsolicited commercial e-mail – and you can be glad I included the word “commercial” as many people I know wouldn’t have. If I don’t know you personally, I don’t want to hear from you. Period.