Posts Tagged ‘spam’

Are Spammers Getting Smarter?

If your blog gets any remotely significant amount of traffic, you’ve probably experienced problems with comment spam. Right now, I have just over 2,100 comments in my spam queue thanks to the Akismet WordPress plugin.

SpamYou might think that with that many comments caught in my spam filter, the software was doing a good job. However, it appears the spammers are getting more creative in their attempts to get around the protection and I’ve noticed more spam comments getting through the filter and into my moderation queue in recent months.

Here are a few of the spam comments (sans links) I’ve found recently:

  • “Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.”
  • “I normally do not leave comments but I recently started using twitter and I am a little lost. Thanks for clearing some stuff for me. Looking forward to your next post.” (the URL submitted with the comment gave this one away)
  • “@Madeline, you appear to know what you are talking about. Do you care sending me your e-mail? I would like to talk more with you.”
  • “Sometimes it’s really that simple, isn’t it? I feel a little stupid for not thinking of this myself/earlier, though.”
  • “I know this is really boring and you are skipping to the next comment, but I just wanted to throw you a big thanks – you cleared up some things for me!” (the give-away with this one was the same identical comment left multiple times)
  • “Hello, I thought I would post and let you know your web site layout is really messed up on the Firefox browser. Seems to work OK on Internet Explorer however. Anyways keep up the good work.”

A couple of characteristics of some of these examples:

  1. Referring to specific usernames
  2. Mentioning tools which (through pure chance perhaps) relate to the post
  3. Self-deprecating comments
  4. Compliments towards the author

Of course, there’s still a massive volume of generic drug-focused spam comments and gibberish in there too. Still, these comments caught my eye.

Is it me or are spammers getting smarter?

Why Spam PR Pitches Won’t Go Away

Yesterday morning I received an email pitch. Nothing particularly exciting about that; it wasn’t the first pitch I received yesterday and it certainly wasn’t the last. It wasn’t tailored and it wasn’t addressed to me but it was on topic. I noted that it was for an ebook on social media marketing and set it aside to read properly later.

Spam

Very quickly, though, I began to see replies to that pitch. And then more replies. They kept coming. As it turns out, the sender of the pitch had created a mailing list and had emailed that list using the ‘To’ field in the address bar.

Over the next eight hours, I received 27 replies to the original email from people on the list. People who, apparently, like the ‘Reply All’ button (which, I think, should have an “are you sure” prompt when you use it). Emails getting increasingly irate at the original sender. Emails from well-known social media types like Mike Driehorst, Jennifer Leggio, Om Malik and Francine Hardaway.  Emails from reporters at the WSJ, at AdAge, at AP and Newsweek. To make matters worse, everyone began getting copied on support tickets about the removal requests.

Emails after a spam pitch

All told, we received 45 emails over an 8-hour period.

Spray and pray worked

One telling point, however? The first reply in the email chain was from someone who wanted to review the book. So was the fourth, which raised the possibility of a Blog Herald review.

Sadly, spray and pray was getting results. From a short-term perspective, the spammy pitch may have actually worked. It got two responses. Perhaps, were it not for the mailing list disaster, it might have received a few more.

In the long-term, however, the pitch did nothing to impress those of us on the list who viewed it as spam. It built no relationships and it certainly destroyed plenty (numerous people noted they have blacklisted the sender).

This is part of the volume/customization trade-off that PR people face. Some agencies will continue along this path – despite the people they alienate, they will land coverage for their client.

Other agencies (ours included) will choose to take a more targeted approach. We’ll pitch less people, choose our targets and personalize our approaches. We’ll aim for a high return from a smaller number of pitches.

Like it or not, both tailored and spray-and-pray approaches can work. However, one of them builds relationships in the process while the other damages them. I choose the former.

What do you think?

The Volume/Personalization Trade-Off

The trade-off between volume and personalization is an ever-present dilemma in public relations. If, as I do, you subscribe to the notion that one of the best ways to build loyalty is to develop a relationship with people, then you’ve likely hit the point where you have to make a trade-off between the number of people you can engage with and the quality of those interactions.

A couple of weeks ago I received a pitch about the upcoming launch of Gary Vaynerchuk‘s first book. The pitch wasn’t fantastic, but as I’ve followed Gary’s activities for a while and it was well enough targeted, I replied and moved on. Fast forward to this weekend, when I read an interesting post by John Cass about a similar (not identical) pitch that he received. Reading the comments (those on the original post and the re-post on Social Media Today are all worth reading), I started to really think about the optimum point along the scale/personalization continuum when it comes to pitching.

Volume/personalization extremes

Purists will tell you that you need to read 10-20 posts or stories from each person you pitch, and that you should completely tailor every pitch you issue. Meanwhile, some other people will argue that by reaching a large volume of people with your pitch, the law of averages says you will connect with enough people who do care that you will come out ahead.

I’d argue that there are downsides to both extreme, although I still favour one side over the other.

I’ve written before about some of the issues involved with personalized blogger relations. The primary one, of course, is time. Even if you take just a minute or two per post you read, that time adds up quickly. To then tailor personalized emails takes more time. When you work for an agency, the process can quickly chew through your client’s budget.

Once you get to the kind of numbers that Gary mentions in his comments on John’s post, you’re talking astronomical amounts of time. That limits this approach to a very small number of recipients.

This brings us to the other extreme – mass communications. This is the approach that relies on building a large list, emailing out a standard (or mail-merged) email to that list and letting the law of averages do its work. Sure, you may annoy some people but you’ll also hit other people who will take the action you’re after. This is the “email marketing” form of pitching – the collision of the two tactics.

Is the sweet spot in the middle ground?

In an ideal world, every company would take the former approach. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that wonderful place – time is tight, budgets are tighter and we need to deliver results for our clients and bosses with less resources than we would like to have.

I wonder if the ideal solution, as with so many dilemmas, is somewhere in the middle.

The chart above shows roughly how I view the dilemma. At the top-left of the curve, you have the idealists who say you should completely tailor every word of every pitch you send out. Small, highly-targeted outreach also fits into this part of the curve. At the opposite end of the chart, you have the spammers who pitch massive numbers of people with the same message. They’re easy to spot – they’re the ones where you’re bcc’d, with no salutation or a “Dear Blogger.” They often lead with the words “For Immediate Release.”

I’ve worked for clients where their only targets are one or two highly influential blogs, and in that case you can function over  at the top-left of the curve. However, unless your target audience is an extremely small number of sites (or their readers), you may need to make some compromises.

Still, I am strongly (and often vocally) against untargeted spam pitches that hit everyone with the same email. Note that the potential “sweet spot” I suggest sits closer to the tailored, low-volume end of the scale than the other. Critically, it sits above the tipping point where the volume reaches the point where significantly less personalization is possible.

The reality of the “sweet spot”

In this sweet spot, for a new client:

  • You research the targets of your pitches – you read their stories or their websites;
  • You create a pitch template covering the key points you wish to communicate;
  • You tailor that template for every person you pitch;
    • That personalization includes, but isn’t limited to:
      • The medium you use to pitch them (if that information is available)
      • Your greeting
      • Your opening paragraph
      • The points on which you choose to focus
      • The supporting collateral you offer – do they lean towards video? Images? Interviews?
  • You keep some less-critical parts of the email the same, to save time and budget.

Time changes things

I say “for a new client” above because, as time goes on, I believe the line in the chart moves up – as you get to know the market and the media in that market better, you can reach more of them more effectively in less time, meaning more personalization, less time required and better use of resources.

Having worked on some accounts for a while now, I can reel-off the names of key journalists, how they like to be contacted, when the best times are to reach them and the types of information they like, without even needing notes. That makes the pitching process more cost-effective as time goes on – meaning the line in the chart has moved way up the Y axis.

Your thoughts?

I’m curious as to your thoughts. Does this click with the challenges you face?

Let me know what you think – I’d love to hear your feedback.

Where’s The Line With Twitter “Spam”?

Do you find it helpful when people link to their latest content on Twitter?

Tweetstats says I’ve posted an average of about 25 tweets per day since September 2007. In the last few months, I’ve averaged over 40. Each weekday, one of those tweets is usually to my latest blog post. 

The question is, does that tweet add any value to your stream or is it just spam?

Back in March, during the ghost blogging saga, someone mentioned on my site that they were far more concerned about the ethics of people posting links to their own content on sites like Twitter than they were about people using ghost writers to produce content under their name. Ever since then, whenever I link to my own content I’ve wondered whether it’s a good practice.

Every day I decide that I think it’s ok.

Different types of self-linking?

Jennifer Mattern points out two different types of self-linking which may fall into the category of spam:

  • Manual posts
  • Automatic posts

My links fall into the former. If I feel my post is worth it (I usually do, or I wouldn’t have published it) I’ll manually write something in Twitter and post it. Others use automated services like Twitterfeed or blog plugins like Twitter Tools. I used to use them, but decided I preferred the choice of posting the link or not and being able to write something a little more ‘human’ to people.

Does it matter into which of these groups you fall? Not necessarily. A manual poster (TechCrunch, for example) may post multiple links per day while automated posts might be way less frequent.

The main difference here is in the level of personalization. I’m much more likely not to tweet an issue from within the post than I am to post simply the headline. That’s evolved over time, but it’s where I stand now. Meanwhile, automated posts are, well, automated – they don’t vary in format or based on nuances in the content. In that regard, perhaps automated links are more likely to be “spammy.”

Does volume matter?

Is there a line to be crossed? Is posting one self-link every 40-45 posts any different to posting 35 self-links within that same volume? Is it different to one post per day, always linking to yourself? Some would argue not. I would argue there is. If you’re constantly having conversations – discussing things, offering advice and sharing. I think that builds-up the social capital to be able to throw in an occasional link to your content.

If you post 39-44 tweets per day which converse with others, or point to other interesting content, does one post really constitute spam?

Changing audience behaviours

As Bill Sledzik pointed out in Mattern’s comments, it seems that more and more people in this space are looking to Twitter for their reading material nowadays. So, even if people subscribe to someone’s site, they may not check their reader regularly now due to the volume of great content flowing through Twitter, so they may miss a lot of your content.

On the flip side, does someone following you on Twitter mean they’ve signed-up to see links to your blog? Might engaging, interactive content be a better way of driving people to your site?

From my perspective, people who choose to follow you have chosen to read whatever you post. I always appreciate feedback on how I go about things and am willing to change, but at the end of the day people have the ultimate sanction – they can simply stop following you if you continuously post irrelevant things.

If my audience is spending most of their time on Twitter rather than their RSS reader, and I have content of which I’m proud, I’m inclined to post it there.

What’s more, as good communicators know, people usually need a call to action in order to do something. If you want people to read your posts and give you their feedback, you’re much more likely to get that if you point people in that direction. So, if you post all the conversational content in the world but very little of that is necessarily related to your website content, few people will click through. Of course, perhaps that means we should be a little more thoughtful about what we post on Twitter. Perhaps when you’ve blogged about ghost writing, you should post more tweets about that topic.

Your thoughts?

Note: I’m not asking whether linking to your own content is right or wrong. As I mentioned yesterday, there are shades of grey in social media and one person’s “rules” are often irrelevant to another. Guy Kawasaki has 115k followers to an account that is largely automated, so who am I to say it’s wrong? Still, Guy’s audience is not my audience.

I’m really interested to hear what you think on this. Does posting occasional links to your own content constitute Twitter spam?

PR Isn’t The Enemy

SurrenderOnce again, the last couple of weeks have seen the public relations industry dragged through the mud by a high-profile blogger. This time it was Robert Scoble, first via Blog Talk Radio then again on his own blog. Naturally plenty of other people piled-on, although few were even remotely constructive.

I could go through Scoble’s anti-PR rant line by line, picking his argument apart (and I nearly did), but to do that would be to miss the point of what he’s getting at. 

The public relations industry is plagued by people who spam journalists and bloggers, and play the numbers game in an attempt to generate media coverage.

Is it the norm? I hope not. I’d like to think not. Regardless, it happens and it’s painful – both to the recipients of the spam pitches and to honest practitioners like Shel, Todd and myself.

I’m not going to disagree with Robert. The PR industry does have its share of bottom-of-the-barrel practitioners. Sad but true – every industry does. Unfortunately, the media/blogger outreach side of PR (yes, dear people, there are other sides) involves interacting with the people who have an audience, so these people are highly visible.

Here’s where I agree with Scoble about media and blogger outreach:

  • PR people should find out what journalists are interested in before pitching them.
  • PR people should find out how journalists like to be pitched (and, yes, sometimes that may involve emailing them to ask).
  • PR people should tailor their approaches to people. That includes the medium they use to approach them.

I could get defensive about Scoble’s rant (and for a while I did – hence I’m coming to this late). However, the fact is that there are many bad PR people out there. I see them every day in my inbox, and if you have any kind of following on your blog then the chances are you do too.

The reality is, though, that PR isn’t the enemy. Bad PR is the enemy.

Unfortunately, there’s not too much we can do about them (which isn’t to imply that we shouldn’t try). The fact is, they’re unlikely to be the ones attending IABC, CPRS or PRSA training sessions. They’re not the ones reading the rants against them on Scoble’s site. And they’re probably not the ones reading this post. They’re busy building their next mass mailing for a client who, unfortunately, doesn’t know any better.

The rest of us – the ones with a conscience, who do their best to target their approaches to the people who will thank them for their pitches? We’re left to raise our hands, point out that we’re not all black sheep, do our best to educate others and then go back to doing good work for our clients.

Back To Pitching Basics

Despite having a set of guidelines on how to pitch me positioned prominently on my site, I continue to receive poorly targeted and poorly-written pitches on a daily basis.

I’ve written in the past about some bad pitches and some really bad pitches I’ve received, and given my advice on those pitches. This time, though, instead of looking at how to pitch, I want to take a look at why a good pitch is necessary.

Let’s consider a straight news release, emailed to someone, against a decent pitch.

A straight news release:

  • Costs little to send per recipient;
  • Takes little or no additional time to draft per extra recipient;
  • Is likely targeted at one or two key audiences;
  • Addresses every recipient the same way;
  • Takes no account of the recipient’s interests or previous work;
  • Does nothing to develop a relationship with the recipient;
  • Has to go through many layers of approval throughout the organization, with many hands making changes;
  • Is generally written to please multiple stakeholders, both internal and external, so gets diluted;

A tailored pitch:

  • Requires research, time and editing for each recipient;
  • Is targeted at the recipient;
  • Addresses each recipient differently;
  • Can refer directly to interests and past work;
  • Can help to build a relationship with the recipient;
  • Is likely to be subject to less peoples’ tinkering than a release;
  • Is written for one purpose and one audience, so can be focused.

In every instance except one – cost – the tailored pitch comes out ahead. The untailored news release is cheaper to send to lots of people, but at what sacrifice?

  • No relationship;
  • No relevance;
  • Reliance on the law of averages to obtain coverage.

In the economic environment we’re in, we’re unfortunately unlikely to always have the budget to tailor every single pitch the way we’d like to. However, even a compromise pitch that acknowledges areas of interest, geographic relevance or an existing relationship is better than a straight news release. In a worst-case scenario, I know I’ve recommended pitching fewer journalists, but doing it well, rather than going out ineffectively to a big bcc’d mailing list.

What would you do if you found yourself with a low time and/or budget for your media (or blogger) outreach? Would you go with a news release to many, a tailored pitch to fewer, or would you take a different approach?

A Message To Non-PR Folks: We’re Not All Like This

Black Sheep

John Biggs at CrunchGear and Michael Arrington at TechCrunch both wrote in the last day about a nasty encounter they had with a public relations person (I would normally say professional, but…). I’m not naming the person here – that’s not my style – but I’m disgusted enough to link to posts where you can find their name.

The Biggs and Arrington documented a laundry list of bad practices by the culprit, some of which have also been documented previously on the bad pitch blog and other sites including the Freakonomics blog:

  • Off-topic pitches;
  • BCC’d spam pitches;
  • Relentless phone calls to people throughout publishing organizations, even while acknowledging that it’s wrong;
  • Abusive replies to people who complain about the pitches.

I’m not going to go to town on that person. Others have done that enough.

I’m directing this post to anyone who reads this site:

Not all public relations professionals are like this.

This is important. People need to know this.

We do the background work

My colleagues and I spend hours creating and refining our media lists when we begin working with clients, and we refine those lists on an ongoing basis. Occasionally we’ll land off-base; when we realize that’s happened we fix our lists.

We contact people individually

When I send email pitches, they begin with the recipient’s name. Next!

We build relationships

As far as I’m concerned, public relations is a two-way business. Our clients have their objectives; journalists have theirs. We do our jobs best when we help both sides. That means building relationships with journalists so we know what they’re after and can help them with that. It takes time and effort, and it certainly doesn’t involve spam or insults.

We target

We might approach a couple of people within a certain organization if they’ve both written about our client or their subject area. We certainly won’t leave messages for 45 people at two publications. 

Caveat: We’re human

I’m not going to pretend we’re perfect. Sometimes we screw up and contact someone who’s completely uninterested in the subject. Anyone who says they don’t is a liar. However, when that happens we apologize and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Don’t let black sheep make you think we’re all like this person. We’re not.

(Image credit: s-s via sxc.hu)

WordPressDirect: Spam, Dirty Spam

WordPressDirect creates spam sites Do you have the desire for a blog but not the time, ethics or talent to do so? Try WordPressDirect.

WordPressDirect (it’s a no-follow link, BTW) is a spam blog generator. You pick a theme, plug in a few keywords and let it go to work creating a fake blog for you. It searches YouTube for content to import; it searches Yahoo Answers; it searches other blogs… and it even imports their comments too.

Apparently WordPressDirect now has ten thousand users. Great – like we needed more spam sites.

Here’s how the site describes the process:

“WordPressDirect grabs niche podcast, video and article content plus comments from all over the web and creates a completely unique, high-value website that search engines and visitors absolutely love!”

Reality check: No, visitors won’t love your blog. They’ll hate it, because it’s a spam blog. They’ll think less of you too, because you’re a spammer – you’re stealing other people’s work.

More accurately, as Neville Hobson appropriately put it, WordPressDirect is spam blogging by another name:

“…no need for original content, for your own creativity and opinion, just set this thing up and wait for it to churn out other people’s stuff as you surround “your” content with ads.”

WordPressDirect creates spam sites

WordPressDirect fail I don’t often get worked-up about things on here because, well, I try to stay professional. However, this “service” is just wrong. I’m getting angry just thinking about it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics recently.

If you don’t have time to write a blog then don’t. Don’t plagiarize other peoples’ work. Don’t steal the results of their efforts.

You know what grade they give kids who copy other peoples’ work in school? They give them a “fail.”

WordPressDirect gets a “fail” from me. So do the people who create spam sites using it.

Thoughts? Am I wrong to be so mad about this?

On more thing – a tip for the chirpy “Emily from Blinking Dot Software”: it’s “Technorati,” not “Technorata.” Oh, and how about not including drunken pictures of employees and your buddy in another video from your press release?

(Hat tip: Mashable)

Could SEO Devalue News Releases Even More?

On a recent episode of Marketing Over Coffee, Christopher Penn and John Wall mentioned something that made me stop and think – the idea of people issuing news releases for the Google juice.

Too much jargon

Beware of jargon That idea worried me. To be more specific, the possibility of too much search engine optimization (SEO) in news releases further devaluing the tactic worried me.

The problem: I often hear that we should be inserting keywords into our news releases so that they rank highly in search engines for those keywords.

That sounds great in principle, right?

Right up front: I like the concept of the social media release. I’ve issued them, I worked on moving government news releases towards that format, and I’m a member of the Social Media Release Working Group (although that seems to have gone quiet recently… Bueller?).

SEO sheep

My problem with this, as with many SEO principles in general, is that people will take it to an extreme. They’ll follow the advice like sheep and will force inappropriate keywords (read: jargon) into their writing, and their products (and clients) will suffer.

Sure, these releases may rank highly for some words but so what? People arrive, see a poorly written release or page, fail to find what they want and leave. It’s a cheap tactic – one that’s no better than spamming people with emails. That’s why I heard a well-known marketing personality refer to a recent  SEO conference as “the underbelly of marketing.”

Just write well

Why not just make sure that your release is relevant, well-written and on-topic? A well written release will have plenty of the important words in there as a natural result. With a little extra attention you can optimize your release without compromising its quality.

I don’t want to read a news release front-loaded with every possible keyword under the sun. I want to read about the news.

The problem is bad enough for regular websites, but it’s doubly serious for news releases. News releases as a tactic already have a bad rap after years of abuse by poorly trained or lazy public relations practitioners. We don’t need yet another reason for people to hate them.

Too cynical?

Am I being overly cynical in thinking that people will jump on the extreme SEO bandwagon with news releases? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Look at the trends:

I don’t see the trend changing. As online news releases take off (even more likely given the recent SEC decision), I expect to see even more releases full of jargon. I expect those of us working at more enlightened firms to watch in dismay as the trend continues.

Are SEO-optimized releases a bad thing? No. Of course not. You want people to find your announcements. That’s half of the benefit of online news releases. I appreciate the benefits of genuine, well implemented SEO.

My fear is that, as in the past, poorly trained or careless people will take a good idea way too far. We’ll see even more releases loaded-up with popular keywords and we’ll all get dragged through the muck as a result.

The only solution I see (apart from the trend reversing, of course) is for agencies and corporations to train their PR people well so they don’t think this is a good idea. Will that happen? Again, history shows mixed results.

What do you think?