Monday, February 9, 2009

Unsolicited B2B Email - SPAM or Not?


Ever since CAN-SPAM came out, I've been struggling to answer this question:

Since unsolicited email to business-people is not prohibited by CAN-SPAM regulations, is this a viable lead-generation activity, or is it something that we direct marketers should steer clear of?

Is it SPAM, or not?

The industry seems to be handling this a few ways. Many of the leading data firms (such as Experian and Acxiom) will not append email addresses to prospect lists; they'll only append emails to customer files, citing their strict focus on consumer privacy and compliance.
And, some providers of email marketing services first send an email to their list warning recipients that they're about to receive an email from Company X. This step allows the mail recipient to opt out of a specific offer.

On the other extreme, you see news stories like this one from Direct Magazine. The story outlines how one email list company may (or may not) have stolen a list of conference attendees and is now selling the file. The accused company claims that they legitimately collected the email addresses and have every right to sell them. Hmmm. Sounds fishy to me.

So, what say you? Is unsolicited B2B email--emails to people who you don't know--something that you support? Do you have any success stories? Horror stories?

12 comments:

Ted Grigg said...

I think the growth of spam makes such email campaigns risky to the advertiser. They actually weaken the sender's brand in my opinion.

Permission email, where the company collects and builds its own email database, is what i recommend to my clients.

This is one area where an initial good return on the investment may not validate an email list rental strategy.

Prashant Gandhi said...

I feel Unsolicited email is bad marketing strategy.

Focusing on referral marketing strategies to populate your email database makes a lot of sense can actually have better results than sending unsolicited mail.

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Gabby said...

I'm a circulation manager at a B2B catalog company. We're searching for cost effective methods for acquisition and are considering emailing new contacts @ accounts that already buy from us. Do you consider this SPAM?

Suzanne Obermire said...

Gabby--I personally do not consider this SPAM. You have a relationship with the firm you're marketing to, and I'm assuming that your message includes some sort of incentive/value to the person you're emailing.

I'd do it, if I were in your shoes :)
Suzanne

mypostcardprinting.com said...

I only consider it SPAM if it has no relevance to whatsoever. otherwise Id be amazed to find out what they have to offer. It sucks to receive someone's prescription, but if I'm sick with the same thing then and be relieved and it helped.

Hopefully my comment helped as well.
Thanks for everyone's point of view. I enjoyed reading them.

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Arturo F Munoz said...

Suzanne, as you know, unsolicited B2B email is SPAM only when the recipient finds no value in having received it. This is the risk the sender takes in broadcasting to an unknown audience. But the whole point of having a marketing database and a targeting strategy is to minimize this risk.

In the U.S. the law is an opt-out regulation, which means that the email sender gets 10 days to honor a list removal request. I think too many marketers try to play it safe and send emails only to opt-in contacts or, at best, they try rentals to grow their database, which generally can perform worse than contacts already in the database. Besides targeting only opt-ins can increase your rate of attrition by wearing out what might be a relatively small universe of contacts.

These choices are a reflection of the marketers' lack of confidence about how well they understand what they already have in their marketing databases (if they even have a database to speak of) and how well their messages/offers match the audience that they wish to target.

Playing it safe is not how winners are made in direct marketing.

This is not to say that we must behave foolishly, however. The marketer must intimately come to know the target audience. And I have a horror story to share about a serious failure to do this.

I was brought in to a mid-size, global company once to build a marketing database for the corporate team. They had been relying on their IT org to build one for years and failed. They had also been running Salesforce.com for years and the system not only had become a cesspool of outdated and plain wrong data but it wasn't even marketing friendly, being a Sales-oriented system to begin with.

What had happened?

As it turns out an earlier generation of marketers had misunderstood the CAN-SPAM Act and decided to gate all marketing content at both the company's public site and promotional global campaigns, by requiring all anonymous site visitors and campaign participants everywhere in the world to create a login account first before receiving access to any content or promotional offers sitting now behind a firewall.

Why force prospects to create a login account at all? Because the marketers were afraid. They were after securing an absolute opt-in indicator from each individual wanting information from the company. These marketers were completely risk-averse. They had run their proposal through Legal, who is even more risk-averse than Marketing, and handed their specs to technicians highly skilled in developing very secure data management systems.

It didn't matter whether the information was a customer testimonial, a white paper, a product catalog, data sheet or simple brochure. If you wanted it, you needed to create a login account to tell the company if you wanted to opt into email communications AND THEN you'd get to whatever you were after.

The result?

This policy had practically killed lead generation for the entire company worldwide. Campaign responders abandoned their attempts at getting to their offers. Many forgot their passwords and cared nothing about resetting them only to get to what was now an unimportant customer testimonial.

The regions were up in arms against Corporate. They had proliferated a world of spreadsheets and outdated standalone databases to survive, and whatever they sent to Salesforce.com arrived without enforcement of any quality control procedures.

That meant that if some marketer attended a trade show, then the CRM database would receive not merely the name of every visitor to the company's booth at the trade show, but the hundreds if not thousands of other contacts who had attended the show and had expressed zero interest in the company.

To make matters worse, the policy in force was to email only to anyone who was opted in and that information was not passed to Salesforce.com. So no record in that system could be used for email purposes.

It was only after I arrived and a) consolidated all the regional data in a centralized database, b) amended the policy to an opt-in only regulation where this truly applies (e.g. European Union) and c) built a workaround to the login account system, that the database began to grow again.

Up until then the marketers at this company had acted out in fear and not in knowledge of their target audience.

Therefore, in conclusion, it is crucial for a marketing organization to understand correctly the impact of CAN-SPAM to apply the right interpretation in a corporate policy, as well as make sound use of a marketing database to minimize the impact of truly unsolicited emails.

Suzanne Obermire said...

Arturo,
Thanks for your insight. What a horror story about the registration process. The customer experience should always come first. Your example certainly did nothing to benefit the customer.

I appreciate your viewpoint around fear. Good food for thought. Thanks for visiting, and for your comment.
Suzanne

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Alexander said...

If it is genuine marketing then I think it is good but if it is spam it has a negative effect.

Bottle on Beach said...

Unsolicited bulk emails are deemed spamming for all practical purpose for almost all ISPs. However, personally I think B2B shall be exempted from this definition especially the messages are not abusive and repetitive.

The company I started would provide a work around for this. How about sending those messages to a thrid party website like mine, and recipients go and pick them up? That would never run into any legal problems.

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