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Our SWOT Team is growing! Almost 100 experienced marketing professionals joined the team to provide excellent advice to the external threat posed two weeks ago: How to protect your brand and revenue from being eroded by spam. Read below for your peers' best advice about dealing with this dilemma.

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Previous Dilemma

Swot Category: External Threat

Our brand is eroded by spam

We have spent many years successfully building a brand that is appealing to the market. Recently, we started to get tons of emails complaining that we were spamming them. We are very careful to follow (and actually exceed!) permission marketing best practices and were confused about the amount of hate email we were generating.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that we were the victims of a campaign originated by a band of cyber-thieves who where spamming millions of email addresses offering our product at prices that were 60-70% below our list.

They are stealing our revenue and eroding our brand image. These crooks are also elusive and smart. We have not been able to get a good handle on this problem and hope that your readers might be able to shed some light on this subject.

Would you ask them what they would do in this situation?

—James D., Director of Marketing

Summary of Advice Received

James, you hit a hot button. A full-blown response plan emerged from the collective thinking from the nearly 100 SWOT team members who submitted their best advice.

Their combined wisdom calls for the following actions:

  1. Acknowledge a crime was committed and report it.
  2. Manage the immediate crisis with PR.
  3. Secure your company from email identity theft.
  4. See the opportunities in this situation.

1. Acknowledge a crime was committed and report it

The team cautioned about skipping this step. This problem calls for criminal and civil prosecution. Fraud, IP infringement, identify theft and producing knock off copies are all crimes. Focus on the crime, not the fact that spam was used to commit the crime.

One team member said contact the spammer, and if no one responds take further action. Contact the sender's Internet service provider (ISP) for possible removal of the spammer's account and demand restitution. If these actions don't stop the spammer, sue. Be sure to document everything, including evidence of abuse.

Take legal action if you discover your company's name, products, and/or services are used in marketing schemes without your permission. Most of our readers feel strongly that you should not hesitate to go after spammers and prosecute them. Here are two examples of responses:

Take Action to Prosecute Spammers

Contact the FBI about the problem.
—Kevin Ranford, Ranford Consulting

James, one of my colleagues recently had a similar problem. There is a division of the FBI that handles Internet fraud cases like these very efficiently. I strongly suggest that you contact the FBI office general number, and they will transfer you to an e-commerce specialist.

Prosecute to the Full Extent of the Law

Use their own greed to catch them.
—Nathan Deremer, WedWeb.cc

You must do all in your power to find these people and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. While it is often difficult to track down such offenders, there are a few things that may work.

For instance, foster a relationship with one of the spammers. Act as though you intend to purchase a large amount of their goods in bulk to resell. Motivated by their greed, these thieves will be willing to risk much more with the promise of a big sale. And this is where you begin to reel them in.

Now make it known that you are a bit timid about purchasing this item, that you are concerned that these products may not be authentic. Ask for a phone number so that you can talk to the person in charge. Call them a few times, gather the information you can, and chances are you will be able to catch them. With this done, you can then reclaim all your losses from them in court.

2. Manage the immediate crisis with PR

Most of the advice we received addressed PR with two intended audiences: (1) your customers and (2) your prospects. Once you find out your identify has been stolen, immediately respond in the following manner:

  • Personalized letters (to customers, prospects and partners) 
  • Blurb on the homepage of your Web site 
  • Other marketing messages that disassociate you from the spammers, including rewards for information leading to conviction 
  • Information that will your audience spot fraudulent offers (such as a three-step guide to spotting spam)

Be the banner-waver against this type of fraud. Let your audience know that you are actively involved in solving the problem and are one of the good guys.

Ask Your Customers to Join the Fight Against Fraud

Go beyond what they expect.
—Alan Allard, GeniusDynamics

There is an opportunity here waiting to be resourcefully responded to… I suggest sending your customers a highly compelling letter via email or some other form (postcard, actual letter, etc.) and

  1. Elicit their empathy by explaining to them exactly what has happened.
  2. Elicit their desire to actually help you out, and do you a favor, even if the favor is simply to accept that you have been wronged by someone, and recognize you are taking this opportunity to communicate with your valued customers in order to further build the relationship with them.
  3. Tell them, once again, your policies on communicating with them... what you would never do, such as spamming them... and how your past marketing behaviors have demonstrated the value you put on safeguarding their privacy and maintaining their loyalty and trust.
  4. Offer them something of value, hopefully for free, and tell them you are doing so to go beyond what they might have expected of you in response to this situation.

Media coverage can help you reach your target audience in an effort to gain sympathy. You can make the best of the situation by having a reason to contact this audience. Several respondents noted that identity theft is a classic reason for having a crisis communication plan.

Communicate to Prospects Also

Crisis communications can be fun while important.
—Steve Wasiura, Waztech Internet Services

Randomly sample your customer base with a telephone survey asking if they received spam mail. From those results, determine the estimated percentage of your market that is aware of this issue.

Hold a press conference that highlights this issue to make your prospects and customers aware of the problem, and outline action steps you will take to reduce the annoyance:

  • Have a toll-free number to call for further information. 
  • Publish an easy three-step guide to determining how to spot a fraudulent offer. 
  • Stress the opportunities of the Internet and email, but acknowledge the presence and threat of criminals. 
  • Create a visual branding element that is difficult to reproduce, so that your email offers can be authenticated as the official communication from the company. 
  • Keep in constant contact with your market, informing them of published communications so that they know when official items have been sent out, etc. 
  • Make a contest or game, something that will engage your customers in tracking down these criminals. Even if the game is an artificial pretense, such as creating a mascot to investigate and track the criminals, run it through your Web. Encourage customers to participate in tracking and catching the thieves by offering rewards, prizes, etc. Have fun with it. But make it important in the eyes of the customer—not just something you're upset about that happened to your brand.

3. Secure your company from email identity theft

Some team members suggested a few preventative measures to stop the identity theft: For example, try to align your organization with anti-spam organizations that are fighting spam, so you can stay aware of who the criminals may be and where they strike.

Also, for each customer you can create a specific ID code that cannot be broken by spammers. This will ensure that your customers know the message is from you.

Assign an ID to Each Subscriber

Unite forces and notify the public.
—Kirill Chistov, Internet Projects (Subscribe.ru and Voxru.net)

Brand Erosion: The Russian Case. I represent the Russian largest permission-based email marketing service providing both independent newsletter sponsorship and opt-in email campaign management. I must say we are in exactly the same situation in Russia when spammers are using our good name to break through anti-spam filters. Lately we've applied a combination of technical and educational workarounds:

  1. We assign a unique ID to each subscriber, use it in the subject of newsletter titles we send out, and instruct our subscribers how to implement inbox filters (rules) in aim to hunt down spam messages counterfeiting our origin.
  2. We united forces with one of the largest Russian anti-spam solution providers.
  3. We co-established an e-newsletter and online journal addressing spam issues that educates email users with tips and practical advice on how to effectively fight spam.

Make sure that you are not part of the problem. Start using some kind of security policy for employee theft and preventing known spam relays.

Establish a Security Policy

Be sure your ISP does not allow relay email.

Don't forget to establish and follow your own security policy. In this context, at least be sure your email server or ISP's email server doesn't relay email really or virtually coming from you (From: address).

In order to make sure one of your employees doesn't actually help a spammer by mistake or not, change the clear-text passwords regularly, etc.—but I guess you have done this homework already. I wish you success with this and hope the MarketingProfs team will inform list members about it!

Best Regards! (I'm currently writing an e-book about fighting spam.)

4. See the opportunities in this situation

Many of our team members didn't stop at fixing the problem. They offered up advice to rebuild the brand and revenue stream. Suggestions included these: reduce the pricing of your product (even if temporarily); offer some kind of special promotion to your customers (the ones who received the spam); offer spam-filtering software to your clients; offer some kind of free support or other offer to build brand loyalty.

Offer a More Exclusive Deal

Rely on remote agents to deliver your message.
—Reuben Vernon Fernandez, HIS

You can offer a more exclusive deal to the customers… What I mean is that you can package your product with a special deal (in which the extra bonus is something that only your company can provide). For example, most big companies, like Hewlett-Packard, offer 24-hour support help for their products. This is something that only HP can provide (as they are the main manufacturers) and others (e.g., cyber-crooks) can't possibly provide. In this way, customers will be more attracted by the offer. Mostly, your customers appreciate quality products rather than cheaper, less-quality (and no guarantee/warranty) products.

Another thing you can try is having “remote agents” promote your products. Remote agents are people who promote your products via the Internet at home. They can promote products by forwarding advertisements to their friends, who in turn will forward them to their friends. This concept may sound illogical and childish, but I notice most people don't read offers sent by companies nowadays. There are simply too many offers to read and too much spam! So, to avoid having your advertisements misinterpreted, have remote agents forward them for you. Most people will read mail from their friends rather than reading advertisements offering various products. I haven't thought about how you will expand on this… but brainstorming will help.”

One member even saw the problem as a way to generate buzz about a new product or upgrade. Develop a new and improved product or create some kind of security within the product. That way your customers will know they are getting the “real thing.”

When Issued Lemons, Make Lemonade

Develop a new and improved version.
—Andrew Chiodo, Value Positioning(TM) Development

James—Obviously, your brand is being seriously threatened by these cyberthieves. However, as the saying goes, “When you get issued lemons, your best action is to make them into lemonade.” There are three effective countermeasures that your company can take:

If possible, develop a new and improved version of current products, and release them to the world along with more appropriate pricing. These don't have to be major new initiatives, just different enough to make them perceivable as being upgrades of the existing line. Also, plan a regular upgrading of all worthwhile products on a timed basis to keep ahead of the current group of sleaze-merchants, or any others who might attempt the same theft.

You have to invest in protecting your brand as well as promoting it—just as with trademarks and copyrights. Frankly, in these less-than-pleasant times, you really have to be VERY active in keeping anything you do fresh and updated—the crooks aren't likely to keep up without being vulnerable to capture and prosecution, which you should consider part of your marketing efforts.

Legal measures to protect a brand/product are just part of the cost of doing business and need to be built into pricing, so you can afford to be EXTREMELY diligent about enforcing your ownership.

More Information Requested

Some very thoughtful readers admonished us for not providing enough information about the dilemma. After reading their comments, we agree.

We left off the fact that the reason the price was so low was because the criminal made knockoffs of our product. Without that knowledge, some of the team addressed pricing issues that are worth repeating. They figured that if the spammer was offering the product at a 60-70% discount, James might need to review his pricing (in case the product has become commoditized).

The other question raised was, “Is the spammer a partner?” If this group really is selling your product—you may need to re-evaluate your distribution channels.

Final Thoughts

The hardest part of writing this summary was not being able to include all of the responses. They were thoughtful, provocative, and demonstrated a collective wisdom capable of solving just about any marketing problem. If you would like the complete text of all responses, please click here.

Next Week's Dilemma

Swot Category: Internal Weakness

Help! My CEO is a roadblock!

I was hired by the CEO of a “products” company as VP of Service Marketing to help build services revenue. However, our CEO seems to block every idea I have about marketing (well, almost all of them). If I request additional funds, try to get the sales force involved, or work on integrating strategies, my efforts seem to end up with the big head nodding, “No.”

After listening to my requests and plans, she repeats this phrase to me, “Don't try to make this company a services company. We got this far through our products.”

I'm a bit frustrated. There's got to be a way to make her see the light. The entire organization is going through a cultural shift, and there are lots of double messages.

Any ideas from your readers would greatly be appreciated!

—Joan Q., VP of Products & Services Marketing

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Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.

Tamara is a writer at InternetVIZ and is available for freelance work.