What is spam? A quick history of email spam and why you should avoid it

Spam represents an on-going issue for consumers and marketers alike. Every single day Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have the responsibility of sorting through the flood of inbound emails and recent studies suggests that 70% of this mail is, in fact, spam[1]. No one likes to receive spam and no one likes to think they’re sending it. But what does ‘spam’ in this context mean, where did the name come from and how does it affect the marketing environment?

The first example of modern internet spam occurred back in 1978 when an advertisement for a new digital computer was distributed by one Gary Thuerk, to nearly 400 ARPANET users. The reaction to the message was mixed. Some viewed the email as obtrusive, but some found the email relevant and didn’t think it was a big deal. Thuerk himself stated he sold $13 million or $14 million worth of computers, making him both the ‘father of spam’ and the ‘father of email marketing’.

The term ‘spam’ however only became widely used in the 1980s after Monty Python did a sketch in which the word ‘spam’ was used repeatedly to describe the offerings on a restaurant menu, much to the annoyance of one patron in particular who didn’t like spam.

The term was then adopted by early internet users and came to mean repeatedly posting the same message or trying to discourage legitimate communication. When internet use exploded in the 1990s, it opened the door for early spam ‘pioneers’ to send unsolicited email messages to an unsuspecting public; today it’s still considered a widespread problem.

When you really think about it spam is an issue of consent, not content. An electronic message is deemed ‘spam’ if (a) the recipient’s personal identity and context are irrelevant because the message is applicable to many other potential recipients; AND (b) the recipient has not verifiably granted deliberate, explicit, and still-revocable permission for it to be sent.

During 2003 80% of inbound ISP traffic was considered spam. In an attempt to tackle what was clearly an untenable situation the US government implemented legislation to tackle the rising volumes in Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE).

Since then we have seen various countries implement regulation to tackle the problem, one of the most recent being the Canadian anti-spam Legislation (CASL) and the upcoming EU Data Protection Regulations on the horizon.

Spam

Spam comes from a Monty Python sketch

Spam is still considered a global problem even though volumes of spam are on the decline. This is partly because some countries with weaker spam laws – creating safe havens for spammers.

The following countries are deemed to be responsible for the majority of spam; US, China, Russia, Japan, Ukraine, United Kingdom, India, Germany, Brazil and Turkey.[2]

Spam is an issue as it is extremely detrimental to customer experience. The old spray and pray methods of marketing (blanket emails sent to everyone) are suboptimal and marketers need to work towards making the customer experience as relevant and interesting as possible.

Clearly, spamming someone – regardless of the legal consequences – is detrimental to the customer experience. As ISPs get better and better at filtering and defining spam it’s going to get more and more important to focus on adding value to the customer – otherwise you just won’t reach them.

For marketers, a key driver should be avoiding being seen as spam by these automated processes. Deploy the wrong techniques and you could find that most of your emails end up in the junk mail folder.

 Experian Marketing Services is the leading global provider of customer insights, data quality and cross-channel marketing. We help organisations intelligently interact with today’s empowered and hyper-connected consumers.

By helping marketers identify best customers, find more, and then coordinate seamless and intelligent interactions across the most appropriate channels, Experian Marketing Services can deepen customer loyalty, strengthen brand advocacy and maximise profits.

[2] https://www.spamhaus.org/statistics/countries/

[1] 2014 Sender Score Benchmark Report