Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Using Unsolicited Email for Marketing

I recently got (yet another) email from "photoshelter.com" with the subject:

Operation Photo Rescue Uses PhotoShelter In Their Quest To Preserve Images Nearly Lost In Hurricane Katrina

I found it in my spam folder, and I would have not even paid attention to it if it weren't for the keyword "photo" in the subject. The reason it was in my spam folder is because my mail filtering software (something that just about everyone has, whether they know it or not) identified several characteristics about it. I use spamassassin (www.spamassassin.org), and it's configured to notice (among many other things) that the subject had the first letter of each word capitalized. This particular trigger scored it over the top, but there were other characteristics as well. Sometimes, it's a little thing--like the use of HTML in email (plain text is always safest), or the use of images in emails (which rank much higher).

I emailed the guy who sent it (Grover Sanschagrin) saying that he was playing with fire by sending unsolicited emails in this day and age. I had assumed his response was going to be, "oh, you're right!" After all, everyone is aware of the problem as a whole. But in this case, his response was, "You run a blog about the photo industry, and you list your email address. I don't think that's too much of a stretch."

What I hadn't considered are those who put together very specific and targeted mailing lists, using hand-picked addresses rather than skimmed from forum postings and the like that most spammers do. But, even these direct-contact messages still get tagged.

Most of the people he's trying to reach may not even see it if the recipients use spam filters. But worse, Bayesian algorithms look at the nature of the messages, and the frequency and size of the distribution of those that are scored, which raises their scores even higher. As you send more and more email, you may reach a certain threshold where your email address and/or IP address and/or domain name begin to be added to spam blacklists, which disseminate this information to many other blacklists. Those other blacklists can begin to creep into web blacklists, which are used by some companies to filter out content, ranging from ads to the site itself if the score gets high enough.

Clearly, photoshelter.com isn't in bad shape yet, but it is listed by two (out of about 20 that I checked), so the cavity has penetrated the enamel. For more info on how to check your domain, where to check, what to do, and what NOT to do, do a google search for "spam blacklist."

Running an opt-in mailing list seems like it's a good idea for sending info to your adoring fan base. In fact, I do just that: I only send email to those that specifically signed up to get mail. But, there's still a problem. Those people that sign up don't add me to their address book or spam filter's "white list." So, when I send mail, many of those people's filters examine my message and note that I'm unknown to them. That's ok for many addresses, but new email filters block *all* messages, and send auto-responders back to the sender, requiring them (me, in this case) to reply to the email (or click on a link) to verify that I'm the owner of the mail (to know it isn't spam). The problem is, I can't reply to each and every one of those; it's too time-consuming. If I don't, my mail is therefore tagged as spam, and my rankings go up. So, I use my mailing list less and less these days-- about once or twice a year, tops. Even now I'm considering dropping it all together.

Marketing yourself is clearly very difficult. And though it had been well established years ago that unsolicited emails do more harm than good for your reputation, it's even more critical to avoid the practice at all costs in today's environment. I appreciate that it's hard to get noticed in a tough industry, but unsolicited emails can really damage your cause more than you know.