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January 14, 2009

A day in the life of my inbox -- and when email marketing is spam

by Josh Bernoff

Inbox_3 As I contemplate what it means to be a human in all modes of communication -- including email -- I realized that I need some context. Is my mailbox really as full of offensive messages as it seems? How many?

So yesterday, 1/13/2009, I undertook an analysis of everything that landed in my inbox that day. It's revealing in itself.

Let's be clear hear. My inbox is probably very different from yours, unless you're a journalist, analyst, or popular blogger. People like me get a lot more pitches, press releases, and the like. That's the part of this I find most interesting -- looking at what comes into that inbox from marketers and making that conversation more human.

What is spam and what is marketing?

You've seen plenty of definitions for spam and email marketing. But this is personal with me, so I'm making up my own.

spam is email sent to masses of people and no targeting, with an expectation that very few will respond, and no consideration for whether people will be offended

email marketing is email that is sent to a carefully chosen group of people with the expectation of forming or extending a relationship

This is not black and white, it is a continuum, based on how much you care. If you do your "email marketing" and care only a little about relationships, you are close to a spammer.

Notice that my email marketing definition also includes not only "traditional" email marketing but press releases and PR emails, since they are sent to groups and hope to form relationships. This is a specialized and frequently abused form of email marketing.

Basic statistics

Yesterday was pretty light, no special events like CES or MacWorld. Here is what I received on January 13:

  • 107 emails to Forrester Outlook inbox (includes 1 spam)
  • 23 emails to my gmail address (includes 16 spam caught by gmail). I use this address for personal emails and when I'm acting as a consumer and not a business person.
  • 75 emails caught by Forrester's spam blocker Postini, of which 71 were actual spam and 4 were not.

Totals: 205 emails, 88 spam, 117 non spam. The base for the rest of this post is the 117.

What's in my inbox?

In rough order from largest to smallest bunches:

  • 27 (23%) were personal emails, to me or a few people including me. 21 were from coworkers and 6 were from outside. Only one of the outside emails was unsolicited -- it was from a guy named Lars Leafblad in Minneapolis who wrote a bunch of notes about Groundswell and mailed it to 80 of his friends. I found that pretty interesting.
  • 22 (19%) were traditional email marketing. Three of these were directly relevant to me as a customer with information about my account -- for example, with airline miles updates and a note from E*Trade. The other 19 were solicitations and "updates" from companies that have my name. 7 were for events. None of the 19 interested me.
  • 18 (15%) were PR pitches or press releases. Of these:
    • 10 were press releases
    • 2 were releases with a note at the top from the PR person
    • 3 were notes from PR with no release
    • 1 was a newsletter
    • 1 was about an earnings call (more on that later).
  • Interestingly, 10 of the 18 had no unsubscribe link. What's the protocol here? PR people assume that we'll just respond and say "take me off the list" but 6 of the 10 with no unsubscribe link were press releases that didn't look like that would work. Only 4 of the press releases and pitches included a note to "give me a call if you are interested." What were they about? Hard to remember (there's a cautionary note). They include:
    • 2 copies each of Dish Network's 2 releases (why two copies?)
    • Tivo response to Dish in their patent lawsuit -- that was at least moderately amusing. Of course I haven't covered DVRs since 2006.
    • Carlos Carvajal of Vignette's heartfelt note about why they're cancelling their user conference was nice and personal, but I don't really cover Vignette.
    • Blake Cahill's beautifully formatted newsletter about Visible Technologies which was quickly passed over, along with the traditional releases, since there's rarely useful information in newsletter and press release formats -- they get maybe 5 seconds of my attention.
    • BL Ochman's note about being tapped as an expert on the presidential choice of dog, which was funny, I had no idea she had this knowledge.
    • "Newport Coast Investments Acquires Assets & Intellectual Property of Product Placement Firm NextMedium." How did I get on this list? It's symbolic of the whole bunch, which taken together had about two and half minutes of relevance to me. What a waste.
  • 9 (8%) were a result of a mistake at Google. Google's investor relations announcement email was misconfigured so that every reply was forwarded to the whole list. In other words, you didn't need to make the "reply all" mistake, they did it for you! So I, along with hundreds of others, got emails that said "please take me off this list" and "why am I getting these random emails." Still more email pollution and wasted time, but at least this one was funny to watch. Just their bad luck to have this happen on the day I was tracking email. (I've seen this happen 3 times in 13 years of being an analyst. It's always a blast to observe.)
  • 9 (8%) were calendar invitations or cancellations.
  • 8 (7%) were CCs on other people's internal conversations. About half of these were relevant to me.
  • 8 (7%) were internal mass emails from people at Forrester. Most of these were borderline irrelevant, but I understand the need for them. You need to know that somebody is going to replace your office chair, and why the bad smell is coming down from the 8th floor. These email lists gets abused occasionally, but not very much, which is good since we have 1000 people now.
  • 6 (5%) were BACN from other sites. I should turn most of this off, but I'm too lazy.
  • 6 (5%) were news digests. Two are SmartBriefs. I find these useful.
  • 4 (4%) were automated messages. One was an out of office and 3 were from Outlook about how full my mailbox is.

In case you are wondering I sent 35 emails out myself. 24 were personal to one or a small group of people and 11 were responses to meeting invitations.

Lessons from this exercise

I'm not out to get you. I'm not going to do what Chris Anderson did. But I did learn a few things:

Less than half my email is of any interest to me, even after the spam blockers block the obvious spam. And unlike John Wanamaker, I know which half. For the people in the other half (both inside my company and outside) why are you wasting my time?

Nearly all of the pitches and releases sent my way fail. I bet that is true for most journalists as well. PR pros, tell me this: why isn't it better to spend your money reaching out intimately to a dozen people instead of sending mail to 1000? Aren't most of these press releases and notes a waste of my time and yours?

Not including unsubscribe on any mass email is a big mistake. It's not just the law, it's stupid, because it annoys people who you are trying to impress. Will I hold it against you? Yes I will. Stay tuned.

I'd welcome comments from the PR community about what you're doing to improve things.


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Joseph Kingsbury, Text 100

Josh – regarding your question, I think most PR pros recognize that targeted, intimate outreach works better than blasting mail to 1,000 people. You’re still getting spam because a) it’s the path of least resistance for offenders in question and b) it works. Maybe not for you specifically, but there is some form of ROI or it wouldn’t happen anymore. Consider that direct mail still represents the largest single advertising expenditure. Sure, it annoys a lot of people but distribution is dirt cheap and even a minimal response can justify the investment many times over. It also goes without saying that most people will take the path of least resistance regardless of profession; it just happens to be more, well, public when PR does it. Neither of these makes spamming okay, but I think it’s a basic rationale.

Josh Bernoff

Joseph, I wonder how many times a Chris Anderson or Boing Boing -- or me -- needs to cause them pain before things change?

Joseph Kingsbury

Josh – I don’t see this changing soon because it’s simply a product of bigger factors – mainly, the aforementioned laziness and ROI. These media/bloggers vs. PR conversations often gloss over the reality that plenty of run-of-the-mill media outlets and bloggers respond to and cover content that’s blasted out to wide groups. And so the cycle continues. There are high and low caliber practitioners in every industry – media, PR, widget-making, whatever – and so long as there is demand for something, someone else will be there to meet that demand (or spam people, in this case).

Charles T

This is hilarious. Dare you monitor all social media consumption?

Josh Bernoff

@Charles T -- I finally figured out what your comment means.

Thank you very much, but no, I am not looking at all the other means with which people communicate with me, Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, blog comments, etc. etc.

That way lies madness . . .

Blake Cahill

Josh - Well there I am, officially called out as a spammer. Appreciate the that you gave it 5 seconds and liked the formatting!



Josh Bernoff

Sorry, Blake -- you just got caught in the net. And you're not on the spam side of the line.

For the record, I know your company does good work. . . .

Trinka Tansley

Josh, kudos for a great article, which I've forwarded to all of my co-workers and the local Tampa American Marketing Association. We've heard it before, but you've underscored the information in a memorable way!

Meg Roberts

Hi Josh,

As Trinka said, we in PR have heard this numerous times but your detailed breakdown was very helpful.

In response to your question about what the PR community is doing to improve things, I can say that as a new PR practitioner, I've bookmarked every article on blogger relations (like this one) that I could find.

Also, as soon as I'm assigned to a new campaign, I do extensive research to narrow down target blogs that I believe will be interested in my client's product or service. Then, I send out a personalized e-mail introducing myself and explaining my client to see if the blogger or site owner would be interested in receiving future communication from me.

For me, mass e-mails are a thing of the past, and I hope this becomes an industry standard soon.

Thanks for the great advice!



Nobody likes spam, CAN THE SPAM! It drives people nuts and you will ultimately do yourself harm by engaging in it. True email marketing involves trust, value, and then marketing/sales.

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