Spam Email – Definition & Explaining the Business Risks

What’s the difference between spam email and running good email marketing strategy and campaigns? Here we offer a definition of spam email and explain how, rather than being a question of ethics, it can actually harm your business and limit your results…

Spam email


The people here wouldn’t touch your company with a barge pole, because you’ve spammed us all to death so much in the past.” This was what a regional sales rep told me on returning to the office from a local meet-up. It was attended predominantly by potential clients.

Pretty damning stuff and a massive shame for the employer. Sure, all those spam emails may have brought in a few sales, especially in the early days of the company when they hadn’t yet established a strong web presence. But now, with some good visibility online, why alienate potential customers like this?

It seemed their annoying behaviour was a talking point to the extent that spam brought the opposite of word of mouth business – word of mouth long term damage and doors shut in the faces of local reps.

Spam can be a pervasive habit though – even a culture. That same rep was at my desk only days later, asking us to send emails to ‘hit’ his region! He wanted the marketing team to help him meet sales target for the end of that month….

And therein lies the issue – short term focus over long-term results.


What is Spam Email?

Spam email is sending unsolicited email communication in bulk. Also known as junk mail, spam negatively impacts the recipient, who experiences a cost in time and attention. Because of this, spam email is sometimes referred to as a type of negative externality or external cost. This is an economic activity that brings a negative effect on an unrelated third party.

Other examples of external costs include environmental pollution, such as noise pollution due to road traffic or air pollution to due to factory emissions, which harm the well-being of both people and wildlife.

It’s believed that the word spam was handed to this type of communication following a Monty Python sketch, The canned meat branded Spam was mocked for being ubiquitous, unavoidable, and repetitive.

Automated junk communication is constantly increasing and estimated to account for over 90% of all email traffic.


Why Do People Spam? Chronic Short-Termism

Marketers send spam email for the same reason as people by lottery tickets and scratch cards – you get the result fast. The anticipation of those imminent outcomes can be exiting, and even addictive.

You hit send and can see data on your email software on open rate, clickthroughs to your website etc within hours.

You then get so absorbed in improving those metrics compared to your last email blast that you lose sight of the fact you are on a hamster wheel. You’re constantly working, hustling to drag value out of that list of contacts you purchased.

You see 1% more clickthroughs than last time you hit your list and think Yay! What you don’t see are the recipients cursing your company name in their minds or out loud as they delete your email. Along with the other 10 or 15 other companies wasting their time today, they haven’t got round to blocking you yet.

Have you purchased something having received an email from a company you’d never heard of? Rarely, if ever.

Contrast that with the products and services you’ve paid for over the last couple of years that weren’t from the local supermarket. Did you go online and research the best product for your needs? Or did you look for a local service provider? Probably, you can think of examples and you were in buyer mode at those moments.

You had a need, you looked for the solution, then you paid for it. Those potential providers that had not put the resources into being visible at those moments didn’t get your attention, and your business.

As a business owner, buying and spamming email lists is like buying a lottery ticket where you pay multiple times:


  • upfront for the data
  • wasting time using the data
  • loss of goodwill from potential future customers.


Perhaps the greatest cost to the business owner though is the opportunity cost. All that resource spent on bulk email could be better spent on creating helpful content. Potential customers could then find and appreciate you when it’s important for them.


Spam is in the Eye of the Receiver

And as welcome as the canned meat variety.

Many times I’ve heard a business owner say “It’s not spam because…” with reasons including:


  • they’re a relevant audience – they work in X industry and so do we
  • we’re sending them a special offer, so they’ll appreciate it
  • we’re sending them useful advice, not a sales message
  • the company we bought this list from said they’d ‘cleansed’ the list and all the contacts are up to date, ‘opted-in’ to receive emails from companies like ours.


You don’t get to decide what’s spam and what’s not. If the recipient didn’t specifically sign up to receive communication from your company, and in the manner and regularity that you message them, you’re spamming them. If it was unsolicited, it will probably be perceived as spam by the recipient – unwanted and annoying.