Bot Fraud 2019: The Sad State of Email Marketing

Tongues have been wagging in the marketing world ever since the New York Times’ shocking exposé in early 2018 about how easy it is to buy social followers. And, how most of the followers you buy turn out to be “bots” or fake accounts, and not real people.

I was not surprised because I work in digital media and knew about this practice. So, I cried, screamed, and wrote about an even bigger epidemic in the world of email. My articles were received with polite applause and not much more in terms of action.

But then last week happened. One of our competitors, Take 5 Media Group, shut down operations with a “ceased operations” message on its website. While details are still murky, one of our partners shared an email from them that mentioned the parent company had completely shut down the business after discovering inconsistencies in how open and click-through rates were inaccurately reported to its clients.

The parent company did the right thing, in after discovering these inconsistencies, took immediate action to first, take responsibility, and subsequently, offer its clients reimbursement for payment of services already rendered. Kudos to them for standing up for the right thing, but there are still at least a half dozen companies masquerading as legitimate entities that continue the practice.

This incident is but a sobering reminder that bots remain a big problem in email marketing today. Sadly, when you order up a prospecting campaign from an email service provider, chances are that the large part of the campaign is being sent to fake bot accounts. And nobody seems to care.

We have, as an industry, created a fake floor of 10% open on acquisition emails. When marketing managers of Fortune 1000 companies ask Stirista to guarantee 10% open just because some guy from Florida said so, we know we have a problem.

Now, it should be clear to any marketer worth his or her salt, that if the bulk of the clicks come through bots, that conversion rates will be dismal. So, I can only assume that the marketers ordering up these campaigns aren’t keeping their eyes on conversions. They must judge them on clicks and opens.  Or, maybe they don’t care. We are here today because many large data companies that outsource email campaigns have subsidized fraud.

Let Take 5 serve a cautionary tale, but realize that this is not an isolated incident. The pressure to deliver fake open, fake clicks, and fake form fills transcend one company and one incident. Collectively, this industry has turned a blind eye to fraud just because ‘so and so’ is a nice guy and a vegetarian who loves animals.

These fraudulent providers often work quietly, behind the scenes, for a reputable agency or data provider.  Many times, marketers are shielded from the dirty dealings underneath the hood.  But all parties involved—the providers, their partners, and the marketers themselves—should be ashamed of themselves.  And, the FCC should be on their case. Until then, we must all be responsible for fighting back against bot fraud.

I urge all marketers to shun this practice.  It’s wasting your company’s money.  And it’s given honest, transparent providers like me a bad name. Open rates are a terrible metric to track – as in you can’t  track it that well.

So, if you hear a guarantee that sounds too good to be true, very likely it is.  Walk, make that RUN, the other way, FAST.  And give me a call.

Related content:  Best Practices Email Deployment (PDF)

About the author

At fourteen, Ajay made his first foray into the entrepreneurial world, publishing one of the first wrestling newsletters on the web. Armed with rudimentary SEO skills and a sharp pen, the newsletter grew to over 50,000 subscribers by the time the publication was sold in 2002 when Ajay was a college freshman. Most importantly, Ajay realized the ease with which communication could be carried out via e-mail. A decade later, after an eclectic mix of degrees in Financial Economics, Creative Writing,...

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