Thanks to Spam, It's Not Junk Mail Anymore

Like a shiny new bike at Christmas, marketers in the 90s fell hopelessly in love with the newfangled promise of email. We marveled at all of the ways we could use it reach million of consumers at light speed while gleefully avoiding postage and printing costs. What could be better?

But alas, no marketing good lasts forever. Our industrial lust for direct email eventually turned against us. Consumers created a dread-filled word -- "spam" -- to describe our overzealousness. Email hosts created spam filters and spam folders to keep our messaging away from consumers' inboxes. Audiences quickly disarmed the "You've Got Mail" computer voice, as the mountains of spam would have led them to insanity.

As marketers, we had to begrudgingly admit a simple fact: if we send our brand's message to people who didn't want to hear it or didn't like the way we were presenting it or didn't want to hear it with the frequency we thought acceptable, we were doing ourselves more harm than good. Efficiency without effectiveness is waste, and frustrated and/or overburdened consumers won't buy what we're selling.

Elder statespersons of the industry (anyone over the age of 40) might fondly remember the low-tech precursor to email marketing: traditional or "snail" mail. When done properly (the right message to the right consumer at the right time), it was an extremely effective way to reach audiences. People didn't get a lot of mail back in the olden days, so the chances that they'd read it over their morning cup of Joe were pretty high. For a myriad of companies, it was an effective way to target consumers for typically a lot less cash than traditional advertising.

Before the sun rose on the Internet and QVC and infomercials, mail was the mainstay of direct to consumer communication. Mailings could be targeted by zip code, giving marketers the opportunity to hit specific geographical areas and demographics. Many marketers promoting high end products, from Cartier to cars to cruises, found it to be a good way to convey a deeper sell message than was possible in a print ad or 30-second spot. The low-end bill stuffer crowd, selling everything from off-brand dish soap to cat beds to personalized checks, also found the medium worthwhile. Yet the unfortunate result of marketers' efforts, as we all now know, was a mailbox overflowing with often less than valued information.

Consumers voiced their opposition to inundation, and the term "junk mail" was born. Millions would toss rather than tear open, making many direct mail messages worthless. (A man in New England famously heated his home by burning his junk mail, becoming one of the very first direct mail recyclers).

Savvy marketers did their level best to fight through clutter and make direct mail work for appropriate products/services. We improved our strategies, creating messages in envelopes and packages and post cards that stood out in the mailbox crowd. Still, it proved to be more time consuming and expensive and dramatically less flexible than the internet's e-mail capabilities. In short, they payoff wasn't worth the fight.

At the onset of email, in large part because of the newness of the medium and the small numbers of emails received, consumers opened the messages and read them. Once the threshold crossed into the dreaded land of spam, driven in large part by the underbelly of sellers hocking everything from prescription drugs from Canada to male enhancement devices to stock tips, promotional email became much less effective. For legitimate marketers selling products/services who sent an abundance of "blasts" to their databases, the damage was often caused was oversell. Without fully considering frequency of purchase and how it affects the consumer's interest in hearing a particular message, marketers let the ease and convenience get away from them. Consumers, tired of intrusion, began to throw out marketing babies with their internet bath water.

Often when kids get new toys for Christmas, they forget about the old toys they knew and loved. Open just about any mailbox in America, and you'll hear a faint cavernous echo and discover a marketer's dream environment. With less companies choosing traditional direct mail, consumers are more amused by mail than turned off by it. Consumers are more apt to open than to toss or burn, giving smart marketers real reason re-discover the medium.

If you want your message to be read over a quiet cup of Joe in the peace and quiet of potential purchaser's home, don't light up the keyboard and hit "send." Instead, look to the past for a new way to break through the clutter. Tell the youngsters in the office that you're kickin' it old school with USPS.

If you want to reach your consumers in the internet age, sometimes you have to lick a few stamps.

Sarah O'Leary is a seasoned marketing expert, author and public speaker who is always on the look out for new clients and/or permanent employment. She is also hopes to secure an adjunct teaching position at a reputable college or university, domestic or international. You can reach her at