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Posted on: Sunday, 01 November 2009 by Rajiv Popat

You Might Be A Spammer And You Might Not Even Know It. 

From Saving cost; increasing my IQ; getting a free degree; living a happy life to increasing my man-hood; the number of spam emails that I get on any given day is astonishing.

While I am hard-wired to ignore these emails; there is yet another kind of email that is also technically spam and that I also ignore.

This dear reader; is not the typical malicious spam sent with an intention of spoofing; identity theft or running a Trojan on your machine.

Instead; these email include a real organization and a real marketer trying desperately to market a product that he or she has set out to make you interested in through what I like to call 'brute force marketing'.

Examples include:

  1. Valid and Authentic Placement Agencies checking to see if you have openings in your organization and if you would like to interview their candidates. 
  2. Web conferencing companies trying to show you their solution and help you get; what they call; a higher 'ROI'.
  3. Training organizations wanting to check if you are interested in attending their next paid training session or workshop which will 'boost' your productivity.

Read between the lines and you willl sense both; the mediocrity of the product and the frustration of the person sending the emails.

For months I struggled with why anyone would indulge in the act of spending all this time and effort to spam your mailbox when it is a vastly known fact that we as computer users ignore most of the emails that we get.

For months I wondered how the idea of writing Trojans and spammers worked. Were there organizations that had developed this as a Niche? Were there whiteboard meetings; backlogs and scrums around the features to include in the next version of the cutting-edge-spammer these guys were writing?

No; seriously; this entire 'industry'; for lack of a better word; and its workings; were beyond my comprehension.

It was then that I happened to work with the client where I saw how it all begins.

This client of ours; who for the purposes of this post; we shall refer to as Multiplitaxion Inc; had a marketing department which undertook the task of sending out monthly mail blasts to what they called their 'potential clients'.

To give them credit for ethical conduct; the mail blasts were not malicious though. They contained simple HTML emails with harmless irrelevant stock-pictures of planets like Saturn or smiling people. The idea of these emails was to get the receiver of the email excited about the insurance product this client of mine worked on.

A little more investigation into the process told me how it typically works:

  1. There were people hired (usually outsourced from marketing firms based out of India) to search and collect email addresses on 'potential customers' from the web and multiple other sources.
  2. There were companies which sold database of email addresses. These database were purchased on a regular basis.
  3. People were added to the centralized CRM database without their express permission and is most cases even without their knowledge; albeit they were offered a small 'un-subscribe' link at the bottom of every email that went out to them.

Yes; this client of mine was one-hundred percent ethical; with no malicious intent and yet they had taken their first step to becoming what can otherwise very technically be called a --- 'spammer'.

As a fully ethical organization; which was working on a genuinely good product; why did the marketing teams of Multiplitaxion Inc; feel the need to do this?

My personal theory behind this is simple --- because the math associated with this thing was staggering. It was an expensive insurance product for the enterprise this client of mine owned. The product had just three huge paying clients; which was good enough to sustain the product development team and keep the product running.

On any given month they sent out around five thousand unsolicited emails. Assuming that just 1% of the recipient clicked on the email and then 10% of  that 1% came to their website and spent considerable time there; they would have 5 interested customers that they could track and follow up with.

Now if your marketing could turn just 20% of those into paying customers; you had one new customer - which basically translated to 25% more revenue coming out of the product.

It was huge.

Human beings; are driven by different motivations; and when the motivations are high; people tend  to lean towards what might be wrong without even realizing we are doing so. This is exactly what had happened here. Multiplitaxion Inc; was sending out spam-mails without even realizing it was 'spamming' people.

No-one in the marketing department; development team or the entire organization saw this as spam. Everyone just called it a 'mail-blasts' and we even had calls around how we can improve the email sending job so that we can track the people who were getting these emails and see what they were doing with these emails that we were spending so much time and effort to send.

That is when we started embedding GUIDs and JavaScript in our email to track who was clicking on them; who was deleting the emails without reading them and who was spending time on our website.

We never went beyond this point; but as we sat through some of those meetings; I as a developer; could almost see what the natural next-steps or set of 'features' could be to take our mail-blast program to the next level - introducing a small executable or active-x component (or should we say a Trojan) to see which other insurance products the recipient of the email was running?

I cringed at the very thought of it.

It freaked me out to even think how thin the line is between being a software developer who is building a great product and helping the marketing team get the word out and a spammer who is writing state of art tools for spamming people.

The only good thing; that I can say about that episode is that this client of mine; knew where to draw the line and stop. No-one even thought of or spoke about introducing executables or active-x controls for better tracking visitors.

Of-course; as we sat in that meeting room; none of us; even thought that; just by sending those emails out; we had taken the first step to becoming the spammers we all hated.

Now; pause a moment; dear reader.

Reflect.

Does your organization send out an email blast about any of your product or service?

Harmless HTML emails that go out to a few hundred or thousand readers?

Maybe; and I am just saying maybe; much like those placement agents checking in to see if you have openings; or the training institutes checking in to see if you would like to boost your productivity; your organization might be spamming people too; and you might not even realize it.

Just a little something to think about.