Using Spam for Trend Spotting

business trendsSpam is the modern-day menace of email, following us like a herd of rapacious predators, kept at bay only by anti-virus and anti-spam software.

Yet, there is a positive side of spam.

You can use spam to to spot trends.

Think I’m joking? No. (Well, maybe this is a little tongue in cheek, but I am only half-joking.)

I’ve followed the rise in trendy pharmaceuticals through spam. I could follow it very clearly through the banned words I inserted into my spam mail filters.

First it was Viagra, the little blue wonder. Then painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin. The volume of drug spam seems to have risen in direct proportion to the amount of illicit trafficking in fake drugs.

Then came the herbals. Ephedra, then that trendiest of herbals, hoodia. I had never heard of hoodia, the supposed weight-loss secret, until it showed up in mass emails in my inbox last year. Apparently some people have had success losing weight with it, and enterprising entrepreneurs have a booming practice selling it online. Not to me, of course. Once I realized that hoodia was the latest and greatest herbal target of the spammers, into my junk mail filter it went.

Then there are the stock and investment emails. Now, anyone who invests in a stock they heard about through unsolicited spam deserves to be taken, but we’ll leave that subject for another day. Same goes for the mortgage offers.

Next are the Nigerian and Ivory Coast scammers, who “beg your indulgence for this contact” and who purport to have millions of dollars salted away if I will just help them. By paying them big money first. Of course, this scam is not new — only its transition to email is. It has been around for at least 15 years, pre-dating the Web. Its earlier incarnation was through snail mail — letters. I remember in 1993 spending an entire day trying to figure out what to do about a Nigerian scam letter received by an executive in a company I worked in, even contacting the Nigerian embassy. Today, I wouldn’t spend 2 seconds on such an email.

Then there is the random-word gibberish spam, which appears to be some misguided attempt to beat spam filters. But spam filtering technology has gotten pretty good in recent years. Filters 1, spammers 0.

And let’s not forget the Chinese language spam, which has risen as the Chinese Internet has grown. The Chinese Internet is growing so rapidly that the Institute for the Future even has a blog devoted to it, Virtual China.

Among the more recent phenomena have been the fake discounts, coupons, surveys and special offers that come over via spam. “Reward Dept – Coke or Pepsi?” Or what about the “Confirmation Code – Cheese Cake Factory?” Oddly, although this is spam, it provides good brand visibility for the companies involved. I had never thought so much about Cheescake Factory until I started to receive spam with the company name in the subject line. (Note: I am sure these fine companies are not sending the spam — I do not know who is sending it. )

Spam brings untold annoyance and wastes a tremendous amount of businesses’ time and money. There is even a spam calculator that calculates how much spam costs your business, in case you really want to feel pain. Yet, in a perverse twisted kind of way spam presents a chronicle of current scams, vices, trends, pop culture and well-known brands.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

2 Reactions
  1. Spammers are moving away from their basic trade more and more as filter technology is slowly besting them.

    Most of the serious (big ticket) scams these days are conducted in internet chat rooms, newsgroups, and on bulletin boards.

    –Jack Payne