Commercial e-mail - A double-edged sword?

E-mail is a one of the most powerful tools available for building and maintaining relationships with online customers. Unfortunately, it's also become one of the most dangerous tools to use, because unwanted e-mail is so despised.

A recent survey by the Pew Internet Project highlights the two faces of business e-mail. On one hand, the survey found that many users are responding and acting upon commercial e-mail messages. Pew found that 7% of e-mail users have ordered products or services promoted using unsolicited e-mail. One-third have responded by clicking on links to get additional information.

On the other hand, the unrelenting stream of unwanted e-mails is changing the way people use the Internet: * 25% of e-mail users are using e-mail less because of unsolicited messages. * More than half say spam has made them less trusting of e-mail in general. * 70% say spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying.

Commercial e-mail has become a double-edged sword. It still has the power to sell and generate interest in products. It's still a powerful tool for maintaining relationships. But there's no getting around the fact that it's becoming challenging to use commercial e-mail effectively, and that it poses risks to companies that use it.

The most immediate effect of people's aversion to spam is that users are actively trying to avoid unwanted e-mail: * 73% avoid giving out their e-mail address. * 69% avoid posting their e-mail address on the Web. * Nearly 90% of e-mail users immediately click to delete incoming spam.

These steps have the side effect of blocking many legitimate messages.

A second significant effect for e-businesses is that people are learning that they can't trust messages, even if they appear to be from legitimate companies. A recent virus posed as a message from Microsoft. The message was crafted to look like an official Microsoft communication, alerting users to patch their operating system. Instead, the "patch" was a virus. These bogus messages increase the possibility that legitimate messages will be deleted.

Challenges for e-businesses

Every time a message goes out to a customer, companies have two fundamental issues to deal with. First, they have to make sure that their message is not identified as spam and filtered out. Second, companies have to establish trust.

The most basic challenge is to avoid being spam. With 15 billion unwanted e-mail messages being sent daily, this task has become critical. Messages need to be written for two audiences, message filters and end users.

Companies also have to establish trust. Users can't trust e-mail messages anymore. If a message from Microsoft can be fake, then trust in any company's message is being undermined.

Because of this, companies need to make it easy for recipients to verify that messages are from a legitimate source. One way to establish this is by referring back to a well-established online presence. Links back to anything other than a primary www domain are likely to be mistrusted.

By addressing the side effects of spam, and by establishing trust with customers, companies can help ensure their messages are heard.

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