Living dangerously with email marketing (or how to test the spambot boundaries)

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spam list

spamCould I truly be planning a crazy, dumb, nightmare visit to the dark-side? Am I really contemplating sending a mass email campaign to an “underground” list that smacks of sleazy “business opportunity” or (worse) “High Yield Investment Program (HYIP)” offers — a phrase most often associated with the words “Internet scam”?

Well, the answer is “maybe,” as I contemplate stepping outside the conventional rules and limitations of mass-market email list management and conventional bulk mailing services. There is a perfectly ethical foundation for this initiative — but, as you’ll see here, whenever you go outside the white-hat conventional rules, you can quite rapidly descend into much darker places.

The storyline goes this way. Over the years, we’ve received access to some rather interesting — and sometimes truly large — email lists. These could be attendees of trade shows, association membership lists, and the like. They all have plenty of relevant emails and contacts, but none of them have the essential qualification required for us to send them a conventional email offer: Permission.

My sales team and I thought long and hard about these lists, initially deciding not to consider using them in any way. We also realized that if we dared do anything promotional, irritating, or otherwise spammy, we might jeopardize our business reputation.

But what about sending them a link and invitation to read online one of our relevant and newsworthy publications — high enough in quality that, despite being available for free on controlled circulation lists, several hundred subscribers pay us $49.50 a year to subscribe to them?

This didn’t seem so wrong, after all. But we still couldn’t contemplate sending the emails using the third-party services. And so we set out to find a solution. We didn’t want to risk our reputation and experience serious spam block issues on our main email accounts and domains, if the idea backfired.

I arranged with a former service provider to set up the system. He got as far as registering a domain, setting up a remote server, and providing us with a rudimentary email management program. The thing never worked — certainly not well enough to even send a small test email. However, the project remained on our company’s “action item” list of to-do projects, so a few weeks ago, I tried again, posting my request for a contractor to help co-ordinate the project on odesk.com.

We found someone (I will identify the contractor on request, by email), who suggested a strategy to work around the spambots. It involves, if necessary, “throwaway IP addresses”, where we would pay a reprovisioning fee if the spambots ever catch up with us. He also provided some databases of truly spammy-type lists, and a strategy to do a crash and burn mass mailout, if we wish (but under a hidden domain and away from anyone who could track the really nasty stuff to us.)

I asked the contractor about going over the edge, and here is his recent email response:

Oh and on going to the dark side, get a domain from namecheap in an account, put fake whois, then whois protection. Mail the shit out of it, if we get abuse say “Oh no, we didn’t know about that, some Indian firm was the one who did the marketing for us.” Then we resolve it, throw away those lists and get a new domain. It should last well over its money’s worth.

In practice, we’ll use the new system for much more honourable stuff, for the news announcements and updates about publications, without sales pitches, money-seeking offers, or anything that asks for anything. In fact, as part of the deal, we now have a fully-functioning self-hosted email server, with virtually all of the capacities of the big email providers, for a monthly fee about the same as the conventional services, and which we can use ¬†efficiently for true permission-based emails.

So, we can go to the dark side if we wish, but we can also stay safely on the side of Internet Good — and save money in the process. Sometimes it makes sense to take a few risks, and look over the edge of temptation.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Email is spam when it is both 1) Unsolicited and 2) In bulk. So be careful. The content of the email has nothing to do with whether it is spam or not. If it’s selling pills or giving away a free publication, both are spam.

  2. I agree — of course, within your widely-recognized definition, spam itself (providing the sender complies with appropriate laws) is not illegal — and the commercial email providers quite rightfully appreciate that some businesses/organizations will try to test the limits — and so set firm and realistic rules to prevent abuse. The project described in this blog posting has been in our “systems” for more than a year now; in part because we don’t want to get into trouble or risk our reputation through careless email practices. While we appear to have found a way to straddle the edge to the dark side of email marketing/spam, I’m not rushing anything here — I made the “go” decision with this vendor because, ultimately, a self-hosted system should save us some money and provide some edge-testing opportunities, if we wish.

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