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"Make Love Not Spam" Questioned

"Make Love Not Spam" Questioned Alan Chapell

Does the end justify the means? That’s a question that’s been asked a million times throughout the ages. Shakespeare addressed it in Hamlet; Truman wrestled with it towards the end of World War II. And I can remember countless after school specials that addressed Machiavelli’s infamous theme.

Some argue that the end never justifies the means -- I’m not so sure. I had a philosophy professor back at Uconn who used to delight in these types of moral discussions. I was always game for a good chat, particularly when we held our discussions at the local watering hole. Anyway, at some point last week, Machiavelli made his way to the Internet space -- in the context of the great crusade, better known as the war against spam.

The question posed -- albeit indirectly -- was this: Would a company be justified in taking extreme measures in order to keep spam messages from polluting our inboxes? Whether they meant to or not, Lycos Europe has apparently given us their answer. The company recently released a screensaver that is designed to make spam a more expensive and less lucrative business. The screensaver, dubbed “Make Love Not Spam,” is designed to endlessly request data from the sites of known spammers. The basic premise is that if enough users download the software, the cumulative effect of many data requests will tax the spammer’s servers, costing them more money.

I must admit, the thought of giving the spammers an old fashioned butt whooping is pretty enticing. And Lycos has indicated that their user base has received “Make Love not Spam” very positively. According to company spokesperson Malte Pollmann, “We have been totally overwhelmed by the success of the program.” By last Wednesday, the software had been downloaded by more than 100,000 users.

The company has clearly tapped into user frustration with spam. Moreover, according to the company, their proactive approach to combating spam has already had an impact on the number of spam messages. “We already see a decline of spam messages directed towards the mail accounts of our user base,” says Pollman, in an email statement last week.

Very few people would criticize the general aim of Lycos’ new program. Just about all of us have felt the frustration of having to weed through all those messages, and everyone would like to see spam reduced. I’m not convinced that “Make Love Not Spam” would put a huge dent in the proliferation of spam. But even if I concede that it would, the question in my mind is – “at what cost?”

Denial of service?

I’ve read countless articles and blog entries that allege Lycos’ program utilizes a denial of service attack. For those of you who don’t know, a denial of service attack is designed to “bring the network to its knees by flooding it with useless traffic.” It’s typically used by hackers and other miscreants to wreak havoc on a site, and is usually designed to shut the site down.

Spokespersons for Lycos have repeatedly insisted that “Make Love Not Spam” does NOT employ any form of denial of service attacks. Their rational is that each individual request coming from “Make Love Not Spam” is so small (only a few bytes) that its impact upon the spammer’s servers is relatively insubstantial. The problem with that rational is that we aren’t talking about a single request -- we’re potentially talking about millions of requests. Lycos Europe boasts 7.7 million unique users, so if only a percentage of them were to download the screen saver, logic (as well as the law of large numbers) would dictate that the impact would be significant.

In any event, I don’t want to get into a technical argument regarding the “true” definition of denial of service. Call it what you want, but releasing a program that is designed to endlessly request information from other company’s servers with the stated aim of draining their bandwidth is a bad idea. How can I call it anything else? Imagine what would happen if this were deemed a legitimate business practice. Would iMedia release a screen saver designed to negatively impact Mediapost or the DMNews servers? Could Coke do the same to Pepsi?

Collateral damage

Another issue with “Make Love Not Spam” is that the program could easily impact other organizations. According to Steve Linford of the UK-based anti-spam organization Spamhaus, “The problem is, most spammers' sites are hosted on Web servers using Virtual Hosting', so the same Web server is often serving hundreds of Web sites, of which almost all will be innocent users.” So by overloading the spammer’s servers, Lycos could also be inadvertently impacting the servers of companies that happen to be hosted with the spammers.

Moreover, determining which sites are actually used by spammers can be problematic. Lycos plans to obtain much of their information from various blacklists. In my experience, while some blacklists are pretty accurate, others, well… not so much. Anyone who’s ever been in the email business has a story about a “responsible” marketer winding up on some blacklist and having a real hard time removing themselves from the list. And many spammers are known to hijack other IP addresses in order to send their messages.

So my point is that a good deal of innocent sites could easily find themselves caught in Lycos’ net -- and find themselves subjected to the added costs of having their servers receive endless data requests. According to Pollmann, Lycos manually checks each of their blacklists everyday, which surely limits the number of innocent organizations that are impacted. I’m sure that’s a small consolation to any site unlucky enough to slip through the cracks.

The bottom line

At the end of the day, Lycos released a product that interferes with the operations of other businesses. And that’s not just wrong -- it’s outright dangerous. It’s dangerous because it causes collateral damage. It’s dangerous because it represents an endorsement of questionable business practices and vindicates the actions of hackers. And it’s dangerous because if repeated by too many others, it would require a complete redefinition of the concept of bandwidth ownership. And by the way, it could cause the entire Internet to crash. Is stopping the spammers worth that risk? You tell me.

Editors Note: As of yesterday, research and analysis firm Netcraft was reporting that Lycos Europe was taking down the MakeLoveNotSpam.com Web site and bringing the anti-spam campaign to an and. According to reports, the company said it had acieved its objective, which was to ignite a debate about anti-spam measures.

Alan Chapell is a consultant focusing on Privacy-Marketing -- helping companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. He has been in the interactive space for more than seven years with firms such as Jupiter Research, DoubleClick and Cheetahmail. Mr. Chapell is the New York Chapter Chairman of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and he publishes a daily blog on issues of consumer privacy.

With the advent and rise of social platforms, influence has been democratized more than ever. As a result, brands need to expand the breadth and range of individuals on their radar. Brands that successfully identify members of key communities and empower them to use their influence and credibility gain relevance through personalized messaging that resonates with these influencers' audiences.

While having a popular blog or a lot of Twitter followers can certainly help amplify a brand's message, it's not necessary. Finding authentic voices within relevant communities is critical. A good example of a brand putting this into action is Ford's Fiesta Movement.

For the launch of the Fiesta, Ford knew it needed to change its reputation with the 20-something demographic. Rather than try to hitch itself to emerging trends that it felt would speak to this consumer, Ford took it straight to them. Ford launched a national contest to identify 100 drivers to take a six-month test drive of its new car.

The 100 selected were given keys to the cars and asked to participate in monthly missions as well as share their thoughts through their blogs and social networks. Everything was aggregated at FiestaMovement.com, providing a real look into to the lives and experiences of a diverse set of consumers tied into the communities Ford was looking to impact.

While more and more brands realize a new set of influencers exists for their brands, the way they communicate with them can often lack substance. Brands should seek to create programming rather than messaging in an attempt to generate word of mouth. Thinking more like a TV producer and less like an advertising exec will result in creating compelling content that has value and is more likely to generate interest and spread.

An example of a brand creating a meaningful platform is Pepperidge Farm Goldfish brand's Fishful Thinking campaign. Pepperidge Farm identified a key need for young moms: Children were becoming less optimistic than previous generations. As a result, the Goldfish brand launched Fishful Thinking, an initiative led by child psychologist Dr. Reivich to help moms instill optimism in their children.

The initiative struck a chord with moms and became the centerpiece of all marketing activities. To spread the movement, Pepperidge Farm launched an ambassador network, "The School of Fishful Thinking," through which 1,000 moms were invited to learn from the brand and Dr. Reivich so they could take their learnings back to their communities. Moms spoke at PTA meetings, spread weekly parenting activities to their online networks, and drove other moms to FishfulThinking.com so they could learn more about instilling optimism in their children.

It's no secret that people love free stuff and promotions. While this has long been a motivator used by brands to get consumers engaged and get products in consumers' hands, social media has made this tactic highly viral, with reach well beyond just those who get the goods. Website-building companies like Squarespace and Moonfruit both instantly became top Twitter trending topics for their giveaways of Apple products by asking users to tweet their hashtags for a chance to win. Many such promotions have quickly spread on Twitter.

On Facebook, brands like Starbucks ice cream and Papa John's have quickly gained viral participation and Facebook fans by giving away their products. Starbucks, offering up 800 pints per hour, allowed people to send a pint of their new ice cream flavors to friends. Papa John's added 125,000 fans in one day with a free pizza offer. Burger King offered up a highly viral creative twist on giveaways when it offered a free Whopper to anyone who defriended 10 of their Facebook friends with the Whopper Sacrifice app. Despite not adhering to Facebook's Terms and Conditions, the app quickly spread and more than 230,000 Facebook friendships were terminated as a result.

"The Daily Record," the local paper of Dunn, N.C., boasts the highest penetration of any newspaper in the U.S. at an astounding 112 percent. Its secret? Post as many local names and pictures as they can. The newspaper realized early on that when people are featured in the paper, they will not only purchase their copy but others to share with friends and family. People simply like to see themselves in print. The same rule applies online.

In reviewing what spreads online, another key theme arose. Those campaigns that allowed consumers to feature themselves or friends in a cool or humorous way often saw success when done well. Moveon.org's Obama video executed on this brilliantly by allowing people to insert a friend's name into a video newscast claiming Obama lost by one vote and they were to blame. The person's name was shown repeatedly on the screen in what looked like a real newscast, causing viewers to forward the video to other friends with their name included, resulting in more than 10 million views of the video.

For the Activision game "Prototype", the brand took the idea even further. To launch the game, it asked users to log in via Facebook Connect on its website to view the trailer for the game. Once they did, the user viewed a trailer filled with personal information, pictures, and content embedded in highly contextual ways. This unique twist put the consumer front and center, causing users to take notice and share the experience with friends.

Content is king. This cliché is even more applicable when applied to sparking word of mouth online. Unlike TV, where there are limited built-in audiences waiting to tune in, online views are earned by creating content that users feel compelled to spread. With competition for eyeballs more fierce than ever, marketers must identify the content that will really resonate with their consumers and execute in an innovative, shocking, or laugh-out-loud way.

After viewing a T-Mobile commercial of users dancing in the Liverpool Tube Station, a Facebook member organized a Facebook flash mob to create a choreographed dance in the middle of the Liverpool station. Clueless bystanders were left wondering what was going on as everyone around them broke out in dance. The video has resulted in more than 13 million views on YouTube.

To spread the word about Marshall's store-within-a-store, called The Cube, Marshall's joined up with Liam Sullivan's YouTube sensation and cross-dresser character, Kelly, to create a prequel video to her popular videos like "Shoes" and "Let Me Borrow That Top." Hilarity ensued, delighting not only core Kelly fans but all those who shared the video with friends (resulting in nearly 1 million views to date).

While there have been some outliers, the majority of online word of mouth successes can be traced back to at least one of these triggers. Incorporating a trigger alone will by no means guarantee success; they do, however, provide a blueprint by which brands can access the strategies that will best resonate with their consumers. 

Brandon Evans is managing partner, strategy and services, for Mr Youth

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Chapell & Associates is headed by Alan Chapell. In 1997, Chapell founded the privacy program at Jupiter Research, an internet research firm focusing on the consumer internet economy. During his four and a half years at Jupiter, Chapell also...

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