Spam. It's the scourge of the internet yet we just can't seem to get rid of it. The more sophisticated our defenses get, the more sophisticated the spammers become. The war on spam is the quintessential cat and mouse game.

And right now, it looks like the mouse is staying one step ahead of the cat.

According to a new security report issued by Microsoft, a whopping 97% of all email is spam. This is a higher figure than claimed by other firms but no matter the data source, almost all agree: spam makes up a significant majority of the email that traverses the internet.

Despite progress here and there, such as the 2008 shuttering of a hosting company that was being used to send massive volumes of spam, spammers have adapted and are using techniques old and new alike to get their shady advertisements into our inboxes.

Billions of dollars have been spent trying to defeat spam without luck, obviously, and I think it's time to ask the question: should we just give up now?

One need only look at the war on crime that nations around the world have fought for decades to see many similarities to the war on spam: lots of money spent, some battles won, an enemy that is smart and most importantly, an enemy that has more profit motive to adapt.

So long as people buy products advertised in spam emails, there will be spammers, just as there will always be organized criminals so long as there's money to be made in committing various crimes. This isn't a technology challenge; it's a human challenge.

Obviously, throwing in the towel on spam doesn't mean that we won't have to deal with it. It still makes sense to use cost-effective filtering applications and email marketers will need to contend with deliverability issues, but I do think we should give up on the idea of reducing spam to the point that it's a non-issue. It just doesn't make any sense economically.

Personally, I've always found that in addition to a reasonably priced spam filter, it's the common sense techniques that have helped keep me relatively spam free.

As a consumer:

  • Be careful who you give your email address to.
  • Use multiple/disposable accounts if/where appropriate.

As a digital marketer:

  • Double opt-in.
  • Implement simple protocols such as SPF, DomainKeys, etc.
  • Don't contribute to the clutter by sending too many emails.
  • Educate recipients (i.e. suggest they add you to their safelist).
  • Have a multi-channel strategy so that you're not overly dependent on email.

By no means are these techniques perfect but I can't help but think that we'd be a lot better off and a lot richer if we finally dismissed the idealistic notion that we can defeat spam with more technology and greater investments. Sometimes a war is won by choosing not to fight it.

Photo credit: dok1 via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 9 April, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (3)

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd -

Scenario 1 – 1986

We wanted to launch the UK’s first print magazine for sales management. We rent a couple of databases of business addresses that have some likelihood of employing sales staff (difficult profile back then in the Dark Ages) and send out 40,000 copies a month, addressed to the “Head of Sales” (or something similar).

Result – I’m sure someone thought it was yet more “junk mail”, but 25,000 sales managers did sign up over the next 3 years, creating the first ever list of “Sales Decision Makers”.

Scenario 2 – 2006

We wanted to launch the UK’s first online magazine for the whole sales profession. We had our own database by then, of course, covering the top sales teams, but we also “topped up” with 110,000 “Sales Decision Makers” from Corpdata (since repeated with their latest 129,000 that we don’t already have, and now totalling a 280,000, twice weekly, combined database.

Result – one of the 129,000 was adamant that his specific details had not been collected/provided in the normal way that the other 128,999 names and emails had been – and accused us of sending “spam” but with severely dire consequences including invoicing us at “£25 + VAT” for any future sends. (It was an IT Consultant offering leased email servers, firewalls etc., to corporate clients, naturally!)

Conclusion – “Get your meds from Canada” sent worldwide is obviously as “junk/spam” as if some New York taxi service put a business card through your London letter box. But might one man’s “spam” just be someone else’s tinned meat ration that ensures his survival?

(And as well as being a user of other databases, by the way, I also rent and lease data in exactly the same way, for other blue-chip corporate users to send their “unsolicited” stuff, given the proviso that the names on our database and their email addresses are there for the express purpose of “receiving materials aimed at the Head of Sales to assist with selling and sales management matters”.)

over 9 years ago


Nigel Williams, MD at Emailcenter UK

One thing I would like to see is people like Google stopping the sale of spam lists. Go on Google today and search for "buy email lists" and in the sponsored links you still see 2M "opt-in" email addresses for a few dollars.

over 9 years ago


Mike Talbot, CTO at Alterian

Being relevant in email is vital and not over communicating.  The cost of losing someone with an unsubscribe is significant compared to the relatively low cost of sending the mail in the first place - being irrelevant is highly damanging to the brand image in any case.

Email really works well for newsletters and updates, especially when there there are multiple points of interest in each communication - far rather this than a multitude of single subject emails.

over 9 years ago

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