When Push Comes to Shove
By Dan R. Greening
Interactions between a marketer and a buyer can be characterized as "pull" or "push." In pull marketing, a person with a need requests product information from the marketer. But in many cases, people don't actively request information for several reasons: They may not be aware that there's a problem, or their need isn't great enough to bother identifying who solves the problem or even if there's a solution at all. This is where push marketing comes in: letting people know there's a solution.
But push marketing is inherently problematic. Several technologies have been thrown at the problem, but only one shows signs of stickingand it works only if it's used correctly and in context. But we'll come to that later.
Even before the Web became commercially available, it was clear that Web pages would be an attractive marketing medium. But there was, again, an inherent problem: Web pages supported only pull marketing. A marketer couldn't send Web pages to potential customers but instead had to wait until the people came to the Web site.
This gave rise to various push-marketing systems. Pointcast, for example, was a screensaver that downloaded and displayed news and advertisements when your computer was idle.
Pointcast became popular, and then quickly turned into a productivity problem. It consumed valuable bandwidth. And it was incredibly distracting. Our retinal neurons are prewired to sense movement and send an alert to our brains. Pointcast's constantly flashing screensaver became an attractive nuisance, drawing attention away from concentrated efforts and ruining productivity.
Managers promptly installed packet filtering or announced corporate policy to stop Pointcast usage. Even people using Pointcast at home realized that it was a big waste of time and uninstalled it.
The rest is history: Pointcast, at one time valued at $400 million, pulled its IPO in summer of 1998, and finally settled for an acquisition offer of about $10 million from idealab.
Similar push systemsfrom Microsoft's Internet Explorer channels to BackWeb and Marimbahave been all but abandoned as marketing vehicles.
Spam and Antispam
Most marketing software entrepreneurs missed the boat in the early 1990s. We now realize that email is the original and best online push-marketing media. All that effort spent on new protocols was wasted. The SMTP protocol was enough!
Before we talk about what to do, though, we need to discuss what not to do, and why doing the wrong thing is worse for your business than not doing anything at all.
What alienated most of us from email marketing was our own frustrating experiences with spam, best demonstrated by the 1994 spamming of 5000 USENET newsgroups by Canter and Siegel with an advertisement for "Green Card Lawyers," and its subsequent creation of the Cyberpromotions spam-marketing company.
Spamemail sent indiscriminately to everyone on a mailing listis very attractive to unscrupulous marketers. It's nearly free (for senders, at leastthere are significant downstream network costs that administrators have to foot). You can reach a huge audience with one message. If you didn't care whether you enhance or tarnish your brand (such as the Cyberpromotions brand), if were targeting nave customers ("Make money fast!"), or if you have a captive audience ("Free sex shows!"), then spam ruled.
However, spam is the enemy of thoughtful, busy folks, who also have most of the money online marketers want. It wastes a lot of time, as recipients spend more and more of their day deleting spam. It also uses up disk space and bandwidth. Fortunately, those thoughtful, busy folks have a weapon. A lot of them can write code, and many of them control major email and network traffic routers.
Several antispam features were added, beginning with sendmail 8.8.
Relay Blocking. Spammers were originally able to exploit sendmail, the most prevalent mail server, to create fake sender identities and email addresses. The original sendmail supported a "store and forward" mail network; mail traveled from a source to a destination through relay machines connected intermittently by a modem. Each machine trusted the previous machine to properly represent the return path. In 1994, about 60 percent of mail servers were open relaysthey allowed anyone to connect and relay mail. Spammers would connect to a sendmail installation, attach a fake "from" address, and ship off a huge bulk mailing, free of repercussions.
Antirelay sendmail hacks became available in late 1997. Sendmail installations had to configure the domain names they would relay; email "from" domain names that weren't specifically listed were rejected. To make the system secure, reverse DNS was performed to confirm that the IP number matched the asserted name.
Blacklisting. To persuade system administrators to upgrade spam-friendly legacy installations, two systems were created: Open Relay Behavior-modification System (ORBS) and Relay Spam Stopper (RSS). Each provides a free list of spam-friendly servers. Subscribers to ORBS or RSS can periodically download the list and refuse transmission of all email from any site listed.
A server becomes a candidate for the ORBS list when anyone reports it as a potential open relay. The ORBS system probes the candidate server by trying to relay an email through. If the relay succeeds, the server is automatically added to the ORBS list. Unfortunately, an ORBS probe can generate a few rejected emails that will appear in the mailbox of the system administrator who maintains the server. Most responsible system administrators accept this inconvenience. Others can get their servers listed in a permanent ORBS list, avoiding probe emails, but losing mail access to ORBS subscribers.
Servers become candidates for the RSS list when a spam email is forwarded to the RSS site. RSS has more stringent restrictions than ORBS. If your site has never relayed spam, then it won't get probed or listed. If your site is a closed relay but the spam was passed to your site through an authorized open relay, your site usually won't get listed in the RSS. Major ISPs and Web sites subscribe to RSS.
Chronic spammers make the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL). Subscribers use this list for one of two things: Some simply reject mail arriving from RBL sites, while others block all Internet traffic from RBL sites, including HTTP and FTP, in addition to email traffic.
The RBL includes sites used actively in open-relay spam (including most cited by RSS), sites where spam emails originate, or sites that support spam. A site is deemed to support spam if it provides Web hosting, Internet connectivity, credit-card verification, or adult verification services to spammers.
When a site gets recorded on one of these lists, many innocent users, including possibly the site owner, are punished as a result of one spammer. However, this gives sites a strong incentive to create an antispam Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), cancel spammer accounts, and eliminate security holes such as open relays. All these lists provide simple mechanisms to get removed.
My own site was once threatened with an RSS listing. In the summer of 1998, I received a message from the RSS group announcing that if our company didn't stop relaying spam, we would be placed on the list. It took a couple of hours to learn what they were talking about, and another day to download, compile, configure, and install a new sendmail. At the same time, I actually felt empowered by the RSS group because I was sick of getting spam myself.
Email Filtering. Even with relay blocking and blacklisting, spammers find ways to get their cheap messages out. Most major sites filter incoming email to look for spam and viruses. Certain phrases or keywords, such as "Make money now!" and explicit sexual content are frequently used in spam. Content filters can be programmed to recognize these phrases, and divert them to a quarantine area, where a human can determine whether to forward it to the recipient.
Sometimes these systems go overboard. My company's spam filter used to look for triple exclamation points in the Subject field, and one of my gushy friends could never get email to me. Most systems allow some recipients to turn off content filtering. For example, some companies disable content filtering for customer support email accounts, so that customers can rant in a spam-like manner if they feel like it.
Why am I talking about spam prevention technology in an article on push marketing? Because the bottom line for marketers is always economic. Marketers shouldn't send spam because it will get their sites blacklisted and damage their brand. (Also see " Spam Prevention Links".)
Since I spent most of this article discussing the perils of push marketing technology, I might have scared you into thinking that email marketing is a poor option, and should never be used. However, if executed prudently, email marketing is one of the most effective ways to reach your customers. For example, email banner advertisements typically gain about three times the click-through rate of Web site banner ads.
Email marketing simply requires extra care to avoid angering customers or ruining your online brand. The simplest way is to avoid spamming. Companies who spam will unavoidably damage their brand.
There are several ways to market through email without being accused of spamming. You can place your advertisement in email media, including opt-in email marketing, email newsletters, and personalized email sent to your own customer list. See the box titled " Spam-Free Options" for more information on these methods.
Within the fuzzy boundary that separates good marketing from spam is much research and planning. As always, the most effective marketing efforts leverage information about the recipients to establish a strong relationship. Target email so that consumers receive only the messages that pertain to them. Use market basket analysis to offer several related items in a single email. Use collaborative filtering or rules-based personalization to tailor each email to the needs of the recipient.
Dan is vice president of engineering for Macromedia eBusiness Solutions, and holds a Ph.D. in computer science from UCLA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don't spam your friendly columnist.