It's been 36 years since Gary Thuerk, known today as "The Father of Spam," came up with the idea to send a marketing email to recipients who hadn't asked for it. Today spam is old news, but there's a lot we can still learn from Thuerk and his innovation. Marketers in the legitimate digital world have had nothing but disdain for spam for decades. Pretending you're an African prince so you can commit credit card fraud? Not for me! Offering penis enhancement gadgets to people who were perfectly happy with the prowess of their junk until they saw the unsolicited message that you optimized for maximum interruption impact? No thanks! But when we hear the story of spam's birth from Thuerk himself, the narrative still resonates plenty with the challenges that new media marketers are facing in 2014.
Back when Al Gore was an undergrad, ARPANET, the World Wide Web's precursor, first came online in 1969. Some two years later, the first electronic letter successfully transmitted a text file from one computer to another. The two machines – magnetic tape reels, daisywheel print-based displays and all – were located in the same room as each other, which at the time might have been a bigger accomplishment than the email transmission itself. By 1978, ARPANET use had blossomed enough to justify the publication of a community directory, complete with everyone's email address. So when Gary Thuerk, then working at Boston's Digital Equipment Corporation, wanted to invite West Cost thought leaders to a new product launch event, he came up with a brilliant way to avoid the cumbersome work involved with calling or snail mailing everyone. He and a coworker spent a few days manually typing in some 400 prospects' addresses, eventually amassing a CC list so long that it crashed some recipients' computers and obscured the message's body text on many displays. Thuerk was censured by the Defense Communications Agency relatively quickly, but the damage had already been done – the marketing communications world would never be the same. Digital's product went on to enjoy over $12 million in revenues, and a new precedent had been set. So what can brand marketers in 2014 learn from how this all went down? Here are three key lessons.
Before the internet was opened up to the general public, including marketers, it wasn't so clear what ARPANET was to be used for. The network was first conceived as a failsafe backup solution – not as a platform for innovation or even for enabling communication. So when the authorities at the DCA rebuked Thuerk – over the phone, of course – their criticism of what he had done makes little sense in retrospect. "They said ARPANET was considered a research vehicle, not to be used for commercial uses," Thuerk recalls of the call. With omnichanel brand interaction becoming the norm today, smart marketers would be wise to keep an open mind about what the tools in their boxes should be used for. To establish and maintain audience engagement channels that are actually helpful, technology needs to be viewed as an enabler of quality interaction rather than something to hide behind (check out Seth Godin's poignant musings on this very topic from back in 2008). Sometimes engagement "relevance" simply doesn't work like you might assume based on the roads commonly traveled. We should be challenging ourselves to find new ways that our tools can help us to reach our marketing goals - not to simply become early adopters of whatever's trending. Whether it's crowdsourced "recipe building" on IFTTT or finding fresh social media tactics for established channels, it's your job to discover something new that is effective for your brand.
Tech innovators and digital marketers may make some wrong turns here and there, but as long as you don't act brashly and make sure the logic behind what you're doing is sound, it's best to stand by the decisions you've made. "I never feel guilty. Someone would have done it," says The Father of Spam, looking back. "I sent out the first mass email in 1978, and it wasn't until 10 or 15 years later that people realized they can send advertising over email for cheap." Sometimes the world catches up to thinking that's too progressive, and sometimes it doesn't. Nowadays, the startup ecosystem may even be too supportive of brazen ingenuity, to the point where entrepreneurs and others responsible for churning out digital product ideas view failure as a badge of honor. FailCon, a series of events taking place around the world on an ongoing basis, celebrates innovation train wrecks as prerequisites for eventual success. Startup culture's current "fail fetish" may be disproportionately rewarding contemporary brand innovators for looking only after they leap, but that's much better than stagnation. Thuerk's experience demonstrates that there's no space for remorse in the pursuit of progress.
Just because people are using unsolicited marketing emails for phishing and other predatory practices doesn't mean that what Thuerk did was exclusively bad news. "You don't blame the Wright Brothers for every flying problem," he says. Safer bets are the ones with smaller payoffs. When you take risks with your online branding, you might end up losing, but if you win, at least you'll win big. Established multinationals can afford to coast on momentum. It's the emerging players who need to smash through barriers. If you want to build an audience, you're going to need to stand out from the crowd and disrupt the conversation. Not that being opportunistic is always wise – just look at all the SEO pros who once forged vibrant careers out of exploiting Google's ranking algorithms and now find themselves in tight spots, desperate to find relevant tactics in the wake of Humingbird. If he did nothing else, Thuerk paved the way for "playing it safe" to become uncool in digital marketing. Today's edgy initiatives are tomorrow's status quo. Remember when Oreo's "social media war room" got everyone talking after last year's Superbowl? Well, this year, a whole lot of brands got the message and did their best to replicate it. Remember when absurdist humor was actually eye-catching? Now everyone's doing it. It's time to find the next big thing.