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Are You Frightened of Spiders, Miss Muffet?

By Kristin Gambill and Christy Crews

Originally Posted

Are spiders doomed to a rep worse than spam, or are they perhaps the unsung heroes of email marketing? Wait a minute . . . what do arachnids have to do with email marketing anyway?

I’m going to assume that, if you are any kind of self-respecting Web denizen, you are familiar with email marketing. After all, who hasn’t received hundreds of ads for "Bigger Breasts in Just Hours!" or "View my Kinky Web Cam … Today’s Feature: Hung Dwarves!!"? As a professional, you understand that email marketing is expected to grow into a $2.2 billion industry by the end of next year (eMarketer), because email campaigns -- especially targeted campaigns -- are a quick, cost-effective way to spread the word about your company, your cause, your products. Sending out bulk email is easy. However, if you’ve ever done an email campaign, you are also aware of just how difficult and costly it can be to get your hands on the email address lists you really need. By now, you’ve probably discovered that there are essentially two ways to get lists: Buy one or build your own. Sitting on Your Tuffet, Searching for the Right List There’s a pimp on every corner of the Web wanting to sell you an email list for a little curds and whey. The big problem is, these pimps want to get their money’s worth. So, many of the lists they’re offering have been "around the block" more times than a $3 hooker. By the time you purchase one of their email lists, the recipients have been exposed to so many messages so many times that they’re too numb to notice you, no matter how stimulating you -- or your message -- are. If the list targets an audience that's good for you, you may get a response, but it would be limp at best. A stiffer response is experienced by using a fresh list. Virgin is even better. Another problem with purchased lists is that today’s Internet users change email addresses as often as I hear last call. As a result, purchased lists that aren’t continuously maintained are loaded with addresses as bad as the pickup lines I shoot down at bars. You can spend thousands on a campaign with a perfect offer and great creative, only to have as many as 50 percent of the addresses you thought were good bounce like Pamela Anderson’s implants. Anyway, few lists are as targeted as you need them to be. After all, do you really want to send your information out to a list of "Good-Looking Men," when the recipients could be gay, straight, bi, trans, prisoners, priests, polygamous, or otherwise? No, you want specific, and there aren’t a lot of list brokers out there that can fulfill that fantasy. Maybe buying a list isn’t the solution you were looking for. Let’s consider building. And along came a spider… If your organization has plenty of time, money, and patience, you can organically grow your internal list using techniques like contests or newsletter sign-ups. But, if you need a big list now (and doesn’t everyone need it big and now?), then you may want to consider spidering for email addresses. Spidering involves using special software to extract email addresses from select Web sites, search engines, databases, or discussion groups. The software is readily available from literally hundreds of online sources; with most, you can focus the target of the addresses you collect, not only by site selection, but also with built-in filters. For instance, using the filters you can collect only .edu addresses, exclude AOL addresses, or collect addresses only from the "Contacts" or "Members" pages of a site. Spidering programs are relatively inexpensive and, for non-morons, the programs are pretty easy to use. Sounds too good to be true…what’s the catch?

Spider Pros

  • Price. Generally speaking, email spiders range in price from free to $400.00. Similar to booze, you pay for quality, ingredients, and ease of use. Since you can collect an unlimited number of email addresses with them, spiders are relatively inexpensive compared to the alternative of purchasing a list. With a list rental budget of $400.00, you’d receive one-time usage of only about 2,500 names.

  • Useful Addresses. With the high number of undeliverable addresses found in most purchased lists, as many as 50 percent of the 2,500 names you just purchased for $400.00 might be unusable. Some of the more sophisticated spidering programs automatically test email addresses as they gather them. They also may have the capacity to auto-correct typos in the email address by searching for a standard ending (e.g., .com, .org, .net) and adding a default (e.g., .com) if nothing is present. Email campaigns sent to spidered addresses still will experience some returned addresses, of course. But, the percentage usually is much smaller than with purchased lists. And, since you are paying a flat fee to purchase the software, versus paying per one-time use of each name, you can always quickly and easily gather more addresses at any time.

  • Ease and Efficiency. As mentioned earlier, anyone capable of turning on a computer without assistance will find email spiders relatively easy to use. If you can use an Internet browser and have basic spreadsheet and word-processing skills, you have the incredible level of talent required to spider email addresses and prepare them for use. In addition, the spider can be set to extract addresses from a site using the parameters you set, while you minimize the screen and work on other tasks. Kind of like drinking beer while writing your marketing message: You get more done by multi-tasking.

  • Reaching the Right People. Spiders allow you to collect very targeted email address lists. If you want to send an email marketing campaign to the presidents of all trade associations based in Texas, photographers in Philadelphia, or bar owners in Boston, your list could be constructed with relative ease and be pretty complete using email harvesting software. A similar list -- even an incomplete version -- probably is not available for purchase.

Spider Cons

  • Against Site Use Policy. Using an email extractor is in no way against any Federal or State law. However, extracting email addresses from some sites -- especially those that give you access to rich databases -- may be against the Terms of Use posted on the site. For example, if you wanted to spider all the email addresses from the IABC site, there would be no problem, because they have no posted Terms of Use. However, if you wanted to spider the Marriott site, you may be in violation of their Terms of Use.

  • Shady Area. Sending direct email messages, newsletters, or any other sort of electronic communication to the names gathered with email spidering software is, legally, a little gray. If your information is relevant to the group and you have given recipients an easy way to opt out of your list, you have taken ethical steps that are huge factors in establishing the legality of your message. For example, if you use email harvesting technology to build a random database of millions of addresses to which you then send emails touting "XXX Knockers" and "Bar Sluts 2002," without providing list removal instructions, you clearly are breaking the law. However, if you send a message to a group spidered from a local art lovers discussion group about a new Picasso exhibit at your city’s premier art museum, and you prominently promote how they can remove themselves from your mailing list, than not only are you not violating any laws, but it is legitimate to argue that you are providing a service. Of course, even if you do backflips to make sure your message is legal, some marketers will always consider these mailings unethical, so caveat emptor.

  • Current and Pending Spam Laws. Currently, no Federal laws prohibit spam, although several bills are pending. Nineteen U.S. states have some type of anti-spam law. Most states with such laws make it illegal to send bulk email messages with falsified routing information, without removal instructions, or without accurate contact information. However, these laws only apply to email messages sent to residents of the state from servers physically residing in that state.

  • Mixed Messages. At Cnet, an article on building a newsletter into your Web site tells readers:

    Of course, there are other, quicker -- but less ethical -- ways to build up your subscriber base. You could spider the Web, collecting all the published email addresses that you can find, and add them to your subscriber list without notifying anyone. Needless to say, those people did not choose your list.

While this article denounces the use of spidering technology to create email marketing lists, I was able to find 12 spider software programs offered for download in another section of the same web site! So, even a well-respected industry site like cnet sends mixed messages about their stance on the use of spiders, kind of like the signals you’re getting off of that guy you met last night at the bar.

You may be wondering, if using the list of spidered names is at best considered unethical and at worst against the law, why are there literally hundreds of software programs that gather email addresses from web sites? As one software developer explained to me: "Just because companies manufacture radar detectors and consumers buy them in droves, that doesn’t make speeding legal." Confused yet? Hold on to your tuffet and join me next time, when I baffle you more with the legal and ethical issues related raised by The Spider.

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