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The Evolution of Email Spam: Here’s How Your Customers Now Define It


About a month ago, a friend and fellow Boston marketer and I got into a discussion about the merits of customer marketing, and more specifically, how email plays a role.

Casey Hogan was frustrated, as she had just received her tenth—tenth!—upsell email from a brand that she had been using for four years.

Obviously annoyed, she took to Twitter in search of empathy.

Asked by another user to clarify, she went on:

I added my .02 cents…

…and the inspiration for this post was born.

For Hogan, formerly a marketer at Drift and Drizly, the customer experience is something of great personal meaning. And like anything else worth analogizing, she related her experience to dating:

“Getting a subscriber is just like getting someone’s number…Most people don’t want to hear from someone they just met three times a day. I would also guess they don’t want to sporadically hear ‘hey can you set me up with your friends?’ either.”

Conversely, by permission marketing standards, all seems fair. But when we consider how subscribers’ rising expectations has worked to evolve what email spam really is, her frustration comes into focus.

A friend and colleague of mine, Chad White, writes in his book Email Marketing Rules that “Having permission only gets you so far nowadays. Irrelevant and unwanted email is the new spam in the eyes of both consumers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs).”

How your customers define email spam

White’s definition above is whiteboard material.

Your customers view any irrelevant or unwanted email as spam. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been a customer or if they’ve given you permission—if your email is repeatedly of little to no relevance to them, it’s spam.

Or, as was the case mentioned earlier, this particular brand was more interested in using Hogan to create new relationships than actually building a relationship with her. As detailed by Hogan, the customer experience looked something like this:

  • Use code for first X free
  • Refer friends, get $
  • Refer friends, get $ ..
  • Refer friends, get $ ….
  • Refer friends, get $ …..

…and so on. Ten times.

There was obviously no relevance for the user, otherwise she wouldn’t have taken to Twitter to voice her frustrations. But how are brands to define relevance? As White says in Email Marketing Rules, “it’s often discussed in vague, mystical terms.”

In an attempt to lift the veil a bit, I’ve detailed some ways I’ve found effective at ensuring a more relevant experience for subscribers.

Set the right expectations

This section is really about table stakes. If your subscribers aren’t sure of what kinds of communications to expect, you’ve exposed yourself to the risk of being reported as spam, thus hurting your subscriber reputation and any future hopes of landing in the inbox.

So tables stakes or not, it’s important to note here.

Sign up forms and welcome emails are two areas of prime real estate you should use to clearly inform people what they will be receiving from your brand.

If you plan on emailing occasional gated material, let people know in advance of them providing their email address. Whether or not you view additional communications as a value add is irrelevant, both to this principle and to your subscribers.

Let subscribers of any list know ahead of time exactly what they can expect to receive from your brand. Then, most importantly, reduce your messaging to specific lists to the content they expect to receive.

Personalize the subject matter, not the subject

Advances in marketing technology has resulted in a misconception of what personalization really is, and more unfortunately, in marketers abusing the tactics available for achieving faux personalization.

So let’s start with what personalization is not. It’s not:

  • Knowing your subscriber’s name, or
  • Location
  • Company name
  • Job title
  • Industry, or any other basic demographic information

Personalization is about interests, behavior, and challenges. And while most brands can talk about these characteristics in detail as they pertain to their target audience, many do not tailor the email marketing strategy to communicate the right messages to those who need it most.

Let’s use an example from my own inbox.

I joined the Dollar Shave Club last fall, and right before my first box shipped, I received an email with the subject line, “Your first box is about to ship. Toss more in.”

This was pretty pertinent information for me. Naturally, I opened.

Inside were four product suggestions, including a shave butter I had never tried. I wouldn’t normally purchase shave butter, but at $4.99, I thought, “Why not? One less thing I have to remember at the store.”

Dollar Shave Club knows this about me (and all its users): we value convenience over features. Their razors don’t have 8 blades, a battery, or other gimmicks. It’s just a razor. But they’re delivered to the doorstep every month, for less than we’d pay in the store.

Convenience over features.

This email, from the subject line through the body copy, stayed consistent with this message. That’s personalization. They didn’t need to use my name anywhere in the email. Instead, they know why I buy from them and use this to improve my experience and increase sales.

Now, this was a more general form of personalization. Most automation software enables you to collect more relevant, personal information on your customers and prospects. Not only should you be gathering information around buyer interests, behaviors, preferences, purchase history, and more, you should also be powering your personalization efforts with the insights you glean from it.


Your subscribers are viewing email on a variety of different apps and devices, each with its own rendering quirks that affect the way your email looks and performs.

These are challenges your marketing and design teams face.

From your customer’s standpoint, their challenge is that it may be really hard to read your email on mobile, or that your call-to-action isn’t “clickable” on whichever device they happen to be using. Or maybe it’s that some (or all) the images used are broken, or your links are broken or leading to the wrong page.

Poor user experience leads to frustration, which as shown in the opening, could also lead to declarations of spam.


While most marketers believe that what they produce and send is of value to their customers, in order to truly be of utility to your customers, you need to think in their terms rather than your own.

Besides using customer intelligence to segment your messaging (discussed earlier), White lists two other ways that email marketers can execute greater value and utility in their strategies: worthwhile and engaging messaging.


Discounts, deals, and buyer-related information are the number one reason people sign up for emails. This aligns perfectly with David Ogilvy’s summation that, more than anything, people care about saving money.

However, be careful as to use these motivations as a means to take advantage of your customers. As evidenced in the opening, many brands essentially hold their customers ransom with discounts and deals.

In other words, they follow the formula of “if you perform [x], we’ll allow you to save [y].”

Could it also be possible that “performing [x]” aligns with a buyer’s interests while also appealing to their motivation to save money? Sure. But be careful, as there’s a very thin line in appealing to a customer’s motivation and holding them ransom.


Chances are a sizeable portion—if not the majority—of your email list is not made up of customers, but prospects—prospects who are not yet ready to buy, but would benefit from educational materials that pertain to their specific needs and challenges.

Here’s where the intelligence you’ve gathered about your prospects—and the subsequent segmentation—come into play in order to deliver the right content to the right people. The “spray and pray” approach is not only less effective, it’s also less valuable to your subscribers.

You may find yourself sending multiple variations of an email, thus spreading your reach across several emails rather than one, in order to achieve this, but you may also find yourself with higher engagement as a result.

Email spam redefined

Your subscribers don’t think in terms of algorithms, they think in terms of relevance.

While ISP algorithms and content filtering are a critical component of ensuring your emails even make it to the inbox, your sender reputation and level of subscriber engagement are even more important when it comes to optimizing for the inbox.

It’s time marketers redefined how they define email spam, because their customers and prospects already have.

Make it to the inbox, not the spam folder

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