Even the Best Laid Plans Can Go Awry

Don't let modest successes lead you to believe that it is possible to reduce Internet business to some sort of predictable science. Despite its rapid evolution as a commercial marketplace, the Internet still has a long way to go before it is a reliable place to do business. To see what we mean, consider the following story about Internet publishing ventures that encountered some bumps along the way.

Last fall, we decided to launch a monthly electronic newsletter called Interactive Marketing Alert and to distribute it through an Internet mailing list. The plan was to post monthly press releases on business-related Internet discussion groups, offering free subscriptions to anybody who wanted to sign up. Once circulation reached 1,000 subscribers, we would start selling ads to companies that wanted to reach our readers. Essentially, we were trying to create the Internet equivalent of a controlled circulation magazine -- a technique that has worked extremely well for HotWired and other on-line publications.

At first, this little publishing venture seemed to go well. Press releases quickly generated hundreds of subscriptions. Readers liked what we had to say, and hardly anybody flamed us for using the Internet to publicize a commercial venture. After all, we were giving away the newsletter for free.

Then, in early March, shortly after posting the February issue of the newsletter to the mailing list, we found a strange note in our e-mail box. It was an unsolicited pitch letter from a Tennessee company trying to interest us in what it described as a "business opportunity." Puzzled at first -- how did this company from which we had never requested information get our name?

Soon afterward, we began getting angry e-mail from subscribers accusing us of committing the ultimate Internet business crime: spamming -- or, in this case, renting out our list to a company that went out and spammed. That is when we realized that the company had not simply sent the pitch letter, but had piggybacked the list to send junk mail to all subscribers.

After sending out a few apologetic notes to the handful of subscribers who had complained, it was time for some serious damage control. We posted a note to the list apologizing for the junk mailer's actions -- the company in question insisted that it did not know that the list was not supposed to be used for that purpose -- and assuring subscribers that the folks at the Colorado company that manages the list were trying to get to the bottom of what was happening.

We thought that would nip the problem in the bud, but we were wrong! The folks in Colorado had inadvertently set up the list so that anybody could post to it -- not just the list owner. As a result, subscribers started replying to our posting, and other subscribers began replying to their postings. Everybody's postings were posted to everybody on the list. We pleaded with everybody to stop posting to the list until the list operator could fix it. But it was no use. It was as if we were trapped in the Internet version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. No matter how many times we tried to stop those postings, even more postings would pop up to take their place.

Things got even worse. At first, a few people had unsubscribed -- Internet lingo for getting off a mailing list -- because of the spamming. Now dozens of people canceled their subscriptions because their mailboxes were getting flooded with e-mail from other subscribers discussing the spamming incident. Months of hard work seemed to be slipping down the drain. Chagrined, we posted a note to the list telling our readers that we might have to pull the plug on the list if this craziness didn't stop soon.

Then the tide started turning. Readers started sending letters of support, urging us to keep the newsletter alive. Before long, the e-mail slowed to a trickle. In short, we will probably gain more subscribers than we lost from this little tempest in a teapot. We may get some advertisers, too.

The moral of the story: Whatever commercial venture you try on the Internet, expect the unexpected. That way, you will never be surprised.

Submitted by Rosalind Resnick and Dave Taylor -

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