Friends should never ask friends to spam -- even if Big Blue says to do so

By Ed Foster, InfoWorld |  Business

The Gripe Line

VIRAL MARKETING seems well on its way to becoming a mainstay of Internet marketing. So much so, in fact, that even IBM is trying its hand at getting friends to spam friends.

A few weeks ago, the Gripe Line received a spate of complaints from readers who had received a series of two e-mail messages from IBM. The first message, titled "How to Get ViaVoice Free," thanked them for subscribing to a free IBM newsletter for small businesses and offered them a deal: E-mail five friends, get them to sign up for the newsletter, and the original subscriber would receive a free copy of IBM's $169 ViaVoice Millennium Pro speech recognition software.

The second message, entitled "A Special Offer for My Friend," was the text IBM wanted subscribers to forward to their colleagues. It offered the new subscribers an electronic Small Business Resource Guide as a bonus gift if they signed up but discreetly failed to mention anything about the copy of ViaVoice their friend stood to gain.

The readers I heard from were aghast that IBM would stoop to such tactics. "Can you believe it?" wrote one irritated recipient of the Big Blue missives. "They're asking me to spam my friends! I dropped my subscription to this e-mail [newsletter]. Its value is debatable anyway."

Some readers were unsure how they'd gotten on IBM's subscription list for the small-business newsletter in the first place, as they were certain they had never opted in for it. "It seems that IBM has now decided that rather than sending spam on its own, that it would encourage its list members to engage in acts of spam on IBM's behalf," wrote a reader who regarded the newsletter itself as spam. "Big Blue marketing at its best, ... and I mean that. 'Spam for us, and we'll give you more e-mail FREE! Get five people to sign up, and you get software FREE!' "

Several commented on the irony of one part of IBM's message in which recipients were assured that their "colleagues will receive the same level of privacy that IBM provides you -- their address will not be passed on for use in unsolicited e-mail, and those who sign up are free to unsubscribe at any time." Because any message a subscriber forwarded to a friend could itself be deemed an unsolicited commercial e-mail, IBM's privacy promises seemed to them to be oddly out of place.

IBM officials don't see it that way. "We are very careful about our privacy policy, and we've gotten a lot of kudos for the steps we've taken to block spam," says Jim Ruderman, communications manager for IBM's Global Small Business unit. "Everyone who got this message gave us their consent with an active opt-in -- there is no default subscription."

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