Alyx Sachs is raging about the clutter in her e-mailbox. "I hate spam!" she says of unwanted electronic solicitations, and with so much vehemence it seems as if she's distancing herself from some odious accusation. She recalls recently logging into her Yahoo e-mail account and missing two important messages because Yahoo had filtered them into her bulk e-mail--that is, spam--folder. "My e-mail's getting censored by ISPs," she grumbles, referring to Internet service providers.
Other e-mail annoyances have become a daily headache for Sachs. There are the pop-up ads that she can't get rid of, and, of course, all manner of offers from pornography profiteers that clog her in-box. "I spend half an hour a day deleting spam," she says.
Sachs' anti-spam sermon is not surprising. Millions of other Americans are complaining about the blight of spam, a cyber-kudzu that is suffocating in-boxes and now accounts for an estimated 60% of all e-mail. Of American consumers who were recently surveyed by the Harris Poll, 64% said they found spam "very annoying," while 79% favored making spamming illegal--which is what Congress and various state legislatures, including California's, have set out to do. In one of the first cases of "spam rage," a Sunnyvale, Calif., computer programmer last month was charged with threatening to kill the president of a Canadian company that he blamed for sending him "junk" e-mail. The defendant, Charles Booher, a testicular cancer survivor, was particularly upset about receiving penis-enlargement ads.
What's surprising is that Sachs also is in the business of sending bulk commercial e-mail messages to millions of people. Her 18-month-old Los Angeles company, Net Global Marketing, devises online marketing campaigns for consumer products, and its computer servers send out e-mails to Internet users at a rate of 6.49 messages per second. She and her tech-wizard partner, Albert Ahdoot, say they have the capacity to send about 500 million e-mails a day, although they normally send about 25 million.
Sachs points to a crucial difference between what she does and what spammers do. She only mails to those who have "opted in," people who have purchased a product over the Internet and agreed to receive other offers for similar products. She has compiled a database of more than 2 million such people. "I've never once sent any spam," she insists. "There's no way in a million years anyone can say we did."
But when you opt in, you give Sachs if not a license to spam, then certainly carte blanche to invade your in-box. One simple "yes" can trigger many offers. Like others in the "legitimate" online marketing industry, she is hoping consumers will distinguish between spam and opt-in or permission-based e-mail. But at a time when most are adopting the philosophy of Howard Beale in the film "Network"--"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"--you have to wonder if Sachs can really cut through the kudzu, or if she is clinging to a cyber-delusion.
The birth of e-mail as an advertising medium is commonly attributed to--or blamed on, depending on your point of view--Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corp. In 1978, he sent out an ad publicizing real estate open houses over a network of government and university computers that was the forerunner of the Internet. Network administrators warned him not to do it again, and e-mail ads stayed on the shelf until the Internet took off as a tool of mass communication in the early 1990s.
In 1994, two California immigration lawyers cooked up spam as we know it by sending a promotional message about their services to 6,000 Internet bulletin boards. Laurence Canter and his wife, Martha Siegel, spammed millions in a matter of 90 minutes and claimed to have made $100,000 from the campaign. The spam template was in place. Consumers could be reached for a fraction of the cost of a postal junk mailing. You could make a campaign pay even if less than 1% of the e-mails you sent generated a purchase. And in regulation-free cyberspace, there wasn't much anybody could do to stop you.
But if you wanted to build a legitimate online marketing industry, spam definitely was not the way to go. Big advertisers wouldn't want to be associated with so primitive a vehicle. You could churn out mass e-mails for online pornography sites or penis-enlargement procedures, but you weren't going to get prestigious, lucrative accounts. Those demanded thoughtful campaigns aimed at specific demographic groups that didn't want their messages gobbled up by spam filters.
Enter Seth Godin, the founder of Internet marketer Yoyodyne. After selling the company to Yahoo, he published the book "Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends and Friends Into Customers" in 1999. Jeanne Jennings, an online marketing consultant, credits the book with launching a new e-vogue. "A lot of people have co-opted terms like 'permission-based,' " she notes.