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:
Hi!Spam vs. spam and is this spam?
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.
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.
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?