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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 18:10 GMT
Junk e-mail eradicated? e-Christmas card
Viral marketing sugars the advertising pill
By BBC News Online's Brian Wheeler

Most e-mail users throw their hands up in horror at the thought of spam, the online equivalent of junk mail.

The average net user starts each day by ploughing through an inbox full of irritating, unsolicited and often highly offensive messages.

Ad agencies are taking online marketing very seriously indeed, despite the recent situation on the stock market

Hamish Pringle, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising
It is currently thought that around 10% of the world's e-mail traffic is made of spam.

But the online marketing industry, which generates most of these unwanted messages, is trying to clean up its act.

Viral marketing

Increasingly sophisticated software is allowing marketers to target their message more carefully.

And the growth of viral marketing, where consumers actively collude in spreading the advertiser's message, is seen as an example of creativity winning over indiscriminate bombardment.

If you have ever sent an e-mail from a commercial service provider, such as hotmail, or downloaded a screensaver from a company website, you have taken part in a viral marketing campaign.

If there are people in the market who are spamming it doesn't help anyone

Aileen Hannah, marketing director
By passing the message on you have been doing the advertiser's job for them.

The chances are that, in the process, you will have given out your e-mail address or answered a series of questions on everything from your income bracket to what football team you support.

All information which will be stored away and used in future attempts to sell you things.


Aileen Hannah, European marketing manager at e-marketing software house NewWorld, whose clients include software giant Oracle and brewer Heineken, believes an end to spamming is long overdue.

"From our point of view, we would like to get more control over how the medium is being used," she says.

Viral marketing or...
Avalanche marketing
Buzz marketing
Centrifugal marketing
Referral marketing
Ripple marketing
Wildfire marketing
"If there are people in the market who are spamming it doesn't help anyone.

"We go for a permission-based ethos, which gives people the opportunity to opt-in rather than making them opt-out," she adds.

The European Commission is working towards legislation to make opt-in boxes compulsory.


But some companies are finding other ways of getting their message across.

"There is a murky area of the industry, where people infiltrate chat rooms and bulletin boards," says Hamish Pringle, director of marketing strategy at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

"Some companies hire squads of students - not very well paid, but internet literate - to seed every relevant web site and bulletin board with links to promotional sites."

Such tactics are an example of the marketing industry's ceaseless struggle to breach the defences of the jaded consumer.

They are also part of a wider move from broadcast advertising and are tailored to particular interest groups or individuals.

"Companies are taking online marketing very seriously indeed, despite the recent situation on the stock market.

"They are beavering away behind the scenes on new ideas and more ingenious ways of getting the message across, in preparation for the introduction of broadband.

"There is a belief in the industry that the demographic for internet use will very quickly match that for television," Mr Pringle adds.

But there will always be limitations.

One of the most over-used terms in the ad industry is 'relationship marketing', the idea of keeping up regular and detailed dialogue with potential customers.

Jargon buster
Viral marketing - inducing consumers to pass on a marketing message
Permission marketing - persuading consumers to sign up to a mailing list or offer
Spam - unsolicited e-mail

Relationship marketing

"Relationship marketing is very difficult, costly and time-consuming and very easy to get wrong," says Mr Pringle.

"It makes more sense to target interest groups rather than individuals," he adds.

Mr Pringle believes the growth of online marketing could even help traditional direct marketing clean up its act.

"The marginal cost of mailing an extra few thousand people is negligible. That's why most direct mail continues to be fairly indiscriminate.

"It is all done on the basis of response levels, which are rarely more than 1%. Nobody ever talks about what happens to the other 98.5% that don't get a reply.

"With the internet, the capital cost is so much lower, so you can really get into careful targeting.

"It might wake the industry up to the benefits of targeting."

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See also:

30 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Shares scam spammer jailed
09 Sep 00 | UK
Text messaging grows up
28 Jun 00 | Talking Point
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