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Responsible Marketing

When do unsolicited messages become spam?

By October 2, 2008January 21st, 202216 Comments

When do unsolicited messages become spam?
Yesterday, several members of my Outsource Marketing team received a solicitation via an email form that none of us wanted.

I personally responded with a simple email:

Don’t SPAM us with your … ‘opportunities’ anymore. Especially via our new business inquiries form.

Thank you.

This set off a nuclear reaction of emails: A curt message from the rep telling me “Obviously you cannot see a good ‘opportunity’ when it walks right up to you” which—as you might expect—resulted in a pretty direct response to him—and his boss.

His boss didn’t respond the way I expected. He was pissed I called them spammers, and said as much.

I won’t get into the details, but after the smoke cleared, it became apparent that their aggression came from the fact that they hate spammers as much as we do—and I had the audacity to call them one when they believed they clearly weren’t.

We obviously had a big difference of opinion:

To me, this was spam because:

  • I didn’t want it.
  • I didn’t like getting it.
  • I didn’t opt-in to receive it.
  • I wanted to make sure I was perfectly clear I didn’t want to receive another message from them again.

To them, it wasn’t spam because:

  • Their message was targeted
  • They believed it was relevant
  • They didn’t realize the form went to several people

This brings up a Responsible Marketing question:

When do unsolicited messages become spam?

From Wikipedia:

E-mail spam, also known as “bulk e-mail” or “junk e-mail,” is a subset of spam that involves nearly identical messages sent to numerous recipients by e-mail.

A common synonym for spam is unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE). Definitions of spam usually include the aspects that email is unsolicited and sent in bulk.

“UCE” refers specifically to “unsolicited commercial e-mail.”

By that definition, the message I received was unwelcome, but it wasn’t spam.

However, most marketers that subscribe to the tenets of Permission Marketing agree that if a message isn’t anticipated, personal and relevant, it’s spam.

The message was targeted, and for all the sender knew, it was relevant. But since it was sent to generic new business inquiries mailbox, it wasn’t anticipated or personalized.

So based on the tenets of Permission Marketing, it was spam.

Still, marketing is about interruption and getting someone’s attention. Most messages are unsolicited.

If we applied the same standard to advertising, how would it fare?

  • It’s not anticipated (we’re seldom there for the ads)
  • It’s not personalized
  • It’s only relevant if the advertiser chose the media well

In the midst of our scorched earth email exchange, I said:

Spam is in the eye of the recipient, not the sender.

But if their message was simply unsolicited, did I overreact?

Why was my response so visceral?

And at what point should an unsolicited message be classified as spam?

I’d love to see some heated discussion this.

Comment below to weigh in.

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Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • If they used your email form inappropriately, then that is the primary problem, and it may elevate the UCE to “bulk” status. But the real crime here is the curt reaction to your message by the rep, essentially insulting you. It did deserve escalation, but I wonder if your response was similarly inflammatory?

  • Deston says:

    The senders can split hairs all day long arguing their definition of spam. But the fact remains that their attitude and conduct will ensure you’ll never retain those douchebags to do any work for your company. Nice going, marketeers.

  • Nick Chapman says:

    Interesting post. My agency does it’s share of targeted email campaigns (more than I probably care to admit) and this same question rears its head every time we kick off another project.

    I wonder if there isn’t a better solution that would require a new type of email protocol (like some extension to SMTP — perhaps even as simple as an additional parameter passed in the header) that advertisers would be required to use to earmark an email as an ad… You will always have a portion of the population who wants or needs at least a small portion of the marketing they receive in emails, but it is hard (given the noise) for the user to sort out what is relevant for them. Email clients and servers alike make guesses about the intent of a message — whether it is junk or from a trusted and welcome source — based on the subject line, user-applied filters and the contents of the email itself. If advertisers could pre-flag the email as an ad in the mail header, it could be sorted accordingly inside the client and then left up to the user to decide whether or not to delete future messages from sender (or subject matter)… essentially creating a coupon book folder within an email client… Good for them, good for us.

    I’m skimming over the idea for the sake of time, but I believe there it’s something the industry could explore.

  • Hi Patrick,

    Similar to the definition from Wikipedia, the Interactive Advertising Bureau defines spam as a “term describing unsolicited commercial e-mail.” And your case is definitely an unsolicited commercial e-mail.

    If the message had been sent by a real person (and not an automated process) and that person intended on sending it to you, then that changes things slightly. I think it falls under the same category as cold calling in sales. It’s still a pain in the butt, but it isn’t spam.

    The most interesting part of the story is how quickly the sales person and his manager fell apart over the e-mail exchange. If they truly felt that their message was targeted and relevant, then they could have, potentially, overcome your initial objection. Sales people hear “no” constantly. But it’s going to be a tough road for them if they flip out every time a potential client turns them down.

    Chris Nungesser

    IAB Definition Link:

  • Doug Roberts says:

    To me, spam or junk mail is anything that I receive unsolicited irregardless as to whether it interests me or not it still gets labeled as such. I am not big on identifying or labeling what it is or isn’t, its just an unsolicited contact. Even if I respond favorably I still view it as an intrusion. Not that I am that busy, but I also know that many workplaces that allow e-mail wind up with a lot of down time that is a direct result of unsolicited contacts.

    I rarely take any action other than to add it to a blocked senders list but it does cross my mind on occasion to respond. I find your response to be completely appropriate. I do find the exchange you had to be very typical. I am continually surprised at how poorly many professionals handle questions and or disputes. The gentleman has a live targeted contact on the phone and allows the conversation to become a negative and even hostile experience? That is an unacceptable chain of events in my handbook.

  • Hi Patrick,

    You raise a very interesting point. Without knowing the content of your email response, I do believe that the company overreacted per Chris’ point. Another point to consider is what effort that person went through before using your onlnie form.

    For example, a person called trying to verify the name and title of a person within our company, as well as our mailing address. Since my name appears on my company’s website, I automatically get people contacting me about services and solutions – even though it clearly states that I am the PR contact. If the company had done their research on our website, they would have found all the information. It would have taken 2 minutes vs. 5 minutes trying to get the information out of a very frustrated person, i.g. me!

    My point? They sent the solicitation via an online form on your website. While they believed the message was targeted, the way of delivering that message was not.

    Is it spam? Yes and no. No because the intent was targeted. Yes because the company didn’t admit that using the online form was a form of spam.

  • Jared says:

    Hey Patrick came across this interesting post on twitter.

    I would consider it spam. I get a lot of messages that are targeted but I still think its spam because if I want a message I’ll ask for one. I think it’s rough on the advertisers because they are just trying to promote to people they think might be interested. However I would prefer a reaction like you gave because

    1. It would let me know my technique or the message might need to be changed because others might be seeing it as spam.

    2. I know your not interested and I don’t have to waste my time sending you more information about my stuff down the road.


  • Gerald says:

    We solved the problem of bots filling out our form by creating a hidden field. When the form is submitted, if that field has anything in it, it’s almost certainly a bot and we then redirect them to a page that says something to the effect of, “you’re a bot; if not, sorry and click here.” Worked like a charm.

  • A mail is considered spam if it fails the 2W test…



    1. If I can’t recognize (know personally) the person who has sent me the mail

    2. And I don’t know why the mail has been sent to me

    A mail passes the test and becomes a Spam if it qualifies doesn’t qualify Q1 & Q2 in that order.

    More often than not your friends keep forwarding you jokes etc. and you wonder why such a mail has been sent / forwarded to you. But still these don’t qualify as spam because you know the person who sent you the mail.

    So, when an unknown tries selling me viagra it is a spam… but if one of my friends sends me the same mail it is not, however needy I might be or otherwise!!

    When you look at the converse, for example I need a home loan and someone whom I don’t know (can’t even recognize) sends me an offer. However relevant this mail might be, it is still a spam. Because I don’t have an accurate answer to the Why? (rather, why me??) question.

    BTW… Good post. Looks lik we have kind of spoken the same language qualifying a spam!!

  • Caroline Ronten says:

    To me, spam is any email that is unsolicited that is sent as bulk email. If you do not opt into an email list, it is spam. I applied for a job once at a company by email. Then I started getting their emails. That’s spam. It doesn’t matter if an email is targeted or relevant, if it is unwanted, its spam.

  • Anton says:

    There’s lots of industry definitions and now even legal ones. Being an Email specialist I can give you lots of links about it but I think they cloud rather than elucidate the matter.

    I agree with the posting: It’s a message, didn’t ask for, didn’t want and don’t want again. However, one can contradict imperatives [definitions] as a contradiction to the emotive reaction to the message. My mailbox was violated.. I want out. That’s all I feel is it not?

    Let’s explore this for and against.

    I may get an email from a brewery.. I didn’t ask for the message but I found it useful. But I’d rather not be on their list.. I opt out. Yes, it’s spam. My point being it was unsolicited – but useful. Thus, my personal approach to it was different from invasive spam.

    I’m planning a holiday but I get a legitimate offer for a 5 quid room from a 5 star hotel, where I want to go in a week’s time…. of course I’ll buy! I didn’t ask for the message but I found it useful.

    Next, I had signed up for some information and ticked the dreaded 3rd parties could contact me. I’ve filled in a questionnaire and it’s targeted to my replies. Of course it’s not wanted, nor was it asked for. Was it my fault? This the reader you referred us to didn’t say.

    Still, most good marketeers and something that I practice – I don’t send to info@, mailbox@, sales@ as it’s not personalised and can be read by more than one person. If it’s Andrew@ and 9 people read it, who can blame the email sender?

    A problem I get daily from people saying we’re spamming is someone trying to unsubscribe. We find that the email account they’re using isn’t the same that’s receiving the message. Why is this? Let’s say you’re mate who you’ve forwarded the message to could unsub you! So, it’s to ensure the right people stay on the list.

    Bottom line, I think the posting raises some points but without giving the facts away in an non-emotive fashion. We never got to see the email you received either.

    What you’ve defined is a paradox. If it’s targeted but not at the time I really wanted it [now SPAM is anything unwanted]. I think the only people you could get this type of targeting would be a search engine. So, use Chrome – sign up and when you’re looking for a deal for a new iphone, based on search.. you get an email! I cynically imagine a future like this… and I think eventually we will get to this stage!

    If you’re doing a first sending – ALWAYS say why you’re emailing and have 2-3 opt out buttons/links that are CLEARLY placed in the email. Thus, even if it is badly targeted, or don’t have interest – you click for it to go away! That’s responsible marketing.

  • Spam = Anything that is sent to me that isn’t relevant to me.

  • Nick Chapman says:

    After reading these posts… I find it difficult to formulate a response as so many have defined what spam is, though we all know exactly what it is; our mailboxes fill to the brim with unsolicited inquiries, promotions, offers, and the likes. I’m actually fine with it because I can ignore it [them]. Sorting out what pieces of junk are of interest vs. some offer to boost my sexual stamina is often a challenge, however, I can “delete all” at will without the worry. What’s the problem to the recipient? It’s the advertiser that gets screwed in discussions like this… NO?

  • James says:

    Spam is the internet equivalent to a cold-call. Why waste your time and energy on something where you’re practically guaranteed to be turned down and deleted? For instance, whenever someone calls me and I don’t recognize the phone number, I don’t even answer it. I leave my voicemail to pick it up. If no one leaves a message then obviously the matter isn’t really that important enough to be discussed with me in the first place. Now let’s say it is a creditor and not someone trying to market to you. If you don’t know the person but you know why they are calling, what is the guarantee that this person is actually trustworthy and knowledgeable about your rights, their rights, and what needs to be done? The same goes with e-mail. Somebody that you don’t know e-mails you about a matter you’ve been wanting to hear about. You get discouraged because you don’t know this person. It could be some fly-by-night sheister trying to sell you some snake oil b.s. The reverse is true too. What if you know the person but you don’t know why you’re listening to this person trying to sell you life insurance (its just an example but its quite common in the financial services industry to sell your friends and family first and foremost). This person would be better off coming to you telling you that he sells life insurance and would like to know if you know anybody that needs a quote. This approach would be better because not only do you know him but he is asking you not to buy life insurance from him but a favor instead which does not initially have any monetary value assigned to it at first.

  • Looks like this topic struck a nerve. Seems most commenting have a strong feeling one way or the other.

    I guess it’s not that surprising considering the way this all started: A heated debate about what was spam and what wasn’t.

    Let’s keep the conversation going! 🙂

  • It seems to me what they did was “cold call” you using your contact form. I wouldn’t necessarily label it as spam. In fact I prefer receiving unsolicited offers via email than any other channel – especially phone and direct mail.

    With email I can quickly delete the message, while answering the phone takes up more of my time, and it’s more difficult to stop future calls from the same caller.

    What I find objectionable is their insistence on ‘defending’ their methods and their manner. If I were them, I’d say “Sorry if you don’t find this useful, we will make sure we don’t send you any more offers like this one.”

    I definitely think that spam is in the eyes of the beholder, and advise my clients to follow email marketing best practices which are way above the legal limits as prescribed by the CAN-SPAM Act.

    Here’s an article I wrote about keeping out of the spam box.

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