Friday, February 29, 2008

Spamming the spammers



There has to be an easier way to remove your name from a company's database. We've all done it - absent mindedly give out your address while engaging in a low level transation with some shop or other. In this particular example that has me riled, I was getting some new grips put on my golf clubs, at the cost of about £20 at the Sunbury Outlet of AmericanGolf - a fairly large chain of golf shops that seems to have nothing to do with America. Anyway, I signed up for the club card for future discounts at the shop, but was assured I wouldn't be contacted. However, since then have been receiving the general marketing crap by both email and post - colourful yet anodyne brochures and emails.

Since I seem to be unable to remain in one place longer than a few months, I am deeply wary about giving out my home address to marketers. Not only do I inflict annoyance on the next inhabitant of the flat for years after the original post office redirect has run out, I stand the chance of occasionally missing something that I might like, and also needlessly wasting resources and paper etc. I'd love to know how much of a company's mailings of this type are to the wrong address, or if the right address are unwanted. I suspect more than half. And that's a whole lot of global warming and lost profits.

So back to the story. I unsubscribed fairly painlessly from the emails from American Golf, but getting my name of the mailing list for their brochure fluff has been a tragi comedy. The phone number on the brochure only ends up at a store locator. So I phoned up the original store I went to and asked them to remove me. The confused sounding guy cautiously said OK, and I didn't expect it to work. It didn't - the fluff continued to come. Having just received another one I was getting really annoyed, so went to their website, searched around a bit, found another number that seemed to be more about general company enquiries, phoned it up, spoke to a nice lady, she said hang on a minute, and passed me over to another department, and a nice chap in this department said, yes, he could do that for me, did i have my membership number. No, of course not, but he was able to locate me by postcode, and then with so authentication model in place to prove i am who i am (confirmation if any was needed of the low value of these transactions), said i'd no longer receive mailings.

Will it work? I hope so - the guy sounded fairly sane.
Do I want to have to do this detective work for every company that i might someday have a relationship with? No, absolutely not.

What we've got here is a broken process for managing the distribution of my contact details and the ability for me to update my preferences for receiving marketing information from different companies.

There seem to be four approaches to this:

1. Distributed permanent addresses:
This is the status quo today. Quickly becomes inefficient as the contact information gets out of date, or my preferences change.

2. Distributed temporary contacts
This works ok for email - I could have given them an email stephen_americangolf@stephenjohnston.info for example, and then delete that email when i don't want to subscribe. But this quickly gets hard to remember who you said you were to whom, and doesn't solve the problem that they're still sending out spam emails ineffectively. This could work for a phone number, but they're expensive to do using the telco world, so would need to have some kind of web based system like Jaxtr. Again not easy to manage. Could in theory work for physical addresses, but harder to manage since you end up with physical not just digital backlog once you stop using that address yourself.

3. Aggregator
This means that one company keeps the contacts details and preferences of lots of people. I can then manage my contacts details on their site and the companies can go and get information about me - depending on whether i've granted them permission. Lots of heavy engineering, data servers etc to manage that system, and then the user control & management piece. Plaxo is the start of something like this, but doesn't seem to be moving to the B2B direction yet.

4. Distributed
This means that I have the list of my contacts and who gets to see them under my own control - either hosted by me on a server or on a trusted 3rd party site. (Certain similarities to openID here, except that this is not just about identity abut about relationships. Does OpenID2.0 and OAuth take us further here I wonder?) There shouldn't be any reason why i can't have multiple locations to store my things - so i could use Fodor's to manage my favourite hotels, Zagats for my favourite restaurants and Bloomingdales for my favourite clothes companies. I could go to their sites and say - ok, am fed up with receiving Ralph Lauren catalogues but happy to have a closer relationship with Gant. And then my inbox would respond accordingly. This would probably require a certain amount of standardization in approach, or it could be done at a sector level (all restaurants adopt a marketing outreach format from Zagats). In theory this could be completely distributed, with some kind of web protocol (XML) sitting between me and the companies that i like and informing them of the information that i am permitting them to have access to, and the appropriate way to contact me.

One of the elements of a distributed approach could be the creation of a people-generated company address book, to turn the tables on the companies who are great at getting hold of our information but seem strangely opaque about giving out their own. This Wiki White Pages could be a rich resource of company contact information, what tones to press on the IVR to quickly get through to British Airwarys or what the name and mobile number of the CEO of that company you're receiving spam from is. Then if you consistently get annoying material from a company that does not sign up to this system automatically, you can return the favour and send multiple requests to their CEO to stop spamming you. Should get the point across quite quickly.

Is option 4 a pipedream? Something like this seems to be increasingly important with the growing eco-awareness, antipathy towards waste and need for better ROI on marketing campaigns and also increasingly feasible with the arrival of web standards and a browser on every phone. If and when something like this gets off the ground, here's hoping that American Golf will be one of the first to sign up.

1 comment:

Stefan Constantinescu said...

Great insight, I believe your answer lies in the FOaF and/or XFN protocol: http://gmpg.org/xfn/and/foaf

When MySpace started letting the users add companies and products as friends it was too immature as the sole reason of doing this was just to show people what brands and products you purchased.

FaceBook recently started letting you become a fan of products, brands, anything really, but again companies didn't take this to their full advantage and even worse people started to freak out when the products they were consuming were being blasted in their news feed for all their friends to see.

What we need is to let brands become our friends in exchange for information such as our friends list and attention data for highly targeted advertising.

This example of how Dopplr can/should work with an airline comes to mind: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120269162692857749.html

It isn't about "spamming the spammers," that is the wrong philosophy.

Why do networks like Twitter and Jaiku have no trolls? It isn't because we blacklist the trolls, on the contrary it is because we only white list the people we want to be in contact with.

Now I don't know if there will ever be a day where a company or friend has to ask your permission first before mailing some thing to you, but in the digital age ... we should have responsibility over how we spend out time.