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Jul 01, 2004

CAN-SPAM Study Results: Brand Marketers Change Tactics as Spammers Scoff at the Law

SUMMARY: Here are the results of a secret study MarketingSherpa's been conducting to measure the effect of the law. Turns out:

-> 31% of junk email still has brand names, even though brand marketers are obeying the law
-> Junk mailers aren't honoring opt-out (well, ok, one guy is)
-> Messages sent to accounts proven to be active do differ from junk sent to mailboxes nobody checks

Includes two interesting comparison charts:
Today it's six full months after CAN-SPAM became law. What's changed? More than you think....

Since February 1st, 2004, MarketingSherpa's been conducting a secret study. We planted two seed email addresses on the Web where they could be harvested by spammers. Then we sat back and watched the results.

Here's what you need to know:

Brand marketers are spamming far less, but 31% of spam still features trademarked brands

Last year, before CAN-SPAM was a twinkle in Capital Hill's eyes, we conducted a similar study - planting seed addresses online and watching the email that came tumbling in. The results were slightly shocking, because so many big brand names were represented.

Ford, Harley Davidson, Avon, Coppertone,, Disney Magazine, Omaha Steaks, Gevalia Kaffe, Fox Sports, T-Mobile, and Family Circle Magazine were just a few of them.

However, in many of these cases it was fairly clear the spam was from affiliates or CPA list rental partners. The marketer wasn't sending to crap lists directly, but allowing their brand offer to be sent by partners.

For the most part, since CAN-SPAM, this appears to have stopped.Marketers aren't renting harvested lists nearly as much, and have clamped down on their affiliates.

However, name brand marketers are still at risk.

This time the spam with your name brand in it is coming from further down the food chain - resellers of whatever fell off the back of the truck.

In fact MarketingSherpa's 2004 spam study found 31% of all spam came from resellers operating two or three tiers down the line. These spammers were marketing mainly discounted or pirated software, drugs and financial services.

Most used trademarked product names and images in their spam messages.

CAN-SPAM compliance: subject lines are OK, but spammers scoff at opt-out

During this year's study, MarketingSherpa watched two different seed accounts to discern compliance.

o Control account: We let email in that account pile up without touching it at all. We didn't even open it.

o Test account: We opened every email received and attempted to opt-out using the unsubscribe link (if there was one) as the mail came in.

Was there be a difference in the mail received? Yes and no.

Both accounts received roughly the same amount of mail, just over 1,000 total messages (see link to fascinating week by week comparison chart below.)

In fact, opting out didn't appear to do any good at all. Only a single message of all 1,071 test group messages received that we tried to unsubscribe from complied with the law.

(That's better than what you see in recent spam surveys claiming less than 1 in 7,500 to 10,000 meets the law.)

The honor went to Web consultant Ralph Owen. His email to our test account had a clear subject line, a real-world address, a functional opt-out link and genuine toll-free number. We got one email on March 15, opted out, and never heard from Ralph again.
(He pelted our control account with 12 emails from March 15 to June 16, though.)

All other emails we received broke at least one section of the law, and often and usually several:

-- No working opt-out: Just over half (51.1%) bounced our email opt-out or used a bad opt-out link. And those are the ones we know about.

-- No opt-out at all: 41% didn't give us any way to get off their list.

-- Phony subject headers: Progress here! Only five emails in the test group (.46%) had a bogus subject line.

-- No physical address: Almost two-thirds (65.6%) of all email listed no real-world address.

Plus, although it's not required by law, we also noticed not a single list we attempted to opted out of ever confirmed when it did work. Nobody sent "You have been unsubscribed" emails in response either to an email opt-out or to an online form submission. They could have vanished into the ether for all we could tell.

We also couldn't answer our other big question -- does opening and clicking on spam produce more spam? -- because we don't know how many opt-outs actually worked.

For example, we kept getting email from a software reseller's affiliate even though we opted out each time. Did the affiliate violate the law by ignoring our opt-out, or did he not get it? We don't know, because he never confirmed the opt-out.

MarketingSherpa's spam study will continue for another six months. In that time, we'll be trying to pin down more closely how opt-outs affect future email sends.

Content comparisons between control group and opt-out account

We also reviewed the spam received to see if an address that consistently opted out of all mail would be sent different spam than a control group that did nothing. (See link below to comparison chart of spam received by content-type.)

Surprisingly, the accounts showed statistically significant differences:

-- Online-marketing such as bulk web hosting, design and address-list offers, but the control group got more of them offers made up 20.5% of control-group email but 14.4% in the test group.

-- Software offers (big discounts on brand names like Windows XP, Adobe PhotoShop and Pagemaker, MS Office 2003) accounted for 3% of the control group's email but 5.8% of the test group. This time, the test group got the same offers that went to the control group, just more of them.

The other categories::

-- Pharmaceutical offers -- all the Xanax, Viagra, Cialis and diet pills you'll ever need -- made up the largest content category in both the control and test accounts: 39.3% in the control group and 41.1% in the test account.

-- Finance spam was the next-biggest category. We got so many overseas banking scams we gave them their own category called "419 scams," named for the Nigerian law governing phony offers to pay the recipient to help the sender smuggle money out of the country. In the control group, scams were 28.6% of control emails and 29.1% in the test group.

The other financial-spam category (8% in the control group, 7.4% in the test group) covered mortgages, debt-consolidation loans and life insurance.

-- Almost no porn spam. Incredible!

We didn't collect enough porn spam to fill a category, so we lumped it in with the diploma mills and wine, cigarette and cable filters that made up our "miscellaneous" category (2.2%, 24 out of 1,071 on the test list, less than 1% in the control group).

Advice for permission emailers based on our results: four ways to visibly stand out from spam in your customer's inboxes

One good thing came out of our spam study: We found four ways you can modify your email program to help you stand out even more from spam:

#1. Don't make a big deal about how your email complies with CAN-SPAM. That's what our spammers did. Just give people at least one way to opt out, and preferably more, in case your email address bounces or a link to a form doesn't work, plus a real-world address and an honest subject line.

You'll trip at least one major spam filter already at many ISPs if you say "This is not spam" or "This email complies with CAN-SPAM regulations" or "We comply with all federal laws

If somebody doesn't want your email, even if he signed up for it, then it's spam to him. What you tell him doesn't matter.

Especially, don't try to scare readers out of hitting the spam button in their email clients. We saw variants of this message on several hard-core spam emails:

"It is a federal offense to falsely accuse an individual of sending unsolicited email!!!" (We're checking out THAT claim.)

#2. Send an email to confirm each opt-out, whether the person used email or a Web form, then add the address to your internal do-not-email list.

This protects you and your brand better than just putting up a screen telling the customer she's off your list. It tells your recipient that you got the message and creates a data trail to back you up should you ever get hit with a lawsuit under CAN-SPAM.

#3. Put a toll-free number next to your unsubscribe info. Opt-in king Michael Mayor, whose company NetCreations just got bought by Return Path (he stays on as president) said his company saw opt-outs "spike" after the company added an 800 number next to its opt-out link in emails.

(Yes, you want people to unsubscribe if they aren't interested anymore in what you're selling. It means they're leaving your list the right away, not just ignoring you or reporting you as spam to make you go away.)

"People were still unsubbing using the link, but having the 800 number gave it credibility," he said. "We didn't really get that many people using the phone."

#4. Check your email system for any holdover or funky rules that limit opting-out ease. One site returned this denial when we submitted our address on a Web form:

"Sorry, you can remove only one address a day. Please try again tomorrow."

Yeah, that'll happen.

Useful links related to this article:

Comparison charts control versus opt-out account: email volume by week & type of spam received

Past article: CAN-SPAM Good News & Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad News (Open Access Article)

MarketingSherpa's CAN-SPAM Compliance Kit for Marketers
See Also:

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