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Forget Spam; Try More Tasteful Ways to Reach People

January 21, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Internet community owes an apology to Hormel Foods Corp., the firm that makes Spam.

True, 82% of Spam's calories come from fat, but it's still more desirable than the "spam" that Internet users are forced to eat.

"Spam" also applies to unsolicited e-mail that some small businesses are sending out indiscriminately.

At first glance, Internet "bulk e-mail," as its proponents call it, seems like a boon to small businesses. For practically nothing you can send messages to hundreds, thousands or even millions of Internet users. In addition to not costing anything for printing and postage, it's paperless, so it doesn't even kill trees. It's easier to dispose of than junk paper mail and, if someone wants to learn more about your business or products, they can quickly send back and e-mail or visit your Web site.

It sounds like a marketer's dream and a consumer's delight. But it isn't.

I've heard from countless Internet users who hate that their Internet e-mail in-boxes are cluttered with unsolicited commercial e-mail.

It takes time to download, it takes time to read and dispose of, it clogs up your hard disk and, if you're paying for your Internet connection, it can cost money to receive.

What's more, it ties up your PC while it's being downloaded, so it can hurt your productivity.

Spam has become such a problem that several bills that would outlaw it are pending in Congress and various state legislatures. The Netizen Protection Act of 1997 (HR 1748) by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), would make unsolicited advertisements unlawful by amending the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, which banned unsolicited junk faxes.

"From the netizen who may incur costs in the form of charges spent online reading and disposing the messages, to users who assume the costs of both accessing and storing mail they didn't want, this bill will help people with not only the nuisance of spam, but the costs involved as well," Smith said.

California Assemblyman Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) last month introduced a similar bill that would ban sending unsolicited commercial e-mail to Californians.

Just because it's politically incorrect to send spam doesn't mean that small businesses can't use the Internet, or even e-mail, as a marketing tool. The Smith bill and most other proposals to limit unsolicited commercial e-mail don't restrict businesses from sending messages to those who express a desire to receive them. Lots of people do want to get mail from companies that offer goods and services that interest them, and it's possible to build up a mailing list of people who are actually interested in what you have to offer.

Sending mail to a list of people who opt in is not only better manners, it's also better business. A list of people who have expressed interest in your product category is a lot more valuable than a random list of e-mail addresses.

There are a number of polite ways to reach people. First, if you have a Web site, you should use it to collect names and e-mail addresses of visitors by asking people to sign a "guest book" or send you e-mail. You could offer some incentive, such as a discount or an invitation to a special event that you can send them via e-mail.

If you have direct contact with customers or business associates, you can ask them if they want to be on your list. They can sign up if they visit your place of business or if you speak with them on the phone.

Once you have collected these names, it's OK to send them an occasional electronic mailing, but you should always let them know how they can remove themselves from your list.

It's also a good idea to post your "privacy policy," stating whether or not you intend to sell, rent or lend the names with other businesses.

I don't sell anything to the public, but I maintain an e-mail list where I keep people informed of what's new on my Web site. Once in a while people send me an "unsubscribe" note and, as much as I hate to lose them, I take them off immediately.

Although I don't recommend that you purchase lists of e-mail names from spam brokers, some direct-mail houses exist that seem to respect the privacy of the people they mail to.

Postmaster Direct Response (http://www.postmasterdirect.com) is a New York company that encourages Internet users to "opt-in" by providing them with information about the types of products and services they want to hear about. Internet users who visit the company's Web site can register to receive e-mail about specific types of products or services. Businesses who wish to reach those people can arrange to have the company send e-mail only to those who have asked for that type of mail.

"We hate spamming, and we know that you do too," says a notice on the Web site. "When you sign up to receive news and information, you will receive commercial e-mail only about those topical categories that you have selected."

Businesses pay about 15 cents per name to have the company send an e-mail to a qualified list, according to partner Rosalind Resnick. That may be only a few cents cheaper than bulk rate postage, but that's all you pay--there's no printing, collating, layout or any other costs. It's more expensive than bulk e-mail firms like TSF Marketing (http://www.tsf-industries.com/), but it strikes me as a reasonable price to pay to reach an audience that actually wants to hear from you.

For more about spamming and alternatives for small business, point you Web browser to http://www.larrysworld.com/spam.htm

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