2 min read

Taking a page from the bandwidth thieves

Learning the techniques of persuasion from spammers may help your own marketing campaigns

I was grumbling through my e-mail inbox today, deleting the — ahem — inappropriate content that had managed to slither through my ISP’s spam filters, when I realized that we could all learn something from the bandwidth thieves that plague us with their unsolicited garbage.

Say what you will about the content of the messages (just don’t repeat it in polite company), a lot of these guys really understand marketing.

They know exactly which buttons to push to get suckers — er — potential customers to read their messages, to go to their Web sites and, all too often, to become victims through entering personal or confidential information on spoofed sites. It is, believe it or not, a science.

Consider their subject lines, for example. They often appeal to basic human needs, wants, and vanity. One spammer, with word play intended to defeat spam filters, invited readers to “supersize your hot rod.” Another message even invited me to check out reviews of penis enhancement products.

Human beings, on the whole, want to be accepted, and subjects like “someone just sent you a greeting!” lure the uninitiated into opening the message, clicking the link – and becoming part of a botnet. It’s the same syndrome that made the Iloveyou virus such a success.

Spammers also offer bargains (watches are hot these days, as are per cent off deals for unnamed items), nebulous suggestions like “Renew Your Qualification” that arouse curiosity, and gift ideas (fake Rolexes, anyone?) that appeal to people hoping to get something for nothing (or at least at a discount).

When appeals to greed or lust don’t work, they sometimes resort to fear. I can’t count how many alleged PayPal and bank messages I’ve received telling me my account has been disabled and I’ll have to click the convenient link and enter my credentials to restore it. Or, for variety, some spammers suggest that my credit rating has been compromised and that I should (you guessed it) click a link in the e-mail and give them personal information to verify my identity. So they can steal it, of course, but they don’t mention those little details.

The sad thing is, there are enough people falling for this nonsense that it continues. Their buttons are being effectively pushed.

While I’m not suggesting that legitimate businesses should engage in deceptive e-mail campaigns, learning the techniques of persuasion that so many spammers have mastered can help in developing effective marketing pieces. After all, getting people to open that promotional message is half the battle, even though they have opted in, as they must these days.

At the same time, it’s instructional to see what doesn’t make it through the filters. If your subject line is all caps, for example, it’s likely to be branded as spam and your customers won’t see it. If it contains a lot of punctuation, particularly exclamation points, that’s another spam flag to most filters, as is a blank subject line. And, as your Grade 3 teacher told you, spelling counts!

Some perfectly proper offers get caught by the mysteries of the filtering algorithms too, so it’s always a good idea to ask recipients to put your marketing e-mail address on their white lists.

Why bother with all this? Because e-mail is still an economical and effective way to keep yourself top-of-mind with customers. If scooping some knowledge from spammers helps enhance that effectiveness, it’s only poetic justice.