Email Marketing and Spam: What’s the Difference?

  • November 16, 2016

By Verity Jennings

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We are a misunderstood lot, we email marketers.

Image credit: Marvel


At cocktail parties and other social gatherings, as we are asked that standard small talk staple “So, what do you do?”, we watch our questioners’ eyes fill with regret and slowly glaze over as we attempt to explain.

We help companies promote themselves, their services and their products, through the communications medium of email. We are developers, designers, and copywriters. We work with some of the biggest companies in the world. We make them lots of money. We are respected in our fields and those who avail themselves of our services appreciate our sizeable creative efforts.

But no one understands us.

no-one understands email marketing

As our conversation partners look nervously around the room for an out, their brains scrambling to come up with a follow up question or positive comment, we brace for impact.

We know what’s coming.

The word “spam” is about to enter the conversation.

We don’t like that word. It stings us. It gets our hackles up. We prepare for battle.

But this is a battle we cannot win. We have been weighed, measured, and found wanting. They are already looking for a way to change the subject, since they believe that they already have all the information they need. As we spit and sputter in a vain attempt to justify our own existence, we already know we have lost.

All that is left to do is slink slowly away, a scarlet “S” affixed firmly to the breast of our carefully selected outfit.

“What an idiot” we think to ourselves as we wander off in search of a glass of something delicious to take the pain away.

Image credit: CBS


But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We here at Phrasee have had enough. We have taken it upon ourselves to explain the 4 key differences between email marketing and spam to the world so that none of our compatriots need ever be subjected to such awkwardness again.

You can thank us once everyone in the world has read this post and begins attending social functions forearmed with the knowledge necessary to address us with the respect we deserve.

Image credit: Paramount Pictures


Email marketing and spam: What’s the difference?

Difference #1: Spam is unsolicited


If there is one single trait that differentiates email marketing and spam it is this: Email marketing is solicited, spam is not.

We will grant that the term “solicited” is treated with great elasticity in this field. Maybe a prospect gave the cashier their email address whilst purchasing pants at a discount store or maybe they forgot to uncheck the (automatically checked) opt-in box while buying concert tickets online.

The semantics of labelling such an action or oversight a “solicitation” of future marketing emails is, to be fair, pushing it, but at least it’s something. At least we can all agree that by virtue of the prospect having conducted business with the company in the first place there is some indication that said company’s correspondence will carry with it some degree of relevance to the recipient in the future.

Not so with spam. Spammers use all manner of tricks to obtain email addresses, from paying for them to outright stealing them. In any case, the above assumption of past purchasing behaviour = future marketing relevance does not apply here. The approach of the spammer is to accept that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of their recipients will have no interest whatsoever in their email, but bank on the tiny percentage of occasions when they get lucky and find some sucker interested enough to see what they have to say.

Difference #2: Marketing emails pose no risk to your device


Marketing emails from reputable companies are safe for a recipient’s computer or device. Spam emails are not. It is in the interest of any legitimate email marketer to ensure that those who open their emails will not live to regret it. Companies invest plenty of time, effort and money building their mailing lists, and go to great lengths to prevent losing subscribers once they have obtained them. For this reason, issues like malware, spyware and computer viruses, which plague the spam industry, are not present in the legitimate email marketing industry.

Many spam emails are sent by bad people who have malicious and criminal intent. Marketing emails are sent with no hidden agenda. The companies sending them want you to buy things from them, but this motive is implicit right from the beginning of the email marketing dialogue.

Difference #3: Marketing emails adhere to current laws pertaining to commercial digital communications

Image credit: NBC


Believe it or not, there are laws governing the activities of anyone who sends an email. The CanSpam act of 2003 [US] and the Privacy And Electronic Communications (EC directive) Regulations Of 2003 [UK] are just two examples of such laws currently in enforcement across the globe. A key tenet of the vast majority of these spamming laws pertains to “opt-ins” i.e. those little check boxes saying “I give [INSERT COMPNY NAME HERE] permission to send me digital communications in the future” that you see every time you do anything commercial online. If people don’t check these boxes, email marketers won’t email them.

Such laws also often contain restraints on the types of materials that can be transmitted in commercial emails, unsolicited porn being an extreme, but nonetheless important, example of material that would be deemed illegal and thus “spammy”.

One key difference between email marketing and spam is the tendency of spammers to ignore such laws, often on a very large scale. Email marketers adhere to such laws religiously.

Difference #4: Spam sucks, email marketing is awesome

Image credit: 20th Century Fox


A great deal of care and attention goes into every email marketing campaign. There some amazing things happening in the development, design and layout of marketing emails these days. Maintaining a healthy dialogue with one’s mailing list is a key element of every company’s email marketing strategy, and this drives the entire industry, on an on going basis, to strive to do better. Email’s increased relevance through personalisation developments, coupled with its slick design capabilities and ease of use that is now standard in the industry have made email one of the most customer-centered spaces in all of marketing. The amount of control this type of advertising gives to the user is unparalleled in any other marketing channel.

Spam, on the other hand, is sloppy, inconsiderate and deceptive. The strategy of sending unsolicited emails in bulk to unsuspecting email users leaves no room for dialogue, relevance or personalisation of any kind. Building a positive relationship and positive brand image are irrelevant, and thus the imperative to send emails the recipient actually wants to see is non-existent. And that, more than anything else, is why it sucks.

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