Content Marketing 101: Lessons from the Spam Underworld

May, 1864. It’s a quiet, balmy Sunday night in London’s most powerful households — but not for long. A handful of the city’s politicians are awakened by the unusual delivery of a midnight telegram, sealed in an ominous envelope. A death in the family? Have the French invaded?

Neither. The telegram was from a local firm of dentists, proudly informing bleary-eyed aristrocrats that Messrs Gabriel, of 27 Harley Street, would be open from 10am to 5pm until October.

“I have never had any dealings with Messrs Gabriel,” a victim harrumphed in a letter to The Times the next day, “and beg to ask by what right do they disturb me by a telegram which is evidently simply the medium of advertisement?”

Clickworthy Content Tips from Your Junk Mail Folder

That telegram has been touted by some to be the birth of spam. Yes, unwanted manipulative (or creative) content has been around for centuries. Take the Spanish Prisoner, a con born in the 1500s. An unwitting mark would receive a letter from a purported countryman being wrongfully held captive in a Spanish prison. Near death, all the “prisoner” wanted was to see his beautiful daughter one more time. If the mark paid for this young lady’s travel expenses, the prisoner would name the recipient as guardian to her in his will, and bequeath a large sum of money to boot.

At first glance, Mayya appears to suffer from severe brain damage. But there’s a reason these emails seem to be written by an epileptic monkey, or possibly the author of Fifty Shades of Grey."

Intrigue, drama, secrecy, treasure and a young hottie in a corset. Junk mail, it seems, has changed little in 500 years. But what can we learn from spam as content? As content creators, spam is like the dark underbelly of content marketing. “It’s publishing in a way, but without any scruples whatsoever,” grins Richard MacLean, Creative Director of Novus Asia. “Its only goal is to dig into your brain by whatever means possible, and get you to click.”

A quick glance at my own bloated email junk folder, and the subject lines within, is proof of that:

Eliminate ALL wrinkles in 90 seconds! (promised to work)

Here’s The One Tip To Improve You Memory

This Silent Parasite Makes You Fat

My Wife Used to Cry In The Bedroom

Dirt-Cheap Electricity Using Your Trash Can

The Weird Invention That Saved a Family During a Hurricane

It’s like a who’s who of the seven deadly sins: sloth, lust, gluttony — they’re all there. If an alien were to try to study our civilisation by email alone, he’d weep for us all. Junk mail might not be pretty, but it works. It works because it preys on our base desires, our curiosity and our cheap sense of drama.

Why Bad Writing Works…Sometimes

And the drama is real. A 2012 paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives estimates that spam costs American firms and consumers US$20 billion a year alone. Meanwhile spammers reap a profit of just US$200 million. Not a great ratio, you’d think, but the authors estimate that only one in 25,000 people need buy something through spam to make it worthwhile.

People are curious idiots: a security researcher wanted to see just how many people would click on a link they knew was bad. He engineered a fake online ad that promised to infect your computer upon clicking the link. More than 400 people clicked anyway, “presumably driven simply by a desire to see what a virus actually looks like,” according to a report by McAfee.

What else can we learn from spam? Let’s pluck one of the one billion spam emails sent each day: “HELLO!!! My name is Mayya. I to look a structure at a site. You to interest me as the man. To me to want it is more to know about you.”

At first glance, Mayya appears to suffer from severe brain damage. But there’s a reason these emails seem to be written by an epileptic monkey, or possibly the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. The secret to why they’re terribly bad is this:

They’re Meant to be Terribly Bad

As a research paper by Microsoft explains, the low quality of vocabulary is deliberate. It thins the herd of victims, meaning that only the truly naive of us — those dumb enough to eventually offer our private details or part with money — will click. “By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible,” the authors write, “the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select.” Dumbed-down content weeds out the suckers from the non-suckers, see?

So that’s one type of spam — the kind we might dub Mayya the Misspelt Mentalist. But every now and then, you might open an email to find something resembling classic literature: “After some time, I came thither dressed in my new habit.” Or “If they fire, Watson, have no compunction in shooting them down.”

Sound familiar? That’s because those lines were written by celebrated authors Daniel Defoe and Arthur Conan Doyle, creators of Robinson Crusoe and Sherlock Holmes respectively. See, spammers know that junk filters are only getting stronger, scanning for words like Viagra and cl1ck here and guaranteed money. So spammers bury their offers in quotes from public domain literature, cloaking their terms in high art.

Clickbait Conmen

These are ingenious but dirty tricks. Luckily, some people are fighting back against the fact that 50 percent of all emails worldwide are spam. They’re called 419 baiters. Why? Because the Nigerian law that penalises email fraud falls under Article 419. Think of baiters as half-vigilante, half-prankster. Their aim? To get scammers to waste so much time on fake “victims” that they start to rethink their career choice.

One sneaky tactic is to answer their correspondence, befriend them, and offer them fake advice, according to this insightful article on technology news website Ars Technica. “When the scammer sends you a photo of a fake passport that looks like it was made by a blind hamster with a piece of charcoal in 10 seconds, you praise it and say it really helps you build trust,” explains one baiter. “Then, hope he is encouraged by this to send it to real victims too, who on the other hand will hopefully recognise it is a fake.”

Other baiters take it further still, sending scammers on 3,000-mile trips from Nigeria to Darfur to pick up non-existent money. Another baiter known only as blah managed to detain one scammer for hours at Heathrow. “He was waiting for me to arrive on a flight that I wasn’t actually on,” blah gleefully recalls to Ars Technica. “I told him to show up with a black backpack and hold it very, very close to his chest. Airport security didn’t find it amusing, apparently, and thought he was acting suspicious.” Some may say it’s all fun and games but every moment a scammer is wasting time is another moment they’re not blagging someone of their life savings.

Add (Spam) Poetry to Your Brand Content

So the next time you open up spam mail — and I’m not for a second suggesting you should — perhaps you’ll find some beauty in it. Other people certainly do. Spoetry or spam-poetry has been around since the ’90s, with readers spinning verse from dreck:

The old saying,

playing with fire,

in my opinion,

the android must be equipped with a computer virus,

such as a default.

Wise words, Mayya. I’m still waiting for your reply, by the way. To me to want it is more to know about you.

Odd Moments in Spam History

A 12-year-old boy in Utah is so poor he can’t even afford bus fare to the library. He asks his mailman to drop off any spare junk mail, just so he has something to read. Touched, the mailman sends out a plea on Facebook asking people to send whatever books they can. Cue an avalanche of books flooding in from around the world.

In 2003, a pensioner from the Czech Republic walked into the Nigerian Embassy, demanding restitution for the US$600,000 he’d lost in a 419 email scam. When his request was denied, he pulled a gun on the Nigerian consul and shot him dead.

The UK’s Royal Mail apparently earns revenues of £1.1 billion a year from delivering junk mail — that’s £3 million a day.

Content as cool as ice: the British Red Cross came up with a nifty postal campaign to raise awareness for destitute people during a cold European winter. Part of the letter was penned in temperature-sensitive ink, and would only appear after you had popped it in the freezer. “The only place in Britain where it felt that cold was actually in people’s deep freezes,” said Jason Andrews, the creative director behind the campaign. “That’s what these people were putting up with without food, heat, clothing and so on.”

What’s the weirdest spam you’ve ever received?