Is Junk E-mail Impeding Postal Mail?

I get 200-300 email messages a day in my three accounts, about two-thirds of them in my STScI (work) account.

On a recent day, the Institute junk mail filters caught just 21 messages, one of which was a false-positive. 39 other obvious spam, including several with a charming oversize image of a flayed penis, were not caught. Since the filters catch only a quarter to a third of my spam, and flags things that I thought were on my allowed senders list, I have to check them all.

The false positive is a puzzle: Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram. *.SCHNEIER.COM was on my whitelist, but it seems Bruce switched the return address from MAIL.SCHNEIER.COM to simply SCHNEIER.COM at some point. Still, the message is long, but is all text with some embedded URLs. I don’t know why it’s marked as spam. I get a very similar daily summary from Northrop-Grumman of new JWST documents, but ngc.com has not (yet) been flagged as spam.

The effect, though, is that I have to scan the envelope information of all the spam messages, 60 to 80 a day, looking for false-positives. That’s almost half of my STScI mail, due to the combination of poor rules and a clunky, unreliable whitelist interface. Gmail is a completely different experience, with less total spam, and very rarely do I get a false positive. Better yet, telling Gmail that it guessed wrong (either way) is quick and easy.

What I find interesting is that I use the same technique for junk postal mail. I get 5 to 10 pieces of mail per day about 75% of it junk mail. I scan the envelopes, looking for obvious ads, but also for credit card, refinancing, and home equity loan offers. I discard (shred, actually) most envelopes without opening them. It would only be slightly more efficient to shred them directly into a recycle bin at the mailbox.

But I also get false positives. My mortgage company needed my signature on some paperwork to clarify the agency relationship for tax purposes. From my perspective, the envelope information on the tax-related documents looked the same as the envelope information for the refinance-offer-of-the-month. So I shredded it. Twice.

The first bit of good news is that I get very little porn (or near-porn, “male enhancement”) junk paper mail.

The second bit of good news is that there are things we can do (but don’t) to improve email filtering, like domain keys, authenticated from addresses, and improved blacklist and whitelist user interfaces. We don’t do those things, but we could.

I wonder if the overwhelming load of crap in electronic mail is causing me to look differently at paper mail, or if the overwhelming success of electronic direct mail advertising has increased the volume and sophistication of paper-based direct mail ads. Is my experience unusual? Have others thrown away non-junk paper mail because they are simply tired of plowing through junk mail?

Or is this just the reverse of the Al Gore thinking model: New ways of thinking about old technologies. That, at least, would be amusing.

tc>

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Explore posts in the same categories: Process Change, Software, STScI

One Comment on “Is Junk E-mail Impeding Postal Mail?”

  1. Jerome Says:

    I can answer your question, to some respect, as an insider on the email and direct-mail marketing.

    The truth is that with cross-selling becoming a more and more important way to grow revenue, the volume of actual, postal junk mail you get has gone up, probably significantly, in the last couple of years or so. The interesting thing is that while you still see it as junk mail, it’s a different animal from the junk mail of even ten years ago. Tools in the direct-mail marketplace have taken a lot of ideas from the (more ligitimate) email marketing techniques: Large, complicated databases of information are now being used to mine or “cherry-pick” data for direct mail campaigns. The average response percentage on the traditional “mail everyone” direct mail campaign was on the order of hundreths of a percent. Thanks to the newer models of targeted mailings, those ROIs have jumped into the single and sometimes double-digit percentages.

    My office shares floorspace with the sales people from the direct-mail side, and it’s been an educational process to listen to them sell their tools to smaller businesses to allow for better targeting of their junk mail, and in turn better responses to those campaigns. I’ll be interested to see what the market is like in another five years, since the “mail everyone” campaigns are on their way out. It should be very interesting to see if the direct-mailers learn the lesson of email marketing: long-term, low-volume, useful emails have a better ROI than one-time “spams”. The way to get, and keep, a customer’s money is to build a relationship with that customer.

    PS: I made sure your work email address is on our supression list. If you get spam, it’s not from us!


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