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We are not opposed to CommerceEditor's note: this essay is included primarily for historical interest. There's no question that the Internet of today is fully commercial.
The Internet is going commercial; that's completely inevitable. The question before us today is how it's going to go commercial. It's not going to be a smooth transition, but it can be done without wiping out everything that made the non-commercial Internet a good place to be.
Let's put it another way. Spamming threatens Usenet, it threatens mailing lists and personal e-mail. It even threatens the Web, as spammers start crawling Web sites looking for addresses to add to their spam lists. If spamming is allowed to continue unbridled, it will ruin everything else.
On the other hand, responsible commercialization doesn't harm other uses of the Internet. Putting ad banners on a Web site doesn't swamp Usenet with junk messages; advertiser sponsorship of a mailing list won't make people reluctant to use Web-based bulletin boards; and so on.
We can make money on the Internet, and we can do it responsibly, honestly and ethically. Here are some ideas:
It makes a lot more sense to do some research on the habits of likely customers, and place ads in media that will reach them. For example, if you're selling a product for Internet users, buying ads on Websites would make sense. Magazines, radio and TV are still good ways to reach customers.
Putting up a Web page and discreetly publicizing it in appropriate fora can help you build a prospect list that you can then contact when you have new offerings. For example, new computer products and services can be announced in the Usenet group comp.newprod - if they meet certain simple guidelines - and you can include your Web URL in the posting.
Put a short ad or teaser in your .signature file. Unobtrusive, yet pervasive, especially in this age of search engines archiving usenet messages.
Post a single message once to a very small number of carefully selected, relevant newsgroups and/or mailing lists, keeping in mind that you should ask the owner's permission first. A good place to start finding relevant groups is at a web page called The Liszt, which allows you to search through newsgroup descriptions for specific keywords. Then, once you've got a short list of possible groups, you can check various FAQ archives for more information on those specific groups. Do keep in mind that just showing up and blasting your message at the participants is unlikely to go over well. You'll have to invest time and some effort to become acquainted with the group, and the less obtrusive you make your message, the better it will go over.
If you maintain an email mailing list for your customers, add them to the list only if they explicitly request it. Keep a log (with mail headers intact) of all customer requests to be placed on the list. This log will prove that you're advertising responsibly, in the event of an unwarranted customer complaint about spam. Keep the log (and your mailing list) strictly confidential, so they don't get stolen. If there's any chance that the customer might be the victim of a listbombing (funny addresses in the mail header, for instance), confirm with them that they do indeed want to get email from you. With every mailing, include information to the customers on how they can get off the list. Honor all requests for deletion promptly and courteously, and confirm such requests by email.
Scott Hazen Mueller [with portions from Dan Birchall and Joel Furr] / E-mail me