4 Things an Ethical Internet Marketer
Can Learn from Spammers

image of spam on computer screen

First things first: We hate spam. And we hate spammers. Maybe even more than you do.

So this article isn’t about endorsing spam in any way, or suggesting that you do anything unethical.

But as much as we hate spam and wish it didn’t exist, we can’t deny one fact.

Spammers make a killing online.

Just to give you an idea, last year a Russian investigation found a network of spammers selling fake goods and fake pills online. Each spammer was making, on average, $4,600 per day.

Sure, the spammers use the “law of large numbers” to achieve these results. But you also need marketing savvy to make more than $1.5 million a year selling fake stuff to people who would rather shoot themselves in the left foot than listen to you.

When I started looking more closely at their tactics, I found some valuable lessons any marketer should know.

1. Go where the fish are

What is the most important factor you need to have if you want to go fishing?

Most people will say the fishing rod. Others will say the bait, or a boat. Interestingly enough, they are all wrong.

The most important element of the equation is the presence of lots of fish.

If you have a lake full of fish but don’t have a fishing rod or bait, you can probably still improvise something that would let you enjoy a fish dinner tonight.

But no matter how great your bait or how cutting-edge your equipment, if there aren’t any fish, there’s no fish dinner.

Spammers know this, and they always focus their efforts on the niches with the largest number of fish. That means they always target known customers willing to spend money. Examples include health-related niches, luxury goods, anti-virus software, and, of course, men who want access to certain prescription medicines without getting into embarrassing conversations with their doctors.

Lesson learned: If you target a niche that’s too obscure, you’ll have a hard time making money even if your product and marketing are outstanding. If you target a large and profitable market, of course you’ll face more competition. But it’s a lot easier to improve your product and marketing than it is to manufacture buying customers out of thin air.

2. The money is in the list

Email is the most direct type of communication we have. That’s why spammers love it so much. It allows them to display their messages right in the face of their victims.

Now, if creepy, bottom-dwelling spammers get a conversion rate high enough to keep them in business, imagine what kind of results you can get with:

  • A legitimate, permission-based list of people who want to hear from you,
  • Terrific content that benefits the reader, and
  • Smart, respectful promotion of excellent products and services?

Lesson learned: If you are not building your email list, you are almost certainly leaving a lot of money on the table. Blogs, social networking, and various kinds of advertising are all useful tools. But email is still the “killer app” for building relationships with your prospects and clients.

3. Copywriting, copywriting, copywriting

Ever wondered how scammers manage to convince people to buy fake products?

It comes down to one word: copywriting.

Spammers may not always write the most poetic English. But they do use solid, time-tested copywriting techniques. If you master the essentials of copywriting yourself, you’d be able to sell crappy products to a fair number of people. (Not that we recommend that.)

But because you have a quality product or service and a great reputation, you’ll be able to sell it to lots and lots of people. Who will, in turn, tell their friends about how terrific you are.

There are lots of places you can get solid copywriting advice, including:

  • The Copywriting 101 series on Copyblogger (free)
  • Copyblogger’s Internet Marketing for Smart People newsletter (free)
  • Read classic books on copywriting (inexpensive)
  • Take a paid copywriting course — one that focuses on persuasive writing that sells rather than beautiful or “creative” writing (can be expensive, but if you’re a serious marketer, it’s worth it)

Lesson learned: Copywriting matters just as much as having a quality product or service. In some situations it matters even more. Never shortchange the attention and care you give to your copywriting.

4. Scale matters

Do you know how many emails a spammer needs to send out to get one sale? More than a million.

That’s right, their conversion rates are usually lower than 0.0001%.

So how can they make those thousands of dollars per day in profits? By sending out millions and millions of messages.

Obviously we are not saying you should start spamming people like there is no tomorrow. What you need to keep in mind, however, is that even great conversion rates are still pretty low in the scheme of things.

If you were able to convert 5 or 6% of your list to becoming paying customers, you’d be doing a fantastic job. Which means 95% of your list won’t ever spend a dime with you.

In fact, for many marketers, a conversion rate of 1% is doing quite well. That means if you have 1,000 subscribers on your email list and you send them an email talking about your latest product, you’re doing well if 10 people buy it.

Lesson learned: Numbers aren’t the only thing, but they do matter. If your main income source is your website, learn how to get as much traffic as possible. If your main income source is your email list, learn how to get as many subscribers as possible.

How to do that? Keep following blogs like this one and putting their advice into action.

About the Author: Daniel Scocco is the owner of Daily Blog Tips. He is also the author of the “Make Money Blogging” ebook, which you can download for free by signing up for his newsletter here.

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Reader Comments (77)

  1. says

    Nobody wants to be a spam-artist, though with the earnings potential you’ve nearly talked me into it, but to go where your fish are is not a simple proposition. Growing and maintaining your list, your connections, your friendships, isn’t scary or hard or even disingenuous. For some of us, it’s a matter of not being afraid to sound hokey when asking for what we want. And thanks for the weekly kick in the pants to do exactly that. Every time I hear that, I realize I’m STILL not doing it!

  2. says

    Hey Daniel,

    I like what you said, “Go where the fish are…” this is important when starting out with online marketing.

    It’s important to market the right target group for your business. I see at times where folks are targeting a group that is saturated. Great Info!

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  3. says

    @Beki, yes diving in the lakes with plenty of fish is not a trivial task. Most people don’t do it because the competition seems to tough. But business is about beating the competition and not about avoiding it.

    @Josh, targeting a saturated niche is not a bad idea per se. As l long as you can differentiate yourself and outsmart your competition you could still make good money in saturated niches.

  4. says

    I guess the hope this post inspires, is if spammers can make that much on fake products, how much more could an ethical blogger stand to make promoting products with real and actual value.
    Thanks Daniel, for this great guest post! :)

  5. says

    @Beki, we can also overcomplicate the “go where the fish are” part. The easy way to do it is just to check for healthy competition. If there’s no one making any money in your topic, there’s a 1% chance that it’s just a topic no one has figured out yet, and a 99% chance that you’re not the person who’s going to figure it out.

    So to extend the analogy, since fish can be hard to see, look for the presence of other fishermen. :)

  6. says

    I puke just reading that some moron gets paid thousands to spend his life shacked up in his basement, spamming my blog with Sex tape ads, and viagra ads.

    What I wonder though.. Is spamming these ads illegal?

  7. says

    @Caleb, do you mean comment spam? Are you using Akismet or something to block it?

    I don’t think it’s illegal to spam blog comments. Email spam is illegal, in the U.S. there’s an $11,000 fine and other countries also impose penalties. Also, it’s always illegal to commit fraud, so if the spammer is recommending a scam, that’s illegal no matter what the vehicle of communication.

  8. says

    I haven’t thought about it this way, but it makes sense. If anything, it should be easier, since most people want quality content/products/relationships.

  9. says

    Another tactic: mail (fish) regularly. Spammers send emails every day. That may be too often for your audience (unless that’s what they signed up for), but sending a steady stream of useful tips will build trust.

  10. says

    @sonia that phrase “a 99% chance that you’re not the person who’s going to figure it out.” hit home… well said.

    I think making relationships with the other fishermen will also help.

  11. says

    S-

    It’s a little confusing when one well known Internet Marketing guy says “Find a niche without a lot of competition and OWN it” Then another says “find a niche, no matter what size and go after the more obscure key words.”

    I can’t keep jumping around changing sites and niches. I guess I’m of the opinion that with a trillion people searching them Internet, there’s fish everywhere. I can’t afford to play with the big boys in a crowded niche, so I’ll stick with my smaller pond and improve the bait.

  12. says

    I might have to disagree with this statement “Spammers know this, and they always focus their efforts on the niches with the largest number of fish. That means they always target known customers willing to spend money”

    I think they just see a pool of multiple fish and strike at whatever like a kid playing at the beach more so than a niche.

    The perfect example is sending 60 year old women emails asking them if they would like to grow ad bigger penis.

    Are they so focused on providing “premium penis growing value” that they forget that the customer “may” not be interested in that offer? LOL

  13. says

    When asked why he robbed banks, the famous Willie Sutton was said to have uttered these immortal words…”Cause that’s where they keep the money, stupid!”

    I agree with you on some points. I don’t think you can put enough emphasis on using more tantalizing bait, consistently.

    I see some very promising people come into my niche and I follow them for a while. They start off with very good headers, copy and call to action. Then they start to get sloppy, intermittent and soon they’re gone.

    As long as we’re using fishing analogies, I would offer this one. When I was a kid, we lived near a creek. With 7 mouths to feed, my mom used to rely on me to bring home a mess of trout once or twice a week. I couldn’t get the hang of consistently catching fish. One day, my dad sat me down and asked me to take some extra time to make my fly selection, each time I changed flies. He taught me to follow the hatch, observe feeding times and a lot more. My family wanted some fish!

    It took me a while to understand that he was coaching me to take the extra time to really give the fish what they crave. It was then that I became a fisherman and not just whipping the water, hoping something would bite.

    Long story longer…be consistently aware of your fishing conditions and take the time to present them with a fly they can’t resist.

    Steve Benedict

  14. says

    I’m in agreement with how to take some lessons from spammers (gag). The fish story is good, but needs some work. The takeaways were poor.

    All in all, I was disappointed in this post. It seemed to ramble and was disconnected. The thoughts are right on, but I can’t award style points for writing.

    Sorry if I was too harsh, but I guess I expect so much from CopyBlogger that this was a let down.

  15. says

    It’s incredible that spammers can make $4,600 a day. When I get these mostly poorly written emails i can not imagine anyone falling for it. Yet 1 in a million apparently does, so there are some ethical lessons to be learned for us here from these unethical methods.

  16. says

    I think the bigger takeaway here is that SIZE MATTERS (in marketing at least).

    We may spend a ton of time tweaking this and that, working on our content to perfection and then making sure that each customer is treated with the utmost respect, but if we don’t have the numbers of potential fish, then there is no viable business.

    Dan, this is a nice rendition on the classical importance of making sure that your business model has a lage enough group of customers to support yor idea in the first place.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  17. says

    Elizabeth, you’re always seeking a little niche because your positioning has to be strong enough to strongly attract some fish and push away the other fish as a consequence.

    But the pond itself cannot be small. The market must be large and full of lots of fish and fishermen. It’s your bait (positioning and offer) that’s niche.

  18. says

    @kiesha I totally agree – if these ” scammer spammers” are making a fortune, imagine what quality and integrity over quantity and fluff.

    @steve- I loved your fishing story. so true. Customize your offerings and your content to the right audience and they will “bite”.

  19. says

    @Darren Scott Monroe, the fact that some of the spammers email end up in the inbox of old ladies does not mean they are targeting that niche, or that they aren’t targeting any niche at all.

    Some of their marketing efforts spill over, that is for sure, but they are still targeting well defined niches like pills, luxury goods and what not.

    Have you ever got spam email for a product that appealed to a very small audience, say “how to grow blue orchids”?

    I have not.

  20. Mike Botvinik says

    It is no doubt that copywriting and numbers play a huge role in a spammers success. But it is still spamming and still technically illegal. I think the problem is in building the list in an ethical and legal way. I’m not sure what the laws are with this but direct marketing via email is definitely a gold mine if you can ethically compile your list. This is the obstacle many run into- is it ethical to take people’s emails off social networks if they publish them? Is it ethical to buy a list of addresses from a segmentation research firm? These and many other questions all point to the gray area in between damn good ethical marketing and annoying or misleading spamming. Finding that golden mean is the trick.

  21. says

    What gets me is the mail addresses that aren’t even mine that wind up in my spam folder at Yahoo mail. Something fishy their or is it ‘Phishy.” I digress. I just realized that these people spend money to spam your email inboxes and use the “it’s all in the numbers theory” to get sales. I guess 20 bucks a month is a small start to be able to get in the “numbers” game.

  22. says

    I have noticed that a lot of the spammers I get on my blog are getting a little smarter in the way they word their ad(s). They try to act as if they’re part of the community by saying things that somehow relate to your article and making it look like a legitimate comment. They’re still easily identifiable though.

    But even though the spam messages are annoying to us, the people behind them are actually a lot smarter than most of us probably think.

  23. says

    @Daniel Scocco Pills or penis grow pills in my example though a niche isn’t a well defined niche. Penis grow pills targeted at men who have confirmed opted in yes. But targeting a massive audience and having as you call it “spill over” is far from defined niche marketing.

    Though different ideologies are respected (Daniel I work with you in two other groups if you remember) I don’t necessarily agree with this approach. Spammers are on the opposite side of the spectrum. Yes they don’t deal with the small obscure they deal with the general “blah blah” everyone “jump on bandwagon here” marketing.

    This seems to be the Starbucks / WalMart approach to marketing Daniel. Though both have interesting models and both started in smaller highly focused niches (not obscure ones) that solved problems. Their sales started to drop when they over extended themselves.

    Spammers don’t aim at fish as much as they aim at water hoping to hit fish. Though the opposite is being particular about what fish you hit (obscure niche) . The balance is not there with the spam guys. And thats why I disagree with example 1 about fish.

  24. says

    @Darren, I think you are confusing the niche itself with how you promote/market your products to that niche.

    On your comment you are saying that “someone selling viagra to an optin list of 30 to 60 men” has a definied niche. While “someone selling viagra via spam emails to whoever gets them” doesn’t have a defined niche.

    Well, both of these people are in the same niche, the viagra one. The difference is how they promote/market their pills. One is using a more effective method (an optin list), while the other is using a less effective/illegal one (email spam).

  25. says

    @Darren, I see two issues there. There’s creating a targeted message and having a targeted list. Spammers create a very targeted message, and as Daniel says, they don’t go for small segments of the market. But they usually have a completely undifferentiated list, so they’re sending their targeted message to anyone and everyone.

    @Alex, I think you’re right, I suspect a lot of them are very bright. That kind of activity attracts an outlaw mentality. They’re not avoiding doing it “the right way” (as I’d define that) because they’re dumb, it’s because they enjoy the chase and the game.

  26. says

    @Sonia correct thats my issue the big pond is not targeted.

    @Daniel what is missing from your number 1 step is a “filtering” proccess. I am saying that a better approach would be to hit a more specific (though not obscure) group.

    No filtering proccess the 60 year old lady gets the surprise email about Viagra.

  27. says

    @Sonia now that I recall my comment about filtering stands again LOL

    My original example was asking the 60 year old lady if she wanted a “bigger” not an “erect” penis Sonia LOL

    So even if she had a penis she would still be upset because she wasn’t trying to “lift her spirits” as much as “stretch her vision and broaden her horizons” so to speak Sonia LOL

  28. says

    great post i love this. Spammers always tried to convince you that you click on the link that they leave while spamming and most of the times it results in nothing good as ever.
    Many of the times i got good comments that are eye catching and when you look you thought you must have to approve but still they are spam comments

  29. says

    One of the most powerful lessons you can learn from email spammers is catchy email subject lines. Some of them can get pretty creative. Don’t get me wrong, they really piss me off, but I have to admit that I’ve used some of their lines when sending out my carpet cleaning eNewsletters.

  30. says

    Here are a few more things you can learn from them:

    Outsource for Scale – these millionaire spammers are not sitting in their mother’s basement working solo. They recruit human workers from low cost markets (directly and indirectly sometimes) to write copy, break captcha’s, create web pages, and so on. Its the only way they can grow their business.

    Buy not Build – there are underground markets where spammers can buy email lists, scripts, botnets and tools to run their campaigns. For a fee you can even buy a maintenance plan where the coder will keep modifying your tools to get around the latest malware/spam detection!

    Build Resilience – the McColo shutdown knocked one botnet off the air for a few months, but they came back. And others made themselves more resilient. These spam networks are so complex and multi-jurisdictional that they are not only resilient to technical failure but also to attempts by any given country to shut them down completely.

    Keep Evolving – spammers have to evolve or they get killed by security vendors. They are constantly developing new tools and techniques to stay ahead of the antispam vendors of the world.

    Personalisation Works – spammers are using what they know about their targets (using sites such as Facebook) to make their spam more personal than ever before. They do this because they know the more personal and relevant their message is, the more likely they’ll convert a victim.

    Build Recurring Revenue – an example of this is one of the PDF reader spams that goes around. Aside from trying to get malware on your computer they also try to trick you into joining a “club” with monthly fee for access to tools and guides for your PC (stuff which costs sweet-F-A to get written by one of their 3rd world workers).

    Monitor Trends – spammers will take advantage of every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Presidential election, bank bailout, celebrity death, natural disaster, and major sporting event to push out themed content.

    I could go on, but I think you get the idea :-)

  31. says

    That is one good post, as long as you also read the comments.

    I don’t know if any of you have had the experience of having one of your sites broken into but I can assure you that when it happens the huge amount of pages and links forced onto it beggars belief. And they had massive numbers of these junk pages spidered and cached in the search engines.

    I spent 2 weeks solid, 10 hours a day, cleaning out the junk and replcing it with masses of less junky content. Not perfect by any means and mostly PLR stuff but no porn or any of the other junk that had been there.

    Here’s the thing though, the traffic to the site had gone from nothing to over 10,000 hits per day. I traced back the source of the hits and found more hacked sites with massive link farms.

    You all want a take away from this, as I did, build links everywhere you can. It doesn’t matter if they are junk sites, targetted, good keyword focussed anchor text or whatever. Traffic comes from lots and lots of links. Good traffic comes from good quality links but the search robots don’t know one from another and so spider and cache from any and all links.

    If you are commenting on blogs or forums provide something of value for the valuable link you want. No-follow is still a link.

    The other thing you may be interested in is I put up 301 links in the .htaccess file to redirect all the incoming links to all the new content I put on the site and now have more hits per day than before. I managed to retain the traffic but redirect the type.

  32. says

    A great post. I was always fascinated on the way spammers make so much and even though i know it’s a matter of numbers, it’s still surprising to me.

  33. says

    Thank you Sonia, I was devastated for a while as my site was shut down by the host, understandably. I was totally impressed by the traffic they had generated in a very short period of time.

    They had better rankings in a couple of weeks than i had managed in a couple of years.

    Now I focus on links, I’m still slower than they were but no-one wants to shut me down either.

  34. says

    Very intersting post. It alarms me somewhat that nearly all my spam seems to be about Viagra. Do they know something I don’t, or is it a premonition?
    Seriously though, we all as marketers need to look at who is being successful. If its a numbers game then so be it. Never thought I’d learn anything of a spammer.
    Now where have I placed my Viagra?

    Andy Beveridge
    Andy-Beveridge.com

  35. says

    Its true Daniel, If a genuine blogger will promote legit products with same determination as spammers there is no reason while he won’t succeed.

  36. says

    Hi,

    Thanks a lot for the great info. I always say there’s lessons to be learnt from everyone (including spammers). Wise fisherman must go to where the fish are.

    Great stuff.

    Michael

  37. Youpele says

    I never realised how hard and unethical spammers work in the long run. Test,test,test without fail gradually brings results. This does not have a reflection on me I hope:)

  38. says

    I do not agree with Daniel on this: [@Beki, yes diving in the lakes with plenty of fish is not a trivial task. Most people don’t do it because the competition seems to tough. But business is about beating the competition and not about avoiding it.]
    As far as I read from the book by Philip Kotler, that is why it is called niche. It is a narrow gap in the market with little competition, but still there is a demand that can be fulfiled, of course it is the profitable ones.

    So it was not about avoiding the competition but beating the competition smarter.

  39. Martin G says

    I’d agree with all the points except the one about scale. You already mentioned permission marketing, and I think that emailing a list of 100 subscribing fans (for the sake of argument) is a much better prospect in terms of return on investment than sending to 1000 people who’ve never heard of you, and haven’t suggested they want your product.

    Thanks for the tips – it’s always good to learn from everyone!

  40. says

    Encouraging and discouraging at the same time with such high traffic numbers and low percentages of conversion rates. Lots to think about though. Go where the fish are is saying it plainly. Good advice which I will be taking.

  41. says

    @Martin, I totally agree with you. But I also think that if you have 100 engaged fans, you’ll get better results when you grow that to 500 engaged fans, which is very doable.

    I agree that you can do amazing things with lists that aren’t actually all that gigantic. Especially if you have a good reputation and good friends in social media who can toot the horn when you’ve got something cool to share. We just should be careful we don’t assume that a big list can’t also be engaged and passionate; they can, if the list was grown well.

  42. says

    “Go where the fish are” i think most people are aware about the niche target in these days but i have seen spammers coming on every topic

  43. says

    I know conventional internet marketing wisdom agrees “the money is in the list”, and I continue to support listbuilding and email marketing with my clients, but I can’t help but feel that typical email marketing must evolve significantly to remain relevant much longer, precisely because so much of it (even permission based) is increasingly indistinguishable from spam.

  44. says

    The difference between a successful blogger who sells affiliate products and one that isn’t is how well they can “sell” in their article. Writing to convince someone to purchase or try a product is not very easy and you have to learn the writing style that is needed to make a successful sales pitch. Very different style than typical blogging and one that I myself am not very good at.

    Enjoyed the article.

  45. says

    Copywriting, I agree with this. Copywriting will be very clearly illustrates that we are truly a writer. Even many of them who do not realize this, by stealing our content and post to others.

  46. says

    Love the post… Particularly #3! I think everything you said are very valid points but most people overlook the importance of a KILLER Ad copy. I often find myself perplexed when people want the email list to create miracle sales, but then when you review their AD it stinks. The secret behind a successful email marketing campaign that generates tons of traffic is in the way the AD Copy is written. I tell people, if you do not know how to do it, hire a copywriter.

  47. says

    After reading this article, I am surprised that some spammers can make this much money! When I get spam in my email for weight loss pills, or some free loans, I know I will never sign up, but I am baffled someone out there would even click the link and read on!

  48. says

    Very right – looking for customers is like it used to be looking for job after college: a hundred applications, a few interviews, one or two bingo’s.
    By the way, I remembered this story:
    Early in the internet age, I once received an offer to buy printer cartridges. Can’t tell now if that was ‘spam’ or ‘somebody bought my address from somewbody else therefore not a spam’ (see my point?)
    Anyways, I received those cartridges and that supply lasted for two years. Hope those guys got rich.


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