Let them eat Spam.
May 17, 2011 1:11 PM   Subscribe

My firm is about to send out a huge load of spam, thinking that they are "email marketing." I don't know how to stop it, or how hard I should try before I give up and sit back.

I am temp-to-perming for a small professional-services firm, just doing admin work. However, I am by far the most tech-savvy person working here (previously).

This firm, spearheaded by the “Marketing Manager” aka the boss’s wife who has been doing word-processing for the past 20 years, is embarking on its first attempt at “email marketing” by doing a “blast,” whereby they will send out an email to about 400 people that have never heard of us, with an attachment [groan] that is a PDF of our brochure. The subject of the email will be “Important information about your regulatory practices” or something. The recipients’ addresses will all be in the BCC field. I don’t know exactly where the names came from but it looks like the output of some kind of online database search. Lots of info@company.com’s.

I tried to bring this up. I tried to explain that sending unsolicited bulk email is spam. That there are laws about bulk commercial email. That spam is illegal. That if people mark this as spam, the firm’s domain will get blacklisted and they won’t be able to send email to people who want to receive mail from them. That they could get fined per email. That email is not like regular mail, and that you can’t just send out 1000 commercial things to strangers. That even if you could do this, no one is going to open an attachment from a stranger if it even gets through their junk filter.

Their solution is to only send to ten recipients at a time. But that I “don’t really know what I’m talking about.”

Does anyone have tips on how to successfully convince them that this is a Bad Idea? I understand this mostly intuitively but I don't know where the technical "lines" are between just emails to strangers and spam. How do I explain or hit this home to people who still use AOL?

And/or, when should I stop and say "they don't want to hear it/this is not my job" and just let go? I feel a sense of responsibility because I know something that they don't. And I will be the one hitting the bit red "send" button.
posted by thebazilist to Work & Money (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You're temp to perm? Doing admin work? Make sure you get to perm. You've said your piece. I wouldn't say much more about it.
posted by amicamentis at 1:12 PM on May 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

And I will be the one hitting the bit red "send" button.

Does this make you legally liable in some way? If yes, then I'd obviously refuse to do it. If no, I'd draw up a list of your objections in writing and then wash your hands of it unless you're prepared to quit.
posted by desjardins at 1:16 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're the one pressing the "send" button, and you're the most tech-savvy person there, you can probably just lie your way out of this. Don't send the spam, but say you did.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2011

And/or, when should I stop and say "they don't want to hear it/this is not my job" and just let go?

Now would be a good time to do that, honestly.

I feel a sense of responsibility because I know something that they don't.

Well, you have tried to convey to them what you know, and they don't want to listen. That is their fault and not yours.

And I will be the one hitting the bit red "send" button.

This is a pretty big deal to some people, and you have to decide how big a deal it is for you. I work at a place that also sends out some e-mail "blasts" that I think we ought not to send, and I have the ability (in the technical sense) to stop them if I want to. However, in our particular circumstances I can see that reasonable people can disagree with my point of view, so I stay out of it.

But I'm not the person actually sending out the e-mails. I decided a long time ago that if I was required to do that, I'd sooner quit than comply. If you feel that sending these e-mails would actually break the law, are you OK with following orders you feel are illegal or will you refuse? And will they fire you if you refuse?

I think you have to balance those decisions with the actual harm you feel is being done, and the legal risk to you (about which it might be smart to consult a lawyer to see if you're personally liable for anything if you send these). You may prefer not to send these messages, but can you live with yourself if you do? (Yes and no are both reasonable answers to that question, in my opinion.)
posted by FishBike at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can you at least make the BCC addresses into a group, so they won't be harvested? I think stressing about who hits the send button isn't worth the sweat.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:22 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is gonna crash and burn. Please make sure you're adhering to the CAN-SPAM act. That means a physical address in the footer, and a single-link opt-out. That's federal law, and the company will expose themselves to real liability for not doing at least that.
posted by Gilbert at 1:24 PM on May 17, 2011 [23 favorites]

My previous employer did a lot of this - 30,000 emails at a time. I made my opinion known, then never spoke of it again. The actual risk of legal consequence is low - the odds of them getting any business from it are just as low. Hopefully the lack of positive response, possibly coupled with a negative response or two, will make this a one time thing.

However, I would CYA in writing. In the remote chance there was a legal issue, you don't want to be the one tossed under the proverbial bus.
posted by COD at 1:25 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would refuse to send them. Here's a case where you're being asked to do something possibly illegal and definitely wrong. You've definitely made a good case so far; the only thing I can think is to point out to your bosses all the spam they get, and ask if they want to be part of the problem. Ask if they have ever once bought anything advertised via unsolicited email.

You probably won't get fired for refusing; nobody likes to fire someone.

Amicamentis said, "You're temp to perm? Doing admin work? Make sure you get to perm." This is not right, because there is no such thing as permanent employment. I'm a "permanent" employee -- not a contractor, not a temp, and I could be fired for any reason (modulo the usual protected class things) or none. If you were a "permanent" employee, you would be in exactly the same situation.
posted by novalis_dt at 1:27 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Christ, if you're the one hitting the "send" button, why not just tune them into MailChimp?

I think the biggest worry they have is getting blacklisted by their ISP.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:29 PM on May 17, 2011

Have you actually given them the text of the CAN-SPAM rules?
posted by SMPA at 1:31 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

To clarify, when identifying a problem, always try to identify a solution. And, on second thought, MailChimp probably won't work, because you'll need to have permission from everyone on the list before sending.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:31 PM on May 17, 2011

Will they be adhering to the rules of CAN-SPAM?
posted by rtha at 1:32 PM on May 17, 2011

Sadly, little of what you say will likely change their minds. However, here are some resources: Now *technically* if you send messages one at a time (I believe 10 is still considered bulk), it isn't spam. However, one of three things will happen:
  1. Someone else's spam filter will block the message and they won't see it.
  2. Their junk filter won't see it, it arrives in their inbox where they promptly ignore it because it isn't something they expected (in fact, in legitimate email campaigns only receive about a 5-10% open rate, and an even smaller click-through rate). (I'd expect an ignore rate of about 95%.)
  3. You'll piss a bunch of people who might have otherwise been interested in the service offered. I'd expect a piss-off rate of around 3-5%
  4. You'll get conversion rate of <1%.
(Don't bother with trying to put them into a mail campaign system such as Mailchimp, while you can bulk add into something like MailChimp, if they find out, your company will be permanently banned from using the service ever again.)
posted by thebestsophist at 1:42 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

This sounds like a battle that doesn't need to be picked. You can be happy, or you can be right....

Though you may want to rethink your potential "perm" status if the company politics don't jibe with yours, and you feel like you have a valid point that's not being considered....
posted by Debaser626 at 2:02 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay I guess the issue then is really two issues:

They will be breaking the law if they don't comply with CAN-SPAM, meaning they need to put in their physical address (easy), include an opt-out link (harder), and clearly label the email as an advertisement (probably impossible). But I can just find a CAN-SPAM for dummies and fork it over. The risk here is legal action and fines.

They will be going against standard practice by "blasting" people who have not opted in. What they are doing is like, the antithesis of the ToS of any MailChimp-type service. It doesn't seem like bulk-mailing unsolicited is actually against the law. But ISPs will not take kindly to it and it could ruin their reputation.

I am most tempted by Faint of Butt's suggestion. "Weeeeiiiird.... I wonder why it didn't send!!! Sometimes Outlook is sooo confuuuusing, amirite? Maybe you should call up our email provider and ask them why our bulk message-with-attachment to 400 email addresses that you scraped didn't go through, they'll probably have some good advice."

And yeah, this is just one of many straws on the perm-not-likely-camel's back.
posted by thebazilist at 2:12 PM on May 17, 2011

And I will be the one hitting the bit red "send" button.

Does this mean your own name and email address will appear in the "From" and "Reply-to" header fields? If so, I would either refuse to do this, or figure out a way for them to do it so that someone else's email address appears in the header.

If you're just the one hitting the Send button for a generic company account, and you've expressed your reservations about this in writing, I wouldn't sweat it. But I am not sure I would want to work for these folks, either.
posted by aught at 2:15 PM on May 17, 2011

No, definitely not my own email address. I just meant that it will be harder for me to pretend this isn't happening and stop stressing over it if I'm the one physically executing it.
posted by thebazilist at 2:16 PM on May 17, 2011

Also, yes, as thebestsophist says, the conversion rate for this is going to be microscopically small, possibly zero. Net-naive people never seem to understand this, even as they complain about the spam they get in their own email accounts. (I think it's the "FREE" aspect of email as an ad delivery device that blinds them to all else.) Even if one sends to an opt-in list of established clients regarding something you think they would be excited about (I have partial responsibility for this at my company), it's hard to get much response to marketing email.
posted by aught at 2:20 PM on May 17, 2011

As long as your concerns about this have been made known, and in writing, then it's probably best for you to just go ahead and do what they ask.

You're right, they're wrong. But they run the company. Let them do it and try not to gloat later when they see the consequences.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:22 PM on May 17, 2011

You've got lots of excellent information here. I recommend you assume a Super-Helpful Concerned about the Company, Gee-Whiz attitude. "Madame Marketer, I'm awful concerned that our email might get blocked and we might miss some extra-super-important emails, oh my!" "I'm soooo impressed with your madd crazy marketing prowess, and I want to be sure this campaign goes sooooo well."

They are lucky to have you, and not smart enough to know it.
posted by theora55 at 2:42 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Realistically, I would expect a 0 percent conversion rate and a very high spam filter rate. Hell, I don't even know anyone who reads info@company.com, and assume people who do read it use crazy aggressive spam filtering. If, for some reason, you don't think the spam filter will catch it, you can always make some "helpful suggestions." You can also appeal to a higher authority, like the legal dept. I mean, if legal says you're wrong, at that point I figure liability's now their problem. But I'm assuming there's no such person your small firm regularly consults with.
posted by pwnguin at 3:05 PM on May 17, 2011

You want to manage your boss! Unfortunately, the most productive thing you can do when your boss has a very bad idea is get behind it. Make it better. You're not going to be able to stop it happening. The decision has been made and it's now written in stone, alas. So don't bring up the problems, suggest some solutions.

In this case you could talk to the "marketing manager" and tell her that you're interested in this form of marketing. You're the "techy" one, afterall, so it makes sense. Say that you'd appreciate being able to have more input on this, such as designing the email and the process for sending it. Say that you've been reading up on it (which I believe you have, right?) and ways to make it more effective and keeping within the legal requirements. And then actually read up on it and try and make it more effective (and legal, obvs).

I don't know if you have the time/inclination/energy for this approach. But if so, you'd be surprised at how rewarding it can be. Not only is this sort of thing resume gold, but it could help you with your move from temp to perm. (Depending on your boss! Is this someone who is going to blame you when your brilliant spam doesn't result in any business? If it's the type of place where it's better not to be noticed, perhaps just keep your head down) AND even better, it's not just good on the resume, it'll probably be useful stuff to know.
posted by coffeepot at 3:27 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mailchimp's "Resources" page has a bunch of very well-organized, easy-to-understand pdfs that go over the various aspects of email marketing - these were what made me start to worry about spamming when I was in a similar position at my firm, and they gave me clear info to bring to my boss.

In particular:
Common Rookie Mistakes
Warning Signs That Your Client Is Spamming

And if you want to take the above suggestion and try to turn the project around, you can get an awful lot done within the bounds of their free plan, with the bonus of actually being able to track the email list, who opened/clicked, etc. to use for future campaigns.
posted by ella wren at 4:15 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

As long as your concerns about this have been made known, and in writing, then it's probably best for you to just go ahead and do what they ask.

Just following orders is not a defense.
posted by gjc at 4:27 PM on May 17, 2011

Doing this might be a violation of the terms of their contract with their ISP - I'd check that. The ISP doesn't want disreputable e-mail messages sent through their server. If they're using a web-based e-mail account, it might be against those contract terms as well.

However, the most compelling argument might be, "Do you want potential customers to think our company is on the same level as a fake Viagra distributor, or [more disturbing common spam subject]?"

Finally, I'd strongly recommend against lying or pretending incompetence. If you have to lie to keep this job, maybe you could do better somewhere else.
posted by amtho at 6:08 PM on May 17, 2011

>tell her that you're interested in this form of marketing. You're the "techy" one, afterall, so it makes sense. Say that you'd appreciate being able to have more input on this, such as designing the email and the process for sending it.

Print up the relevant CAN-SPAM clauses, underlining the important points, then sit down with the marketing manager. Walk through them, one by one, all the while praising her expertise... and asking her to "explain" what the various provisions you're pointing out "mean... in a legal sense. I might want to do something similar at some point, but this line here seems to say to me, 'DO THIS, AND YOU'RE GOING TO GET SUED'."
posted by darth_tedious at 6:15 PM on May 17, 2011

As someone who has worked with an app designed to send email to people who signed up for a service, I can tell you that it is incredibly easy to get your domain/IP blacklisted for spamming. We ran into trouble just testing html format emails; the subject line and attachment on yours sounds like it will trigger red flags for sure.

The penalties of being blacklisted include: no one receiving your blast email as it gets spam-binned; spam-binning can lead to being added to a local blacklist (one company) or even make its way to the master blacklists used by the big email clients and many companies, meaning no one in your company could ever be sure that any email they sent was going to be received.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:07 PM on May 17, 2011

"Dear boss: I want to be helpful in our marketing efforts, because we make good products/services and it's a great way forme to put my technical skills to use for the company. Unfortunately, my research into our current plan reveals a few key tweaks we need to make:

* We'll need to use a professional delivery service like MailChimp. Using our current system will result in our messages not being delivered, future messages maybe not being sent, and can even affect our ability to receive mail.
* Our current plan to send messages to people who haven't opted to receive them violates the CAN-SPAM law; Here's a good look at our legal liability there. Since I'd be the one sending this, I of course will follow your direction if you want me to do it anyway, but would just need you to acknowledge in writing that this was your order, as I'm sure you understand since I'm just a temp.
* Finally, I'm concerned about the measurability and effectiveness of this strategy: You know the old adage "you can't fix what you can't measure?" Well, sending these things manually means we don't even know if someone got the message, let alone looked at it -- why, we might as well be advertising in the yellow pages! Let's do this the high tech way, using a real email sender. That way, we'll know how many people got it, how many read it, and we could even track how many clicked through or became customers! It'd really fit the vision your wife had.

Please let me know the best way to check these items off so that we can get to drumming up new business!"
posted by anildash at 7:19 PM on May 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, I've been in your exact position! I was a temp to perm admin and my boss (the head of a small firm, and a guy who never listened to anyone despite his proud ignorance of everything) decided he wanted to do email marketing. Unlike you, CAN-SPAM wasn't in effect and I didn't have access to services like MailChip (yeah, this was the dark ages), but I did recognize that we were going to piss off lot of customers if we sent attachments and didn't have a system in place to guarantee that when someone unsubscribed, we never sent them email again. Initially, I too was in charge of nothing but pressing the "send" button.

How I handled it:
- Gathered support from people more knowledgable than myself (many in this thread have suggested excellent resources).
- Instead of going directly to my boss, I went to the one person at my organization my boss actually listened to on occasion.
- Made actionable suggestions in terms that were familiar to him already. For example, does your firm do mailings? Do they do split testing? For the PDF attachment, I suggested that we do a test: half with the contents of the PDF in the email, and half with the PDF attachment. Turned out, we only got responses from people who didn't get a mostly blank email with a pdf attached. (shocking, I know!) They also did a lot of faxing at the time and had systems in place for fax marketing that I could use to say, "You know how we do X with faxes? Well, let's do the same thing with emails."

Anyway, the final outcome was that people gave us their money, we gave them our service, and I got permeant employment as a marketing assistant, so me-mail me if you'd like more details.
posted by lesli212 at 7:47 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

What they need to do is sign up with a service like Constant Contact. It costs a monthly fee, and ensures deliverability of their emails, plus ensures that they will be complying with the law.

Constant Contact will provide the CYA that the company needs. It will also automate a lot of stuff that they can't right now (like unsubscribe requests). And it will prevent them from being blacklisted by their ISP, as they surely will.

Especially if "someone" were to put a throwaway Gmail account on the subscriber list, and then immediately forward their spam to the company's ISP, along with an angry note. Call it the "carrot and stick" approach. ISPs are usually pretty quick to shut this kind of thing down.

And faced with the dreadful possibility of having to pay like twenty bucks for the ability to send their spam? Most companies back down from that plan. They know their conversion rates will be awful, but they see no reason NOT to spam, as long as it's free to them.

If you really want to be a superstar, work out a way to host the PDF online, and include a link to it in the email. Or a link to "click here to request a copy of our PDF," and then you email it to them.
posted by ErikaB at 9:58 PM on May 17, 2011

Thanks for the sanity boost, everyone. I think I’m just going to email a link to CAN-SPAM so they can informedly choose whether to at least comply with that, and then mentally check out.

The frustrating part is that even if I could convince them that there are better methods of sending out this email—emailing a link to the PDF, signing up with a service to ensure compliance and track success, etc etc etc etc—Constant Contact and MailChimp are for managing your opt-in list of people who have solicited your mail. They would not touch this list with a ten-foot pole. The entire approach is untenable because it will always be unsolicited and therefore spam, even if they comply with CAN-SPAM. And I don’t think they want to hear that you can’t email your brochure to strangers because that is their entire “marketing strategy for new business” right now.

And please stop tempting me with devious and passive-aggressive ways to get my "I told you so" on.

Especially if "someone" were to put a throwaway Gmail account on the subscriber list...
posted by thebazilist at 7:36 AM on May 18, 2011

And/or, when should I stop and say "they don't want to hear it/this is not my job" and just let go? I feel a sense of responsibility because I know something that they don't.

Five minutes ago. And chances are that you know a lot of things that other people don't. That doesn't mean you should force that knowledge on them.

You're right. That combined with $3.50 will buy you a latte. There's two productive things you can do here. One, examine whether you made your case in the most productive way. Coffeepot mentions managing your boss. You can improve your life, long term, if you look back at this and question whether you could have approached this a different way. Did they need ego-stroking? More facts and less judgment? Fewer facts and more emotional appeal? You'll almost always have to deal with people who outrank you proposing actions you don't necessarily want to do. Improving dealing with that will serve you well.

Two, listen to what they're telling you: exactly how much they respect the value of your opinion & expertise and what kind of a place they are. Maybe that opinion can be improved or maybe these are self-centered bozos who figure if they want to do it then it must be good. I'd bet on the second but you're the one who is there. Maybe this is a big fat warning sign that you need to look for somewhere else to go or at least work on not getting yourself associated with their sleaze. Be careful about that - you do not want to be in an interview in four years and have someone say "Oh, you worked _there_?"

These people are showing you exactly what they want from you as an employee. It may not be a good use of your skills or a smart choice on their part but it's what they want. Manage it to the best you can but it's their job to define.
posted by phearlez at 12:35 PM on May 18, 2011

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