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Krediidiinfo database email campaign

In response to comments and discussion related to Altex v Tõnu Samuel I admitted that altex used part of the Krediidiinfo database (Inspektor) during a campaign to promote an event called E!UK about one and a half years ago.

To many people this seems a clear cut case of spam and therefore labeling altex as spammers is seen, again by some, as justified.

We reject this. We are not spammers.

  • But how can we?
  • Isn’t it a clear cut case? After all we acknowledge we sent unsolicited commercial emails in bulk and isn’t that the definition of spam?
  • How the hell can altex “get out of this hole”?

Well obviously we have to disclose fully what we did, why we did it, what the results were, what we learnt from it, what we think now and how it has and will affect our behaviour.

Before I start I have to accept that some people will continue to define what we did back then as spam – and we won’t be able to do anything to change their minds.

I also acknowledge that some people in that group will also say/think something like: “you spammed once and therefore you are always going to be a spammer in my eyes”.

Let me just draw a quick parallel or two:

  • If someone gets drunk once then are they an alcoholic?
  • If someone hacks a computer system without permission are they always a black hat hacker?
  • Is a teenager who steals a beer always a thief?

I could go on. You get my point I hope.

Anyway I digress, let’s get back to the main story and start with the context of our decision, our reason or “excuse” to use Krediidiinfo.

PREFACE

It all starts with the planning and promotion of an altex internet marketing event called E!UK. Actually it starts a bit before. You might need to get some coffee this is a long post…

Altex was the creator and driving force of an organisation/group called angloestonian.com. It’s main goal was/is simple – to promote Estonian IT and new media companies to the UK with the end objective of securing an increase in export enquiries.

We held an event in London at the Estonian Embassy where the Estonian Ambassador and representatives of angloestonian member companies spoke and some leading UK new media agencies, bloggers and new media journalists were invited.

The feedback on the event was good enough that we decided to create an event in Estonia. E!UK. So we invited a number of the best/most experienced UK internet marketing professionals to Tallinn, to share their thoughts, advice, experiences etc.

NOTE: For those interested you can find the E!UK presentations on Slideshare.

With flights, accommodation, renting the national library, simultaneous translation with headsets, entertainment of speakers, childcare for speakers’ children etc. it was a pretty large financial commitment.

Knowing the reputations and abilities of the speakers, I hoped the event would be a big hit and the drive to improve and extend anglo-Estonian relations and trade in IT and new media would..take off.

The reality was that the speakers were not well known in Estonia and, my mistake, I assumed people would check them out and go wow! and yes, some people did but not enough. It was looking like the National Library (venue) might not be anywhere near full. I was concerned and had to do something about it.

So we got on the phones, sent emails to our newsletter lists and generally took all opportunities to promote and encourage British Estonian Chamber of Commerce and members of Angloestonian to promote the event too.

Ticket sales improved but still I was not satisfied that the event was getting the attention it deserved so I decided that we need to cast the net wider and so we looked for a database that we could use…..

WHY WE CHOSE KREDIIDIINFO

The Krediidiinfo database was proposed and whilst we had some doubt we were assured that the data was clean, reliable and up to date and complete… mmm it wasn’t, so we had to analyse it quite carefully before use.

At this point I want to clarify that Meelis Ojasild, our email expert, advised me against using the Krediidiinfo database because of the spam issue. I insisted on looking closer and suggested that we could, perhaps, use part of the list where we saw job title or sector relevance.

Given our target audience was fairly broad: IT, marketing/advertising/PR, business owners/directors/senior decision makers/exporters we discovered that 22,274 of the total estimate** 30,000 in the database could be relevant targets.

**This number is an estimate because we do not possess the data anymore and we are working from memory and assuming that the current database size is similar to what it was when we bought it.

We took this 22,274 and split it into 11 groups. The core message for each group would be the same “come to E!UK” but the content would be tailored to each group. The emails were customised/personalised with receiver’s names, company names, industry sector.

This was a mass emailing and unsolicited but it was not “indiscriminate or random” – far from it – it was targeted, segmented and personalised.

THE DEFINITION OF SPAM

Now let’s take a campaign break and look at spam definitions because this is where the crux of the issue lies. It all comes down to whether the content matters or not.

Some, perhaps most, people say. NO, content is irrelevant. It’s only about permission. No permission = spam. QED. These people are non negotiable and I respect their right to this commonly held view. They are the ones who will label this campaign spam (if they have not already!).

See Spamhaus definition for this version. They go even further to suggest that double optin is the only way not to be spam. Optin is not enough… mmm I wonder how most list owners feel when they read that?

Looking at the wider definition of spam on Wikipedia it states:

Spam is the abuse of electronic messaging systems (including most broadcast media, digital delivery systems) to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately.

Ref email spam:

E-mail spam, known as unsolicited bulk Email (UBE), junk mail, or unsolicited commercial email (UCE), is the practice of sending unwanted e-mail messages, frequently with commercial content, in large quantities to an indiscriminate set of recipients.

In my mind, it’s this word “indiscriminate/ly” that caused my confusion and internal debate.
It was my opinion at the time (not now, more on that later) that the E!UK message was relevant to the target audiences, segmented and personalised and would “just about” be ok-ish.

The emailing was not indiscriminate. Had I find a technical wording loophole? I convinced myself (temporarily) that I had.

I was never 100% comfortable with the decision to give the green light but I did it – I think Meelis was very disappointed in me. Sometimes in business we make bad decisions. In retrospect this was one of them.

The response to the campaign was fairly good. From the 22,274 who we sent to:

  • 1,780 (8%) hard bounced (meaning the Krediidiinfo database was NOT accurate)
  • Over 1000 people opted in to receive our newsletter
  • 6,495 (29%) opened the email
  • 604 (2.7%) visited the E!UK page
  • According to our tracking, reporting and looking back at invoicing schedules etc. we estimate this campaign generated profit of about 11,000 EEK.

NOTE: We did not use the lists again in any way. The people who were sent a message did not get sent another one.

And here let’s take another campaign break.

THE ISSUE OF UNWANTED VS UNSOLICITED EMAIL

Why do spammers spam? Because it works.

If it did not work they would not do it. The sad fact is that when spam is sent, a percentage of people respond positively and that’s enough (provided the message is not totally crap or irrelevant) to create a profit for the sender.

Let’s also look at unwanted email.

We have an altex marketing newsletter (it’s opt-in). We send out internet marketing news and views etc. Sometimes we promote our events and things we are involved in (e.g. events we sponsor – for example we recently sponsored the Pärnu Management Conference and Best Internet and sent out messages about those.) but of course some people on our list don’t WANT that particular information.

It’s a dilemma of sorts. Spam lists get some response because some people WANT the information even though they have not subscribed. Genuine opt-in lists still send information that some people do not WANT.

For sure you subscribe to email lists and get spam?

  • Have you ever responded to a spammed email because you liked the offer/info?
  • Have you ever got annoyed with (and instantly deleted) an email from a list you have subscribed to because that particular message is not relevant to you?

Sure you have – if you are human.

This opens up a huge area of best practice debate about content strategy, segmentation, personalisation, deliverability and stuff that would make this post take all week rather than half a day to write – so I won’t/can’t get into it today and anyway this is Meelis’s area of expertise, not mine.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Back to the campaign.

You have read my thinking, seen what we did and the results.

What did we learn?

  1. The internal debate and questionable morality, whatever the legality, around what we did led us to very quickly decide to never use the Krediidiinfo database again.

    We never did in the past year and a half and we never will. (Please note we never did anything similar before that campaign either).

  2. Spam works and if the fight against spam is to succeed in Estonia it means people MUST complain.

    Take action, don’t just moan on our or other blogs. Don’t just list spammers. Report them to the authorities. Demand action. Lobby for tighter laws. Lobby for higher penalties.

    We have taken action against two cases of spam and I have provided details of these to Tõnu Samuel to study. They relate to a Maaleht campaign and a Mynthon campaign. Can someone tell me why Roosa Elevant have not been taken to court when there are so many allegations and “proof” that they spam personal email addresses?

  3. We (altex) should encourage best practice and raise our own standards. This we have done at events and by uploading presentations and teaching at Tallinn and Tartu Universities and lecturing elsewhere.

    I admit we do not operate to Spamhaus standards yet but we are working our way forward and I believe we are one of the cleanest email marketing companies in Estonia, if not the cleanest, despite this old E!UK campaign “blip”.

AND WHAT DO WE THINK NOW?

…Now the sh*t has hit the fan, so to say.

Well, to those of you who have read your way through this (thanks for your time) and who still think we spammed and therefore are spammers for life I say: “You are welcome to your opinion”.

To those of you who see we tried to minimise the spamminess of the E!UK campaign but still stepped over the line and acknowledge that before and after we have been “good”, I say: “Yeah, I hold my hand up, we made a mistake. I guess you are right. We are sorry. It was out of character.”

To those of you who think we did nothing wrong I say: “You are wrong, we did make a mistake. We should not have hidden behind technical definitions and content personalisation as a cover. We won’t do it again and neither should you”.

And we have made a few new decisions thanks to this exposure.

  1. Actions speak louder than words.The estimated profit (11,000 eek) we made from the E!UK Krediidiinfo campaign will be donated to charity. We will buy IT equipment for a voluntary organisation or charity of your choice. Please give your opinions and we will choose one.
  2. We will hold an E!SPAM conference in 2010 on March 9th and will invite the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication, The Data Protection Board, a lawyer, Tõnu Samuel, someone from Roosa Elevant (probably the most accused company in the question of spam), someone from mail.ee and/or hot.ee (two of the largest opt-in list owners in Estonia) and perhaps others. We welcome agenda suggestions.
  3. We offer to work with others in our industry to develop a voluntary code of best practice for list owners, advertisers and agencies like ours. Anyone want to work with us on this?
  4. We will investigate what can be done to make reporting spammers easier, cheaper and faster and more likely to produce painful results. Anyone got any suggestions?

PS If you are not familiar with spam regulations in Estonia basically you can currently legally send mass emails to business email addresses (content is a factor on whether it is legally spam) so there is no debate about the fact altex has done nothing “legally” wrong.

So thank you for reading this far. Fire your comments away. No swearing please.

But before you shoot your views perhaps enjoy something a little more light-hearted.

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There are 18 comments .

Jaanus Karu —

Well, let us see that from the other end of the pipe – the receiving end. As i had to read a lot here, i will respond to all paragraphs separately.

“We reject this. We are not spammers.”
If you can be called spammers may be a matter of debate. Maybe not. But there is enough evidence and your admittance that you have sent spam. Mind you – “spam” is not a legal term here and i use it in the sense of “unsolicitated commercial e-mail”. I know it is legal to send it to a company address in Estonia, but it is still called spam and i think Tõnu can call it spam on his website.
As far as the once drunk teen analogy goes – for me it would have been enough if you said – “yeah, we did it once, we are sorry, we will never do it again”. Thats it.

But no, you had to start a war with lawyers and legal letters etc. No one takes Tõnu’s blog that seriously that a single entry would hurt you much. And i think that no self respecting sysadmin uses Tõnu’s blacklists as they are and you were not even in those. The simple fact that you made so much fuss about this matter, caused us to make as much fuss.

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

“THE DEFINITION OF SPAM”
You just prove over and over that sending to Krediidiinfo database is spamming. Thanks for making my point.

For around 95% of the persons the e-mail was completely useless. They did not go to the site, they did not opt-in to your newsletter. I do not know, if this is a high or low number in e-mail campains. And frankly, i do not care.

“Why do spammers spam? Because it works.”
Well, you just proved that it worked for you. You got subscribers, you got even profit. (Yeah you are giving that away now, great).

“Let’s also look at unwanted email.”
There is no point in comparing “unwanted” e-mail from opt-in lists to UCE without opt-in. I *know* when i have opted in, i *chose* to receive some irrelevant mails with them. It is a matter of freedom – i want to be in control of my inbox, especially because i pay for it. I want to be in control of my time i spend to filtering my inbox. It is my inbox after all, it is like my home. I want only people i invite here.
And i make it a principle NEVER to order/buy anything from a spammer. Even if it is cheaper. That is like the fair food principle – i would rather pay more than support spamming industry.

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

“WHAT DID WE LEARN?”

I am happy that you learned. Good. I respect you for that.

But (there is always one, isn’t there):
The trouble with local Estonian spam is that every day several companies will do it once. Even if they do not do it ever again, there are thousands of them. In fact, it is more difficult to filter such one-off spams than it is to filter spam through providers like Roosa Elevant. I made one line in my server config and that has stopped all RE spams for a year (thousands of them). It is hard to machine filter one off attempts.

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

Why am i skeptical about Estonian lawmaking process?
Do you know what the official procedure is to reject printed spam to your postbox here? You are supposed to inform every company that delivers the fliers to your postbox, with a letter stating that you do not want them to do that. This is a idiotic system.
In a normal country it is illegal to put advertisements etc into a mailbox carrying a certain sticker. That’s it.

So if we start a lawmaking process, the solution to electronic spam will probably be as moronic as our solution to paper spam (which causes much more waste).

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

But i digress. So let’s repeat the important bits – i almost beleive you are not a spammer. But i would have beleived it more if you just answered to Tõnu: “We did it. Once. We are sorry. We will never do it again. We advise our clients to never do it.” Especially since i take his blog with a grain of salt anyway.

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

P.S. if you really will get Roosa Elevant and Tõnu into the same room, i will certainly try to come to the event. Should be fun. But i doubt that you can get Roosa Elevant there. It would be hard to keep Tõnu away though, :-p

Reply »
Robin Gurney

@jaanus
II was beginning to wonder if the comments feature was not working.
Thanks Jaanus, I knew I could rely on you 🙂
no comment on your first comment (no comment on legal action at this stage)

ref unwanted v unsolicited: I was not using it as a defence, just pointing out a related fact. I agree with you. Optin is the only safe and correct way forward.

yes I agree ref the challenge of filtering one-off spams is a tricky issue. I would like to eliminate them from my onbox for sure.

You don’t know how pleased I am that you “almost” believe we are not spammers. That’s huge progress.
But its not enough.
And therein lies the problem. I state we are not spammers (note the present tense) and I want people to really believe that.
That’s why we could not just “confess” as you would have wished.
We had to open pandora’s box and address the issues so we can all get to the bottom of this
We are an open company and business ethics mean a lot to us.
Even though there is pain we must do everything to clear our name, whatever the incidental damage along the way.
It’s not just about the commercial damage caused false accusations and misleading information etc. It’s a matter of pride too.

Please note this is not the end.
This post is just to address the Krediidiinfo issue.
There are a couple of others still unresolved and these will be addressed in time.

I can’t say more because they may affect new legal actions against other “spammers” who have sought to sabotage altex’s reputation. One of those cases involves Roosa Elevant. Watch this space. Difficult and rather expensive investigations have been ongoing for a long, long time -way before Tõnu’s post btw.

Jaanus- in a private and confidential phone call I would be happy to disclose more to you, on the condition you keep the information private until we give you permission to share it.
Email me your number I will call you if you wish.

ref the charity/MTÜ: any suggestions?

Yep E!SPAM could be a goodie….

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

I don’t really care that much about some procedural matters that i feel the need to discuss them over the phone.
However i suggest that you invite someone in addition to Tõnu for E!SPAM – the receiving end of the spampipe needs more representation and he is certainly not enough for the whole spectrum. Right now you have mainly marketers, spammers, listowners and government – Tõnu is the only representative of the spammees so to speak.
If you want legislation ideas, i suggest you lobbied for the compulsory usage of evil bit (rfc3514) by spammers.

Reply »
Robin Gurney

@jaanus
as you wish

you have strong opinions on the subject.
why don’t you speak at e!spam or can you recommend someone?

i dont understand the last bit

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

The last bit (about the evil bit) was a joke, it might be a tad bit too technical though. Google for it.

But although it is a joke, the principles could be applied in the real world on UCE legislation. For instance the sender of UCE could be legislatively forced to add a special header to marketing e-mails (at least local, Estonian senders). The recipient could then choose to not receive if the header is there, the actual filtering can be done by his ISP, server operator or even by his e-mail software if it supports rules based on e-mail headers. If someone sends an e-mail advertisement without that special header – he would be fined as easily as possible. And everyone lives happily ever after. Marketers can market, users will not receive UCE if they choose to do so and spammers can be prosecuted.

Reply »
Robin Gurney

@Jaanus
Meelis will be interested in this. I am a simple marketing and communication guy and such technical wizardry is actually way beyond me. He will take a look.

@all Unless there are any other better suggestions we will give the IT equipment to Heateo Sihtasutus http://www.heategu.ee – we have done pro-bono work for them before (trainings, consultancy, campaigns) and they seem to make a little go a long way. Very nice people too. Sobib?

Reply »
Robin Gurney

Update: E!SPAM new date: march 9th. I have updated the original post too.

Reply »
Robin Gurney

@jannus I am sending out the speaker invitations for E!Spam and would like to know if you would consider speaking there. You have been most vocal on this post

@all if anyone wants to recommend speakers to attack, question, define or defend spam then shoot…
suggestions of names off list if you prefer to robin@altex.ee

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

Not really, thanks. I have managed to keep my name almost out of google in 15 years of IT business and i plan to keep it that way. “Jaanus Karu” is a sort of “John Doe” in this case. Also, i have lost most of my interest in the subject as all the angles are pretty much covered already.

Reply »
Robin Gurney

@jaanus ahhh the ethics of fake identities…. a discussion for another day perhaps. but thx anyway for participating

Reply »
Jaanus Karu —

It is not “fake” per se. I am not Tõnu Samuel in disguise if that’s what you mean.
My real name would mean as little to you as “Jaanus Karu”. Anonymity is not always for faking something, sometimes it is just for anonymity as such. I don’t expect a wish not to publish your name on every opportunity would be comprehensible to a marketer, though, so you are welcome to think what you like of it.

Reply »
Robin Gurney

With reference to the case with Tõnu Samuel. It has now been resolved: http://bit.ly/5eSu

Reply »
Meelis Ojasild

“1. Actions speak louder than words.The estimated profit (11,000 eek) we made from the E!UK Krediidiinfo campaign will be donated to charity.”

The promise has been fulfilled by now. More information here:
http://www.altex-marketing.com/heateo-sihtasutuse-uue-kontori-avamine

Reply »

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