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An Informal Definition of Spam

I was talking to a guy the other day about the whole LinkedIn harvesting incident (or non-incident, depending upon your point of view), and this guy offered up that he had previously been in a somewhat similar situation before -- but on the other side of it. I offered up the opportunity to guest post about that here, and that leads us to today's guest post authored by Robby Slaughter. Robby runs
Slaughter Development, a productivity consulting firm in Indianapolis, IN. Take it away, Robby:

Last year, I wrote a book called Failure: The Secret to Success. As part of the marketing campaign for the book, and generally because I was really excited, I wanted to share the news with everybody I knew.

Spreading a message to your contact sphere is almost certainly going to involve email. Sending lots of emails is going to flirt with the official, legal definition of spam. Like anyone trying to self-promote, I didn't want upset people, but at the same time I didn’t want to establish any undue limits on spreading the word about my new book. Spam puts all of us at a crossroads between the important role of marketing and the unacceptable behavior of abuse. I had to make a choice. Email vs. Email

You don't have to be a technical wizard to recognize that there are two very different kinds of electronic messages landing in inboxes. On the one hand, there are personal emails sent by people through the act of typing, pointing and clicking. Billions of emails like this circle the planet every day, most of which represent a conversation between just one sender and one recipient. Then, there's an entire universe of bulk email. The phrase "bulk" does not mean that every message is exactly the same or delivered at precisely the same time, of course. Each one goes to a different recipient and may have all kinds of complex personalization. Rather, "bulk" merely indicates that these emails are part of a larger campaign and are sent en-masse. Some bulk messages are entirely legitimate, opt-in newsletters or announcements, and others promote lucrative Nigerian business opportunities or pharmaceuticals hawked with peculiar spellings.

It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between spam and not-spam, but it's almost always easy to tell the difference between personal emails and bulk emails. The content of personal messages absolutely ooze with the eccentricities of the sender. They were written in a text box in an email client, and were probably sent by a laptop computer, not a "deliverability network." We all might complain about that uncle who forwards chain emails that could be refuted in ten seconds on Snopes, but that doesn’t seem like bulk email. Therefore, messages written in Microsoft Outlook using BCC which have a personal touch do not seem like spam.

What I Did: Genius? Evil? Or Evil Genius?

Here’s what I did last summer: I took a lifetime of personal contacts—over 5,000 people—and sent them all the same, friendly email message. I did this 100 email addresses at a time and used blind carbon copy. It wasn’t really an automated process, and the message wasn’t all that commercial. Here’s what I wrote to a bazillion of my closest friends:

First of all, this is one of those big BCC-everyone-you-know emails, so if I haven't talked to you in a while please REPLY to this message to let me know how you are doing.

Second: I wrote a book! It's called "Failure: The Secret to Success." You can learn all about it (and buy an advance copy even) at:

Third: These things sometimes get duplicated. So if you get more than one copy of this email, accept my apologies. Or: forward it to a friend! Or: if you have no idea who I am and think this is spam, please let me know.

That's it! Hope you're having a fantastic day.

Robby Slaughter
Spam vs. spam and is this spam?

To answer the question about whether or not what I did was spam I want to make a difference between the legal definition of Spam (according to CAN-SPAM and industry experts) and the practical definition of spam. CAN-SPAM doesn’t exactly define what Spam is but instead clarifies appropriate behaviors for "commercial email." But what does that mean? The law speaketh:
[commercial email is] any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.
From my point of view, the primary purpose of the message is laid out in point my first point: "REPLY to this message and let me know how you are doing!" So I think I have an argument that the message is in fact, not covered under CAN-SPAM.

But at the same time, clearly I wanted people to buy the book! I also added language about replying to the email to effectively "opt out," which sort of implies intent to conform to CAN-SPAM if in fact this really is a commercial message.

What about the lowercase, practical definition of "spam?" To me, that would be "a solicitation message that was sent to lots of people including me, which I did not expect and would rather have not received." Well, for most of my thousands of recipients, this was not spam with a lowercase "s." Many of them did reply, and I engaged in a few weeks of email catch-up on people I had not seen in ages. But a few did reply harshly. They explained (or rather, cursed) that the message was spammy and wrong.

In Summary

I did not want to upload my entire contacts database to an email service provider (ESP) to send a commercial email message. Many specifically advise against doing exactly this, but then again they are likely to bear the brunt of any complaints. Furthermore, most ESPs probably assume that you will send many messages, whereas I only intend to send one. Or at least, one every time I write a book.

I feel pretty good that what I did was right, clever, and effective. I don’t think I broke the law. But I do believe I demonstrated that email is complicated. I won’t repeat the process in the future without talking to an email expert.

What do you think? Am I spammer?


Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.

  1. Hi Robby,
    Regardless of intentions spam is spam. Good companies and individuals can assume that people would love to receive communications from them, or that its ok because you may have their email, but with out permission its spam. It goes back to the one bite of the apple philosophy.

  2. Regardless of what you send via bulk mail, spam or not, someone's not going to like it and complain. With that taken out of the picture, I personally didn't like your email because it screamed "hey we haven't talked in years, but now I'm emailing because you can do something for me! But wait - I'm not even going to email you directly, I'm just going to lump you into a bulk email to everyone I've ever met to get the word out about my book."

    Sorry if that's harsh. We all build professional networks in part for situations like this, but most times it's a one-to-one email not a mass send.

    I'd straight off delete this if I received it from one of my LinkedIn connections and, in fact, have in the past. Appreciate the perspective, though.

    -Kelly Lorenz

  3. No human being has 5,000 "personal" contacts. Most of the recipients will have not the slightest idea who you are, so there's nothing "personal" about this message as far as many (most?) recipients are concerned.

    You're twisting the English language to justify something that you pretty clearly knew was wrong.

    This was blatant spam. If I received it from you, I'd report it to your ISP. And if my company was your ISP, your account would be terminated without a second thought.

  4. I think you're being completely disingenuous when you make the statement "From my point of view, the primary purpose of the message is laid out in point my first point: "REPLY to this message and let me know how you are doing!"

    The fact of the matter is that you would have never concocted this elaborate scheme if you simply wanted to reconnect with your contacts. If you asked yourself would I have gone through all this trouble, at this specific time, just to say 'hi', I bet your answer would be no. However you DID go through all this to promote your book. Therefore the primary purpose is not to reconnect but rather self-promote.

  5. This particular mail is a two-edged sword.
    On the one hand it is spam, as it was sent to 5000 recipients. I would say up to 500 is OK.
    On the other hand this is not spam, as it is a one-time shot. It's not a regular newsletter. It wasn't sent to the "whole world". There was a little personal relationship between sender and recipient.
    So I wouldn't mark that as spam, but discard the mail silently. If it comes in regularly like "have you read my book", "what do you think?", "why don't you answer" then I will get very angry.

  6. While the message was somewhat spammy, it doesn't rise to full level SPAM in my mind. Somewhere in between.

    While the scale (5k!) makes me gag a bit.. The fact that these were people you had actually met...and the addresses were not "harvested" through nefarious means... Probably shields you from full blown SPAM.

    As a long-time owner of an ISP.. Receiving a first time complaint about you as a user would certainly not result in you being "kicked off" of my ISP.

    However, it would earn you a email warning not to do it again, and a big, nasty black mark in the CRM. Silly! That is what your @hotmail account is for. ;)

  7. Not spam.

    First, if the word "Viagra" is not mentioned, I rarely think of an email as spam.

    Second, If I wrote a book, I'd want the whole world to know! I mean, what an accomplishment. So, in my opinion, a one time email to everyone you know to share the news is no big deal.

    Finally, I really hate when I get bulk emails with different font sizes, colors, etc. I always consider those spam.

  8. Well, only about half of the 30,000 spams I get every day mention Viagra. So does that mean it's OK for me to forward the rest of them to you? (Yes, I really get that much spam.)

    I see the good intent in what Robby did here, but ultimately, I'm with Dave Smith. The primary purpose of that message was to sell the book, in my opinion.

    My wife (published author herself) and I are both second-tier internet famous enough that everybody and their sister has some new scheme they want feedback on, or new thing they want us to blog about. I used to get so much damn email sent scattershot like that I no longer even allow my email address to show up on my blog.

    When I think about spam or not, I think of two considerations. Bulk, and scale. It wasn't bulk to the level of the spam that Yahoo gets every day, but it wasn't really one-to-one. I think the bulk measure is met. As far as scale, I'm back to, I get so much of this kind of stuff aimed at me already, that it's interfering with my ability to use email. Which sucks.

  9. Robby, I appreciate an honest post from somebody on the "other side". So please do not take this as me yelling, "YOU EVIL SPAMMING SCUM!" or anything -- I don't mean it that way. :-)

    If I'd been the recipient of that email, however, I would have been *extremly* uncomfortable. If I knew the sender, I wouldn't complain to their ISP, but I would definitely have complained to them.

    I don't participate in social networking sites, so perhaps the expectations are different in that context, but.... Personal email is one thing. Bulk is another. This was bulk email, and it would have been bulk email that I did not ask to receive even if the information itself was information that I would have wanted.

    And 5,000 personal contacts? I don't buy it -- *nobody* could have a personal relationship with so many people!

    Besides, you were on LinkedIn, right? Doesn't LinkedIn have something akin to a personal home page as well as email lists, etc? Why not put the announcement on your page, and just add a note and link to your email signature so that the information will be appended to any personal email that you send. Also, if you're on Twitter, you can tweet about it. There are *lots* of ways to get the word out other than through a mass email to people who did not ask for that sort of thing.

    So here's hoping you try a different approach next time. :-)

  10. Robbie,

    Putting any legal definition aside, "personal" spam like what you did I find worse than Nigerian scams or Viagra emails. 99.9% of those emails never make it in to my inbox.

    But as Al will attest, there is a growing trend of social "friends" and "connections" sending emails to everyone on their list promoting their latest book, seminar, Webinar, daughter's Girl Scout cookie drive - you name it.

    It is one thing for me to email 15 current friends asking them if they'd like to buy GS cookies from my daugther - it is a whole nother thing to send that email in waves of 500 to everybody I ever met including the ad rep that sold me a sponsorship back in 1997.

    In the first case, if they are truly friends they'll likely either laugh or ask for 2 boxes of Thin Mints. In the latter case, you've probably spammed all but about 50 of the 5,000 people.

    Sometimes the answer has nothing to do with what is legal or not. Sometimes just plain good old common sense is all you need. You let the excitement and personal enthusiasm over your new book over take your better judgment.

    Loren McDonald

  11. Yes, good point Loren. Legality differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and calling something 'CAN SPAM compliant' is about as low a threshold as one could possibly want to maintain. Insert an unsub, keep the headers pretty clear and honest, and you are CAN SPAM compliant, even if you are the most egregious spammer.

    Happily, CAN SPAM was made irrelevant by the new Canadian legislation, C-28, late in December 2011.Depending on a number of factors (mostly the time elapsed from his last contact with his potential customers) what Robby did may have been illegal under the new legislation.

  12. I think an angle that many are missing here is a psychological look at intent and execution. Let's face it, successful businesses and non-profits that TRULY care about their contacts and the ecosystem that surrounds their business will go to great lengths to learn about them, understand them, and engage them in a meaningful way. This can be done in a multitude of ways of course, but regardless of how one might execute upon this, the end result of successful effort is most often loyal, happy and supportive customers that often will overlook a marketing mistake. Unfortunately Mr. Slaughter did none of this.

    Instead, Mr. Slaughter compiled a list of his entire contact database that included contacts that admittedly he had long lost touch with. There was no effort to sort and target based on affiliation, relationship or interest. Heck, he probably didn't even remember who half these folks were....Why? Apathy perhaps? To busy running his company? I don't know. Instead, his focus was on how best to deliver his bulk message without being perceived as a spammer, as further supported by his preconceived actions to send only 100 at a time, and his verbiage within the message. That, combined with this one time drop flirts dangerously with the mindset of a spammer.

    In the end, one would have a difficult time arguing against the fact that Mr. Slaughter is a lazy marketer that perhaps cares more about promoting his book than he does building a trusting relationship with his contacts, which in the end would undoubtedly bare more fruit. I understand that one can't go back in time and correct past mistakes (list hygiene, continuous relationship building, etc.), but we all can hope that Mr. Slaughter can learn from these mistakes and move forward in such a way as to not make the lives of us that are involved in email industry that much harder.

    So to answer your question; am I a spammer? In my book, yes, today you are. But my hopes are that tomorrow you won't be! I have faith in my belief that you really DO care. Now it's up to you to do the right thing.

    P.S. Thanks for guest blogging, it's always fun to learn from others! As well, best of luck with your book!

  13. There is also social network personal emails that ends up sending a notification... And can be spam too.

  14. I don't want to be impolite - and I'm glad you shared the story with us - but I can't help but feel you're being a bit disingenuous when you say, "From my point of view, the primary purpose of the message is laid out in point my first point: "REPLY to this message and let me know how you are doing!"

    And that's simply not true. The message would never have been sent had you not written a new book, and wanted to tell all of your contacts about it. The primary intent of the message, by your own prior admission, was commercial.

    Does that make it spam? I can see a whole lot of reasons why your recipients might think so.

  15. Thanks to everyone who has commented. I imagined my post might generate some strong reactions, and I was right!

    Instead of trying to respond to all of your feedback individually, I will make a couple of key points. First: Unlike the recipients of the messages, most of you don't know me at all. Everyone who got one of these emails was someone that I had actually met, in person or exchanged email with in the past. That might not affect your opinion, but I know that I feel differently about bulk mail I receive from strangers versus people for whom I have some mental association.

    Second, while *you* know there were 5,000 people on that list, none of these recipients knew that. Sure, there were people I had not exchanged email with in many years, but hundreds of people wrote back to say hello. This was by far the most gratifying part of the experience.

    Finally, I will point out that most of those leaving comments appear to be email/spam experts, and I appreciate their advice. Of those who have commented so far, Sarah most closely represents how I thought I would feel if I received a similar message. (Sarah and are Twitter friends, but that's it.) My thought was that this viewpoint would be the one held by almost everybody in my address book. If my address book was filled with email/spam/deliverability experts, I'd probably be in pretty hot water!

    I think it's not easy to clearly say what is and is not spam. I'm going to stand by two of my points: what I did was "clever and effective" but your words have convinced me that it may not have been "right."

    Maybe Al will invite me to write a follow up post to discuss how my perspective has changed as a result of reading your comments, and ideas for what I could do in the future.

  16. When this kind of spam is the worst thing we have to deal with, it will be a truly wonderful day.

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