The New Definition of Spam and How to Overcome It


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Spam used to be defined as unsolicited bulk e-mail where the sender lacks consent from the recipient. In today’s consumer-controlled marketing landscape however, the definition of spam has extended to include any form of irrelevant e-mail or e-mail sent too frequently, even when a sender has full user consent according to our research. Are consumers giving e-mail marketers a bad name? Or should e-mail marketers do a better job reaching their customers and prospects with the right message at the right time and the right frequency?

Earlier this year Epsilon conducted a Global Consumer Email Study with over four thousand respondents in thirteen countries. The study revealed the following consumer definitions of spam: 83% of consumers defined spam as e-mails that intend to trick them into opening them; 76% defined spam as e-mails from senders who are unknown to me; 73% defined spam as any e-mail I receive that I didn’t ask for or subscribe to; and 71% defined spam as e-mails of an offensive subject matter. Surprisingly, 39% of respondents defined spam as any e-mail I receive that I don’t want, regardless of whether I subscribed, and 31% defined it as e-mails from a company I have done business with but that come too frequently. These two definitions create new challenges for e-mail marketers. It’s no longer just about getting subscriber’s permission. Now e-mail marketers must focus on relevancy and frequency to strike the right balance with each individual consumer.

Likewise, the study revealed that the top two reasons for unsubscribing from e-mails were irrelevant content and e-mail messages sent too frequently. Therefore, to avoid losing valuable customers, marketers must not only incorporate explicit preferences and consent, but also watch for implicit response behavior that might indicate a subscriber is no longer interested. Proactively monitoring e-mail engagement will give you advanced warning when it is time to change up your content, your cadence, or both.

There are a number of opportunities to gather subscriber information. The prime opportunity to establish preferences is at the time of subscription to e-mail programs. E-mail marketers should put customers in the driver’s seat by asking them what types of e-mails they wish to receive, when they check their e-mails, the devices they use for e-mail, their preferred format and how often they wish to receive messages. With all this information, marketers must also be prepared to deliver on it with the latest technology and resources for data-driven, targeted e-mail deployments. Data such as purchase and browsing behavior will indicate when consumers are actively engaged with brands and what is of interest to them. Finally, testing e-mail marketing campaigns and analyzing performance by individual customer segments will also be a valuable reference as to what is working to drive engagement and what is not.

The best e-mail marketers are out in front of their subscribers’ interests, constantly monitoring for changes in engagement and silent attrition on their files. It is not enough just to manage unsubscribes and complaints. As marketers we need to go deeper into timing, targeting, and program engagement to avoid and overcome the new definition of spam, leveraging trust with brand-name recognition, and keeping a keen eye on consumer preferences – both implicit and explicit – to drive relevance.


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