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A Tale of Two Anti-Spam Strategies

The problem with spam is simple, right? There’s just too much of it. But it’s a problem for different reasons to different people. For consumers, it’s a problem because it clogs up their email programs. If they’re not careful, it snares them in scams or identity theft. For marketers, though, spam is a problem because it makes consumers wary of any and all email marketing. 

So there are efforts to alleviate both problems: consumer security and consumer confidence in email marketing. Solving either one of these problems won’t necessarily help with the other -- and the contrasts between the two are sometimes striking. For example, take two recent, but very different initiatives just started in the War on Spam.

In late July, TRUSTe announced that it was launching a new seal program aimed at boosting consumer trust in companies’ opt-in email lists. Basically, the program is simple: TRUSTe checks out the company, makes sure it complies with a set of standards and then awards them a “We Don’t Spam” seal, for which it provides monitoring and dispute resolution. Neat, eh?

I spoke to Colin O’Malley, director of product development for TRUSTe, about their Email Privacy Seal. O’Malley argues that email accreditation is a good way for companies to “get clean and stay clean” as far as spam is concerned. And this, he thinks, is good for consumers, as “it has been our experience that providing market incentives can result in higher standards for consumer consent.”

Supposedly, the higher standards reassure consumers and boost registration for opt-in email lists. Only time will tell how much, but with its experience accrediting secure websites, TRUSTe is probably in a good position to make it work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Blue Security’s new twist on a do-not-include registry: Blue Frog. Instead of focusing on increasing legitimate email marketing, Blue Frog takes the fight to the spammers. Consumers who download the Blue Frog service have spam sent to their real and “honey pot” addresses (which are deceptively similar to their actual addresses, but are set up and received by Blue Security, which posts them on a website in order to lure in spammers) tracked by the program. Then, for every spam message any Blue Frog member receives, Blue Security automatically sends opt-out requests to the spammer, via email and webforms linked to in the spam. The goal, evidently, is to force spammers to download an encrypted version of the do-not-call-registry in order to avoid becoming inundated with the enormity of opt-out requests. 

At first glance -- and as others have pointed out -- this does seem similar to Lycos’ Make-Love-Not-Spam campaign from a while back. It may be that Blue Frog will face many of the same ethical and methodological problems. But Eran Reshef, Blue Security’s CEO, thinks this is a misconception. “Blue Frog,” he told me, “merely gives its members a secure way to post an opt-out request -- to exercise their rights under the CAN-SPAM act.” It differentiates itself from Lycos’ program, he argues, because it certainly isn’t, as some have charged, meant as a denial-of-service attack on spammers. Instead, Reshef said, it’s just intended to give the “most hard core spammers” an incentive not to send emails to Blue Frog subscribers.

Yet some have objected to Blue Security’s approach. In another publication, Bill McCloskey recently called this the "scorched earth" method, and maybe there is something a little eye-for-an-eye about it, especially in comparison to TRUSTe’s initiative, what McCloskey calls "détente." I suppose the Cold War analogy isn’t too far off. The War on Spam is something of a cooler, slower conflict. But if we want to go with this analogy, we ought to remember that while "scorched earth" didn’t win the Cold War, neither did détente alone. We walked something of a middle path there.

So I don’t think it’s really that accurate to place the TRUSTe and Blue Security ideas in direct contrast to one another. They are intended to do two different things, both of which are necessary in the war on spam. TRUSTe’s seal is intended to boost confidence in legitimate email advertising, not to mention the ability of companies to market to their consumers. And given the elegance and simplicity of the program, I think we can expect it to succeed.

But here’s the thing: a lot of the companies that will get TRUSTe’s seal aren’t the ones who are sending out spam right now. The Email Privacy Seal isn’t going to significantly decrease the amount of spam, just differentiate between those who send spam and those who don’t. And this is where Blue Frog comes in -- or at least, where it’s making a stand. Blue Security doesn’t care about consumer confidence in marketing. It just wants less spam in its members’ inboxes. So it tries to convince spammers to send less spam.

Ultimately, Blue Frog may or may not be any more successful than Lycos was -- but the underlying inclination, I think, is in the right place. There are two fronts in the war on spam: getting consumers to engage in ecommerce and accept legitimate email marketing, and also stopping spammers from sending spam. TRUSTe’s program gives hope that we’ll do okay with the former. But I wonder if we’re ready to say, "Okay, we don’t need to fight spam directly anymore; we just need to boost consumer confidence." 

Blue Frog might seem scary to many of us. With mutually assured destruction, you’re only ever assured of -- well, you get the idea. But I don’t think we should write off Blue Frog entirely, and we definitely shouldn’t write off its intent. No matter our skill at reassurance, consumers still aren’t going to like their spam. What we need is a way to contain the threat without burning everything down to the ground.

Isaac Scarborough is manager of market intelligence at Chapell & Associates. Read full bio.

Isaac Scarborough covers market trends for Chapell Associates, a consulting firm that helps companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. Chapell & Associates has been instrumental in the development...

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