E-marketers unite to address spam debate

An e-mail marketing coalition has further solidified its fight against a damaging arch-enemy.

The spread of unsolicited bulk e-mail, otherwise known as “spam,” has plagued e-mail marketing companies for years. As part of its latest effort to distinguish legitimate e-marketers from

fraudulent spammers, the Email Service Provider Coaltion (ESPC), of which Ottawa-based Gotmarketing Inc. is a member, and two partner organzations recently released its “Email Marketing Pledge,” which calls on all e-mail marketers to obtain informed consent from recipients before sending them any electronic messages.

It’s an effort to “increase industry accountability by creating a distinct line between spam and legitimate e-mail marketing,” the ESPC said in a joint statement with the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and TRUSTe. The industry lobby groups referred to the pledge as “the clearest, most concise set of e-mail marketing guidelines to date.”

Lynda Partner is a founder of Gotmarketing Inc., considered to be the largest sender of marketing e-mails in Canada. She says coalition-building is crucial if legitimate e-marketers don’t want to be lumped in with fraudulent spammers and automatically blocked from the inboxes of potential customers. Spam refers to any unsolicited bulk e-mail that is sent to a Web user without his or her consent. Such messages typically contain bothersome and deceptive “get rich quick” schemes or links to pornographic Web sites. Some spam even contains harmful viruses.

To ensure that messages from e-marketers aren’t automatically blocked by anti-spam software, Partner says businesses in her industry need to work closely with each other. It’s critical that e-mail marketers agree on using a common identifier that could be embedded in every single message they send, says Partner. This way, recipients know who the sender is before they even open the message, subsequently wiping out any perceived deception.

“Spam exists for one reason and one reason alone: It’s really easy to hide your identity because of a weakness in the protocol of e-mail that says ‘I can’t tell who this e-mail is coming from,’” says Partner. “It’s impossible to tie back e-mail to the sender. So if we fix that problem, legitimate marketers will be willing to stand up and say ‘Yes, I will register myself, I’m going to tell you who I am, I’m going to give you all my identification and a way to reach me.’”

A common identifier would also make life easier for ISPs who are constantly bombarded with messages that have misleading addresses. For example, some spammers may pose as someone from e-Bay or Microsoft by composing a fraudulent sender address. Identifiers will make it easier for ISPs to differentiate between deceptive mail and legitimate mail, allowing servers to still get rid of the spam while placing registered senders into the fast lane, says Partner.

Traditionally, Partner says “marketing people haven’t done anything but tactical things to get their e-mail to its desination.”

Carolyn Gardner, president of the Kanata-based e-marketing firm cardcommunications, acknowledges that e-marketers have thought up all sorts of ways to get around anti-spam filters and blocks. Such strategies include permission-based messages that are sent to subscribers of a newsletter, as well as “avoiding all-caps subject lines with lots of dollar signs and exclamation marks.”

Meanwhile, anti-spam software is growing more sophisticated, as illustrated by Ottawa-based Roaring Penguin Software Inc. One of the company’s flagship products is CanIt-PRO, anti-spam software where users can decide to blacklist the message, accept it, put it on a preferred whitelist, reject it, or put it “under quarantine.”

To work around such software through “tactical strategies” is not enough, says Partner. “There is a growing consensus in the industry that there is a way to dramatically reduce or eliminate spam entirely” by going the way of a common identifier. While such a move is still at the talking stage, characterized by industry white papers, Partner is confident the industry will soon put words into action.

Partner adds that anti-spam legislation, such as the U.S. bill recently passed by the Senate, can only do so much. She says it’s one thing to outlaw fraudulent e-mails, but it’s another to actually track down the culprits and prosecute them. It’s next to impossible to physically locate spammers because they frequently change servers and computers, she adds.

Accordingly, she says the federal government believes the problem should be solved by the e-marketing industry, and that “legislation isn’t necessarily the solution. “

— Illustration by Jonathan Cresswell-Jones

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