The Perils of Spam

You don't want it, so don't send it.

March 1, 2002

If you’re one of the many real estate professionals who uses e-mail as a tool in personal marketing and prospecting, you may be an unconscious spammer. If so, it’s time to own up and change your ways. Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating high-tech prospects for your services.

Spam, the electronic equivalent of junk mail, is a major frustration for many e-mail users. It overwhelms servers and in-boxes with unwanted clutter and slows all Internet communications' progress. At first glance, spamming may seem like nothing more than an electronic counterpart to the promotional postcards or brochures you mail out to your farm area. And it certainly seems cost-effective; some e-mail services and software lets you reach millions of e-mail addresses with one message for as little as $99.

Don’t waste your money on that sort of shotgun approach to promotion. Few want to receive spam; fewer still ever read messages from strangers, no matter what the lure. And don’t delude yourself into thinking there’s some way to legitimize spam.

All of that said, e-mail presents you with a powerful medium for promoting your company, your real estate services, and your listings, under certain conditions. The key to avoiding the spam stigma is to send information out only to prospects and customers who have expressed an interest in receiving it. Once they’ve asked you to send them something, you’re not spamming, you’re providing a valuable service.

To build up your e-mail prospecting list, encourage visitors to your Web site to e-mail you with queries about current listings, community data, or buying and selling tips. Your response should include your contact information and links to content on your Web site that might offer more information that meets their needs.

If your Web site includes an information request form for visitors to complete, be sure that it gives them the option to receive regular real estate updates from you. Those who have expressed interest in receiving it will appreciate an electronic newsletter with buying and selling tips or announcements of new listings that match their criteria. And don’t forget to give prospects an “unsubcribe” option on each e-mail if they no longer want to receive materials from you. Otherwise, your message will be perceived as spam, and that’s not something you want your name or company associated with, especially as it becomes a more pervasive headache for the Net savvy.

In an attempt to give unsolicited e-mails legitimacy, the Internet standards group TRUSTe and the consulting group ePrivacy recently announced tests of a “trusted sender” program. This program identifies incoming messages from marketers that have agreed to adhere to a promoted set of standards—including use of a clear subject lines to identify the content of a message as a promotion and easy ways that consumers can ask to not be solicited. Their messages will feature a “trusted sender” seal or identifying mark, and link to information about the company sending the message. The program is currently being beta tested by Daimler Chrysler, so it may be a long time before it trickles down to the average real estate associates. But even with a seal, it’s still unsolicited and still spam.

The flip side of the spamming issue is the problems it creates for those on the receiving end—like you. You’ve probably had your share of pitches promoting mortgage and finance companies, herbal Viagra, and worse. Mostly, they’re just nuisances, but some spam is used to deliver computer viruses that could potentially cripple your system.

Unfortunately there’s little you can do, yet, to stem this tide, beyond deleting unsolicited messages without opening them. Most e-mail programs allow you to apply filters as a way to identify or weed out incoming spam, but you usually have to enter every unwanted address into your filter and the results are seldom very effective You may also be able to set the application preferences in your e-mail program to reject messages arriving from certain addresses or servers. Contact your Internet service provider for advice as well, and see if there’s anything it can do at the server level.

There are also some ways you can make yourself less of a target for spammers. Think twice about filling out forms on Web sites. When you do, don’t click the box that asks if you’d like to receive information on related products or services. This gives the company permission to send you anything it wants or even to sell you name to other solicitors. It’s always a good idea to check a Web site’s privacy policy to see how your information will be used.

Also remember that getting off a spammer’s e-mail list isn’t that easy. The “unsubscribe” or “remove” link embedded in unwanted messages should let you eliminate your e-mail address from the sender’s list. Unfortunately, you’ve no assurance this will work; indeed some unscrupulous spammers actually use this link to verify that an e-mail address is valid. Unwitting respondents can actually end up receiving even more spam as a result. And unlike junk mail, there is no central organization that lets you remove your name from solicitation lists. For more information on spam, its impact, and what can be done about it, visit the Web site of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE).

No matter what protective measures you take, however, some spam will get through. Spam has become an annoying facet of Internet communications for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, you’ll regard it as such and never succumb to the temptation to employ spam to solicit buyer or sellers and to promote your real estate services.

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