2003/01/02
 
10:02

Does Spam Work?

Here's an odd question: does spam work?

I know what the standard answer is, "If they send out a kazillion bazillion emails and only one tenth of one percent of the people respond, they'll still make money!"

Oh, really?

In sales, there are "cold calls" and "warm calls". A "cold call" is somebody who has never heard of you, whereas a "warm call" is somebody who has expressed at least some interest in your fine product. Spam, of course, is all about cold calls.

Telemarketers (the non-text version of spammers) know that most people react to their message with distain. Spammers have it even worse, because (A) they've somehow managed to acquire an even worse reputation and (B) it's not rude or inconvenient to blast an unwanted email into oblivion.

Speaking of which, I think my mail program needs an option stronger than "Delete". Maybe a large red button labelled "Consign to Perdition", which makes the sound of an explosion, or perhaps a toilet flushing. I've yet to work out all the details, but I'm looking for something pretty darn Orwellian.

Anyway, today I got a spam offering me an "International Driver's License" – that old scam. I normally eradicate these within a few milliseconds, but for some reason I decided to skim this one. It turns out it was a double offer: they were also selling a university degree! Wow, what helpful – and desperate – people!

It suddenly occured to me that I rarely see spam from the same people after a year has passed.

Yes, I know what you're thinking: they change their email addresses all the time. This is true. However, I think I'm fairly good at spotting patterns and these people usually retain certain themes. I mean, once you've seen one Nigerian Millionaire letter, you've seen them all, even if he's now a Presidential Aide and lives in some other country that Americans have heard of.

I do believe the Nigerian Millionaire scam works. That is to say, it's a well-honed con-job and they've mastered their dark art. However, the vast majority of spammers probably never make more than a few hundred dollars, and that's why you don't see the same offer from year to year. I think that what we're hearing, here, are echoes of a myth. That is to say, there are a lot of people out there thinking, "There sure is a lot of spam. I gotta get me some of that action!"

This sounds familiar to me. I used to describe myself as a shareware author. Remember shareware? The idea was that some guy in his basement could get rich by giving away his software for free. Users would be so grateful that they'd fill his coffers with oodles of cash and also help him distribute his program by enthusiastically giving unregistered copies to friends. There's only one problem with this idea: it doesn't work.

The common wisdom (as espoused by the inappropriately-named Association of Shareware Professionals) was that if you limited (or "crippled") the program in any way, you'd go broke. This idea was the standard shareware model for many years, despite my numerous articles saying that it was a bunch of hooey. I'd point out that there were thousands of shareware authors, yet less than 100 of them were actually making a living at it. (I was one of the fortunate few, though much of my success came about by redefining what "making a living" meant.)

The myth persisted for many years.

I figure it's the same way with spam. The same argument that was bandied about for shareware is raised: "If only one tenth of one percent..."

Uh-huh. Maybe that represents your response rate, but I expect that the actual number of closed sales is vastly less than one person in a thousand. Maybe it's one in a million. So if you clog up the net with twenty million emails, each of which can earn you $39.95, you might expect to gross a thousand bucks. Oh, and don't forget to subtract from that your time, and factor in the irritation of continually moving from ISP to ISP. It's just not a viable business.

I wrote many articles telling my fellow shareware authors that they had to change their approach. Eventually the business model changed and now most of these independent programmers realize that there's no free lunch. I wish that somebody could explain the reality of the situation to spammers.

Alas, there's one big difference: shareware authors were hard workers who got caught up in a delusion. They were not trying to get "something for nothing". Spammers, on the other hand, seem to be the type of people who think there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They are not businessmen; they're dreamers. Spam is their religion and no logical argument is going to dissuade them.

But maybe, if enough people told them how impractical the idea is, they might change.

I guess I'm a bit of a dreamer myself.

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