For Jodie Gastel, it seemed like a perfect marketing opportunity. The Victoria, B.C., entrepreneur, founder of the online gift service ScoreBrowniePoints.com, was scheduled to appear on Your Mac Life, an Internet radio show. So she fired off a quick e-mail to 1,000 of her regular customers: "Click here and catch me live on streaming video!"
Less than 24 hours later, Gastel received a stern message from her Internet hosting service. A user had reported her e-mail as spam, the host told her. One more complaint, and she'd be shut down for good. "I was very spooked," Gastel says. "One complaint and I came this close to out of business."
No one likes to see their e-mailboxes fill with crass, ceaseless come-ons for penis-enlargement pills, Nigerian investment opportunities, and too-good-to-be-true mortgage refinancings. But as the war on spam heats up, innocent bystanders are being caught in the crossfire -- namely the tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who have embraced e-mail marketing as a cheap, effective way to maintain strong customer relationships without shelling out big bucks for a traditional media campaign.
Now, after finally figuring out how to make e-mail work for them, marketers have found that the rules have changed. Their legitimate messages are being blocked by a new breed of super-aggressive spam filters; their good names are turning up on anti-spam blacklists; and they're being forced to devote time, energy, and in many cases, a good outlay of cash to keep their e-mail marketing efforts out of hot water. "The landscape has changed," says Al DiGuido, CEO of Bigfoot Interactive, a New York - based e-mail marketing services provider. "This is not the same business it was a year ago."
That's for sure. An April study by market research firm RoperASW found more than one-third of e-mail users surveyed said desired e-mail was getting blocked by spam filters. Yahoo now blocks more than 22% of the e-mail coming through its system, AOL blocks 18%, and ATT stops 12%, according to Assurance Systems, a digital-marketing services firm. Indeed, some 15% of legitimate, permission-based e-mail is getting caught in the sweep, Assurance Systems estimates. "It stinks," says Al Bredenberg, publisher of EmailResults.com, a consulting firm in Danbury, Conn. "But you'd better get used to it."
That's a tough task for small companies, which tend to have less clout with their e-mail providers than their larger competitors. What's more, large corporate marketers often are able, through connections, to learn the closely guarded list of spam filter triggers -- the key words and subject headers that spark e-mail-blocking software. So unless you've got Steve Case on your speed dial, you'll need another tactic to protect your marketing from the spam warriors. What can you do?
Get Help: The spam wars have been good for at least one group of people: e-mail marketing consultants who know how to navigate the anti-spam minefields. The cost can range anywhere from $500 for an off-the-shelf software package -- which would help you set up an e-mail list and create a visually pleasing pitch -- to a five-figure consulting retainer, which generally buys you software, support and training, and analytics.
It's not a bad investment, says Tomias Hinchcliff, owner of Genesis Bicycles, a bike shop in Easton, Pa. Hinchcliff has been using e-mail marketing for about three years, sending a monthly newsletter to customers. The tactic has worked well. A one-day sale in January, promoted only via e-mail, for example, generated $20,000. "Typically, we can't give bicycles away during the winter months," he says. But when fewer of Hinchcliff's newsletters began reaching their destination, he hired a new ISP, which provides design help, measures his results, and, perhaps most important these days, makes sure his e-mails don't get sucked into spam filters. E-mail "is still very cost-effective for me," Hinchcliff says, "even with the additional cost of a service provider."
Try New Technology: Chris Pirillo, founder of Lockergnome.com, a Des Moines, Iowa, electronic newsletter publisher, has given up on e-mail marketing altogether. It wasn't an easy choice. E-mail has long been the mainstay of Pirillo's outreach efforts; he's even written a book on the subject. But enough is enough, he says. "I'm spending my days fighting to get off blacklists and trying to figure out why a paying subscriber never got his newsletter," he says. "It's one headache after another."
Besides, he adds, "there's better technology out there." That would be Rich Site Summary, or RSS, a format designed for sharing headlines and other Web content. Available via the Internet, RSS essentially delivers the new content of an updated Web page directly to the consumer, without e-mail and without requiring the customer to type in a URL. Pirillo expects half of his subscribers to take delivery of their content via this new method by the end of the year. And the headaches have subsided. "E-mail is a polluted medium," Pirillo says. "It's dead."
Get Old-Fashioned: If Pirillo is looking to the future, ScoreBrowniePoints.com's Gastel is going retro. After the threat from her hosting service and after determining what it would cost to protect her e-mail marketing from spam filters, she's reconsidered the use of e-mail for marketing, and is putting more of her marketing dollars into an old-fashioned strategy: public relations. This summer, for the first time, Gastel has been sampling the services of a real live human publicist to see if that person can generate more sales and site traffic. It's too soon to report results. But Gastel figures that, if nothing else, PR won't result in any threatening e-mails from her Internet host. "That alone reduces my panic level," she says.
Sidebar: Outsmarting the Spam Filters
Few people know exactly what words trigger anti-spam filters -- it's one of the jealously guarded secrets of the Internet. But savvy marketers say messages containing the following words tend to bounce back: