The History of Spam in Marketing

“Two years from now, spam will be solved” – Bill Gates, 2004.

A virtually unregulated space, the Internet is ripe with individuals and companies skirting the gray area of marketing best practices. Log in online and within a few short minutes you’re sure to be exposed to spam. Whether it’s in your inbox or DMs, it won’t take long for you to be barraged with failed spammy marketing attempts.

A myriad of spam types exist today, including email, social media, search engine, and more. In spite of Bill Gates’ prediction, the problem of electronic junk mailings and postings certainly hasn’t been solved. If anything, it has gotten worse.

In this article we’ll dive in a bit deeper to the history of spam and what some countries are doing today to crack down on this expensive and time-consuming marketing gray area.

History of Spam Nomenclature & Early Examples

  • What is spam?

Electronic spamming is the act of using electronic messaging platforms to send unsolicited messages (spam). Often, spam is advertising sent repeatedly for the same site. The most widely recognized type of electronic spam is email spam, but the term can also be used to describe search engine spam, social media spam, mobile app spam, spam on blogs, wiki spam, forum spam, and many more.

  • Where did the word “spam” come from?

The act of sending unsolicited messages in the 20th century was named after “Spam,” a food product that is stereotypically thought of as being disliked by many. Distributed by Hormel and sold around the globe, Spam is precooked and canned spiced ham (thus the abbreviation “Spam”), and was first introduced in 1937. The analogy was also inspired by a Monty Python sketch about a menu that includes Spam in every dish. The reference is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying electronic spam is ubiquitous, undesirable, and unwanted.

  • What was spam like in the early days?

Advertising spam didn’t start in the 20th century; it actually started well before the 1900s. However, prior to the 1970s, this type of spam didn’t have a name. One of the first reported cases was in the form of a telegram from London dentist Messrs. Gabriel. In May of 1864. the company sent unsolicited messages to members of British Parliament to let them know the dental office would be open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. through October. A recipient was so outraged at having received the advertisement that he sent it to the editor of The Times of London to complain, as seen in the image below. The first case of spam going viral? Quite possibly. Thousands of Londoners saw the letter in the newspaper, a not-so-easy feat at the time.

Types of Spam in Marketing

As today’s consumers, we are masters at quickly recognizing advertisements. Whether it’s a product sponsorship in your favorite show or a sponsored ad on Facebook, you can intuitively spot it from a mile away. But how keenly trained is your eye for identifying spam? Let’s unpack a few of the most prevalent types of online marketing spam.

Email Marketing Spam

One of the first and most common online spamming tactics are unsolicited emails. We can thank Mr. Gary Thuerk, of Digital Equipment Corp., for the very first unsolicited mass email. In 1978, to promote a new computer model, Thuerk sent out an email via ARPANET (the precursor to the Internet) to 393 users who had not opted in to the advertisement. Thurek’s tactics were responsible for selling quite a few computers but also earned him the moniker “Father of Spam”.

As email has evolved, so have the methods and strategies used by online marketers and publicists. The mid-1990s were ripe with marketers testing the waters to see what could be done, until technologies were adapted to filter out most spam. Still, today, nearly 86% of the world’s email traffic is from unsolicited junk mail, according to Bloomberg. Small batch attacks beat more sophisticated email filters, continuing to account for billions of unsolicited emails sent daily.

Spam in Search & Content Marketing

Next in the spam “popularity” standings is spam aimed at affecting search engine rankings and content marketing efforts. Garnering a #1 ranking for a highly competitive keyword, even for a day, can be extremely lucrative for some websites. Often this type of spam is done in the following forms:

  • Site scraping and duplicate content: Malicious sites will build programs to crawl and index content on a website, repost all of that content, and host it on their own websites. In essence, they are replicating a site without permission and doing so for their own benefit.
  • Link building: This is a commonly known tactic to help improve rankings, but when it’s done incorrectly it can be seen as spam. Links obtained by paying for them, via blog networks, in excess (or through unnatural ways), on forums or in comments, and forced on a site via injected code, are all examples of links being used as spam.
  • Low-quality content: A site that publishes content on a regular basis which is not viewed by visitors, is not deemed useful, or is not well written or otherwise is of lower quality, can be considered spam to some within the marketing community. (This is a subjective categorization, of course).
  • Referrer: A site that sends spam traffic to your site and visits that are bots and not real humans are deemed ”referral spam.”

Paid Advertising Spam

  • Pay-Per-Click fraud: Ads where businesses pay for each user who clicks are called Pay-Per-Click ads. A common way for spamming or fraud to occur with PPC involves false clicks. Click fraud happens when the company selling the advertising pays “fake” users to click on ads. These are users who have no interest in the advertising. This is done in an effort to increase the cost to the end advertiser.

Imagine all the extra costs if your PPC ads are clicked on by users not intending to purchase your product! Click fraud can seriously affect your performance; it’s definitely something you should look out for. Learn how to identify click fraud in this article.

Social Media Spam

Even the most well-intentioned marketers could be guilty of spamming their audience. Sure, some common tactics are fine in the long run. But when you overdo it, that’s when a good marketing strategy can go awry. Are you guilty of spamming your social followers? Check out some of these common marketing tactics gone bad:

Good Marketing

Gone Bad

Liking and following prospective customer accounts Going on a spree to “like” any and all accounts, simply so they will follow or like you back.
Sending DMs to your followers thanking them for following you Auto DMing followers’ promotions and specials, thank yous, and links multiple times a day
Asking your customers to review your business on Yelp Asking employees, friends, and customers to set up fake accounts to review your business multiple times on the same website
Sending out messages and status updates promoting your products and services Multiple duplicate self-serving advertisements as status updates, paying fake users to retweet, share, or repost your self-serving content duplicates
Thanking a new connection on LinkedIn for connecting Sending unsolicited LinkedIn InMail messages asking for endorsements, reviews, or business referrals
Using hashtags and tagging to promote your clients, partnerships, employees, and others online Tagging other accounts on messages that promote your business or products, simply to try to garner attention
Comment and provide feedback on an article or blog post Comment self-serving promotional items on an article or blog not relevant to your company or business

Mitigating & Stopping Spam

With commercial spam so prevalent online, what is being done to mitigate it? Some countries have backed legislation preventing and penalizing companies and individuals who participate in malicious and nefarious spam tactics. People or organizations caught disobeying rules and regulations can get fined thousands of dollars if they don’t comply.

Canada’s Anti Spam Legislation has made global headlines, setting an example for other countries aiming to reduce the effect spam has on their infrastructure and economy. Much more needs to be done, however, to help raise awareness and put an end to spam online. Countries like Germany, France, Japan, and others are at the forefront of helping to end spam for good.

Many hidden expenses are associated with spam, burdening many companies and individuals and costing them both time and hard-earned cash. It’s no wonder countries are doing what they can to adopt and enforce legislation to address the nasty consequences spam can have.

Tips to Prevent Spam 

As a consumer, there are a few things you can do to avoid falling victim to spam. First, it’s important to stay up to date on the latest spam trends and tactics. Read anti-spam resources, promote responsible net commerce, and check out the top tools to prevent and maintain spam.

Will spam ever stop? It’s not likely it will disappear entirely, but you can work to reduce its effect on your business now that you’re armed with more information about it.

Here are some valuable resources in the fight against spam:

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