No escape from the dreaded spam

The advent of mobile computing is a welcome addition to the business arsenal, but it comes at a price - spamming. So how can IT...

The advent of mobile computing is a welcome addition to the business arsenal, but it comes at a price - spamming. So how can IT directors can ensure their users aren't overloaded with unnecessary data? And can they use spam to corporate advantage? Philip Hunter reports

Just when you thought you'd got the problem of spamming sorted out, along comes mobile computing to muddy the waters once again. For the IT director, wireless spamming poses two basic problems. On the one hand, mobile staff members such as salespeople, engineers and senior executives need to be able to take advantage of the benefits of mobile access to information without being swamped by unwanted, unsolicited messages.

The second challenge is enabling the business to exploit wireless comms as an external marketing tool.

Wireless communications via palmtops or other handheld devices has great potential for improving staff productivity by giving them access to timely information and also delivering relevant messages to them.

The IT challenge is to do this without overloading staff with unnecessary information, and this is an even greater concern using mobile devices, given their limited display and communication capabilities, than it is using fixed PCs.

Even with internal staff, there is the risk of spamming - the dissemination of unwanted messages or unsolicited information over the Internet that consumes IT resources such as bandwidth, and wastes time for users. Spam from your employer can be just as unwanted and unsolicited as from an unknown marketing company, but the potential cost in terms of lost efficiency and overloaded networks can be almost as great.

According to Tom O'Connor, head of knowledge management at BG Group (formerly British Gas), the same principle should apply to wireless as to fixed-data communication, in other words, the service should be personalised so that each user only receives information relevant to them. The measures that need to be taken to implement this depend on the particular applications and information users have access to, and whether there is any "push" element, which increases the risk of unwanted messages.

In the case of BG, the push element has not yet been introduced, but O'Connor admits this will bring additional challenges alongside the potential for even greater effectiveness by being able to alert mobile staff to important developments immediately.

Like some other enterprises, BG is currently in a transition phase with its wireless data strategy. BG is in the process of providing 250 of its top executives with mobile access to its internal service called Kite (Knowledge and Information to Everyone) via palm devices.

Requested information is loaded by synchronising the palms over the fixed network in a BG office by connecting them to PCs, but the ability to access information via wireless connections will be provided soon, and the plan is to open up the system to more junior staff as well.

When the synchronisation process is done online over wireless links, it will become even more important to restrict the information conveyed through accurate personalisation to each user. Yet there will also be the temptation to cull information from additional external sources to enrich the content, and this will start to expose users to some of the more general spamming issues.

BG, for example, has a service it calls the "mobile press office", provided with the help of the supplier of its mobile Internet software, AvantGo. This information includes press releases, policy statements and key speeches made by BG executives. But it will also increasingly embrace selected content from external Web sites, such as business news from ft.com. AvantGo currently provides access to about 1,000 channels via its server software, and BG has made some of these available to staff, who can select headlines and summaries on particular topics.

This will become more interesting when allied to push, when it may become desirable to alert staff when important news breaks, or a key market indicator is passed.

To do this without risk of "information inflation" will require careful extension of the company's knowledge management strategy to embrace these external services.

But, as O'Connor emphasises, the key point remains the principle that staff only receive information appropriate to them and their roles. And, just as when communicating via wireless to people outside the company, the rule should be that information is only delivered when the user has specifically requested it.

To implement this business logic effectively, there has to be a coherent knowledge and content management strategy, and in BG's case this is enshrined within Kite.

The utility and other enterprises may also consider using emerging tools to help prioritise business critical alerts about a variety of issues. Among such tools is the Wireless Scorecard from Gentia Software, which allows users to specify criteria and receive performance-related information.

Inevitably mobile users will receive some surplus information, particularly within e-mails, and the trick then is to ensure that they can quickly sift through the chaff to find the wheat. This is a particular issue with text-to-voice services allowing users to hear their e-mails via their mobile phones. This can be a great boost to productivity by allowing users to deal with their e-mail mountains while travelling, but reading lengthy messages this way is tedious and time-consuming.

Part of the answer again lies with prioritisation, with a filter for urgent messages, and the ability for users to select only those from specified sources, such as the management.

Among companies offering such services is Orchestrate, which is aware of the issue and allows users to play back e-mails as voice messages and fast forward in units of three seconds by pressing the # key. But even then this medium is not particularly suitable for longer messages or those with attachments.

Mobile e-mail, therefore, cannot be treated just as an offshoot of the corporate messaging system, but needs to be treated almost as a separate medium. The various aspects of spamming should be considered as part of this broader strategy.

External wireless spam

On the flipside of the coin, IT departments are increasingly likely to find themselves called on to facilitate marketing initiatives based on wireless spamming: spamming can be a powerful tool if used sparingly and sensitively.

There is nothing wrong with sending an unsolicited message providing it is likely to be wanted by its recipient. The challenge for businesses, therefore, lies in targeting existing or potential customers with messages that they may not specifically have asked for, but they are likely to be pleased to receive because the messages highlight a product or service they are at least interested in, if not actually instantly prepared to buy or subscribe to.

"The trick here is to turn spam into something that you and I want," says Bob Wild, a consultant with Compass Management Consulting, specialising in performance management.

This begs the question whether spam that you want is spam at all, but the point is clear, and seems to be backed up by various studies.

A survey on the future of direct marketing by IMT Strategies, for example, found that while 80% of e-mail users felt negatively about spam, defined as unsolicited mail, more than half were positive about "permission e-mail marketing". This begs another question: "What is permission e-mail?"

The fact is that advertising would be ineffective if it had to be solicited, and new customers cannot often be reached by asking their permission to communicate with them first. They probably will refuse, and yet they could be enticed by a sufficiently alluring and perhaps subliminal but unasked-for advertisement.

A number of portals and Web marketing sites are currently wrestling with this conundrum. Indeed, the greatest concern about wireless spamming lies among providers of external services, who hope to profit from judicious use of Web advertising.

For example, Quios, a European mobile Internet company delivering services to one million mobile users, has developed a variety of techniques for identifying spam according to the source.

"We have a blacklist of Internet protocol addresses that are known spammers," says Quios president and chief executive officer Marc Vanlerberghe, "and we have also built some monitoring tools to look at content. If we suspect it's spam, we filter it out." Inevitably a lot of spam will slip through the net. Then it is up to users to report this to Quios and then have future messages from that site blocked off.

But Vanlerberghe concedes that there have been problems with a few sites using robotic software to broadcast large numbers of messages to some of the company's mobile users. On a few occasions users have had to remove their phone details from the Quios Web site to cut spam off. So given that Quios intends to make some of its money from mobile Internet advertising targeting its user base, there is a natural urgency to nip the problem in the bud.

One unique aspect of the mobile Internet is the location-based element, creating the potential for bombarding users with advertisements as they pass close to the relevant premises, for example a restaurant or club. If knowledge of a user's location could be combined with details of their hobbies and tastes, such location-based advertising could be highly targeted and effective.

But the question is whether people will want to receive unsolicited advertisements of this kind. Vanlerberghe argues that information about a user's location should be their own personal property. They would then be able to choose, through their service or portal provider, whether to make the location information available at all, and if so to whom.

Again users would opt in, although life could become quite complicated if you have to decide on a case-by-case basis which organisations to make the information available to.

Some mobile advertising, though, will be welcomed, including location-based material, perhaps in particular by younger users. If pitched in the right way, and slightly subliminal, it could be regarded as rather cool. "It should be fairly unobtrusive. It should just be a line to say, 'If you choose to link through, you can read all about what's on offer'," says Catriona Pennington, European marketing director of mobile Internet software and services company AvantGo.

In practice, therefore, it looks like we will have to live with at least a low level of mobile spamming - you never know, we may even grow to like it.

Spam tips

  • Don't send e-mails unsolicited. Seek permission to send mail, and make it desirable for the user

  • Keep it short and simple, and make it easy for users to respond and pay if they wish, perhaps with the option of putting it on their mobile phone bill

  • Adopt a proper customer relationship management (CRM) strategy, including personalisation services that define clearly what each customer wants

  • The onus should be on opting in rather than opting out, so that users are not blitzed with an ever-increasing load of usually unwanted information

  • If you a wireless portal provider, incorporate spam detection within your site.

    Manifestations of wireless spam

    Spamming is the dissemination of unwanted unsolicited information over the Internet. Mobile devices are subject to all the conventional Internet sources of spam, in particular e-mail. But with mobile devices increasingly being "always on", there will be a growing risk from push-based spam, in which adverts arrive unsolicited on users' mobiles or palm devices, whereas with e-mail you can delete without reading the contents. In fact even current GSM mobile phones are always on, providing they are switched on, in the sense that they can receive Short Messaging Service messages. These too can carry spam, but with the advent of wireless application protocol (Wap)-based services, the potential will grow.

    The most attractive aspect of the mobile Internet for advertisers, apart from the fact that users can be reached wherever they are, is the potential for location-sensitive targeting. Users may well not be so averse to receiving adverts of activities taking place near to where they are based, even if they are not immediately interested in them. So for example users within reach of a theatre could be told of last-minute price-cuts that have been made in a bid to sell any unsold tickets. But on this front, users will need the freedom to opt in or out in various ways, including perhaps at certain times of day when they do not want to be troubled by any sort of spam.

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