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The Ugly Side Of Email Marketing In India

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“You’re doing it all wrong,” the owner of a group of content portals said to me. “The way to do it,” once you start a website, is to get a team of people to scrape email addresses from the web, and spam the hell out of them. If they want to opt out, they can do it. We do this with every website we launch. Once they’re in, you can make money sending mailers, or you go and pitch that database to an advertiser.” 

This was a couple of years ago. We’d met outside a popular pub in Bombay, and I had been, in a way, cribbing about MediaNama’s small email newsletter base (even now around 3400-3500). To me, this was (and is) the most valuable reader base, and despite the fact that we have a significant number reading us via RSS and a substantially large Twitter reader base (almost 44,000), there is some sentimental value I attach to those to visit us multiple times a day directly, and read our daily newsletter readers, because they spend maximum time reading us. Still, I hate spam and we have an only-opt-in-and-no-spam policy for our newsletter – we do not add you to the newsletter without your permission, and we at max, communicate MediaNama related developments. Now that that’s out of the way, here are some of the things about email marketing that I’ve heard of and/or noticed (difficult to validate some of this), and followed up with a confession right at the end.


This post has been instigated by something that OnlyGizmos reported over the weekend: that Rocket Internet backed FoodPanda had sent out emailers to a database of LetsBuy users. That information was shared with OnlyGizmos by Aditya Sengupta of InstaMojo, who (smartly), creates a separate email address on the fly for many sites he signs up with. For example, he claims he created an email address letsbuy@… and FoodPanda sent out an emailer to that address.

– Sharing or selling of conferences databases by organizers: When you sign up for a conference, your email address becomes public property. We’ve heard of instances of some of the top global ventures that ensure that email databases are received as a part of a sponsorship deal. In our case, it happened once that a sponsor didn’t notice a no user data sharing clause in our sponsorship contract, and was a little upset when we refused to share it. Apparently it is common practice. When you sign up for a conference, do check about their privacy policy. For us, it’s a sponsorship dealbreaker.

– Sharing or Selling of  databases by websites: publishers sometimes offer their database to marketers, we’ve heard, so that marketers can send emailers via their own internal mailer platforms. Then, of course, marketers use these multiple times.

– Scraping of email addresses from the web, opting users in: It’s auto opt-in, until you choose to opt out, whereas the ideal approach should be one of auto opt out. When we get a business card, we sometimes (not always) send a request to sign up, or an email asking for a confirmation, but never opt people in.

– Poor unsubscription practices: The unsubscribe link in the newsletter doesn’t work, and goes to a database error or a 404 error page. You don’t know how to unsubscribe.

– Constantly changing email addresses: websites constantly change the email addresses, porting who have been unable to unsubscribe, or marked an email address as spam. For example, mailer@abcx3fsaf.com will become new-mailer@abcx3fsaf.com or mailer@in.abcx3fsaf.com or mailer@abcx3fsaf.in

– Poor data base storage practices: wherein publishers share their database within their organization by uploading an excel or a text file on the web. Sounds incredulous, but it has happened. I’ve come across such a database myself.

– Employees stealing databases for mailers: data security issues abound when you store your database in your own mailer software instead of a public one. Employees can steal this info. I’ve heard of an instance where a publishers employee took the entire database, started a new website publishing mostly press releases, and offering mailers to potential clients at Rs 10,000-15,000 an emailer. (p.s.: we don’t do paid mailers. Only newsletter ads)

– Sharing of databases by email marketing companies: We’ve heard rumors of email marketing vendors that offer targeted database from other clients, just in case the publisher they want signing up doesn’t have it.

– Pooling of databases by publishers and companies: This is something which was attempted in the past, and it is a grey area: For example, you might be giving your database to your bank. Multiple banks could monetize this database by sharing this information with a single entity, that brings in campaigns. As a user, you haven’t signed up to be marketed to. Your bank is your vendor, and ideally, they shouldn’t be sending these mailers.

A confession: While we were organizing the #NAMA Conference, the signups were not taking place quickly enough, and there as tremendous pressure to increase sign up. Someone shared a database with us for marketing to, but eventually, we didn’t do it. There are monetary pressures and pressures to deliver can be particularly high in some cases. In the end, the conference did go off well and we didn’t send that mailer out, but frankly, I regret even considering the option.


That said, we at MediaNama do occasionally send out an email (typically once a quarter) to potential advertisers who have been in touch with us, or have advertised earlier. I’m not sure of the best way to approach that, because it is akin to cold-calling, so if there is a better method, do let us know. Also, we’re not taking a holier-than-thou stand, but I just thought it necessary to clarify our position on some these practices, and let people know what has been going on.

Also, you might notice that no names are named in this email, apart from developments reported elsewhere. This is because many of these points are via informal conversations over the last few years.

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  • One of main source for such database are Jobsites. Thats where one can slice a DB based on location , compensation , function etc. Most jobsites sell DB access to anyone who pays a fee.since the poor salesguy carries a sales target. That’s exactly where the spam-game starts ! . Also heard about the DB CDs that are being sold in Delhi for few hundred rupees !

  • Clicking on Unsubscribe link and getting a You have been unsubscribed successfully page also does not mean anything when it comes to Indian e-commerce companies. I had to fight on twitter with fashionandyou to get myself unsubscribed. Samsung India keeps sending emails after clicking atleast 20 times on Unsubscribe link . Reporting as spam helps but not that much. I find this a problem mainly with Indian e-commerce companies. I will keep getting promotional emails from companies of which I have never heard leave alone registered on their site. Good job Nikhil

    • and many time unsubscribe link also doesn’t work

    • shekhar

      Not just ecom companies.. CIO World (run by IDG India) which is supposed to be the magazines for CIO also spams me on a regular basis… I unsubscribed multiple times, but still received spam from them. I wrote to some dinesh_p (at) idgindia (dot) com, but he never replied. So finally I added idgindia.com to my Junk Filter /Spam Senders list!

  • Guest

    One can get 60-100 Cr Email id for Just Rs 999-3000..

  • raksweb

    Marketers would always exploit a medium as long as there’s RoI. Probably Spam Email Marketing is giving a good RoI, that’s why companies are still using it. Would be nice to know marketer’s RoI data on Email Marketing

    • We asked a question regarding this as part of our research, and indeed email marketing comes out on top as a channel for communication with regards to customer engagement and effectiveness in meeting goals. Like I previously mentioned, perhaps this tempts marketers to go overboard a bit in terms of reach. While specific ROI data is not available, the image might help…

  • Manoj

    Once a Prestigious Market Research Company approached be on
    behalf of Big Computer Hardware Company for filling a paid survey. As I was a
    customer of company I accepted the request and filled the survey. around one
    month after I receive a mail from That survey company asking me to submit my
    bank detail so that they can pay me my incentive. It’s normal but that mail was
    marked to 750 people in “TO” field, after just few mins I receive one
    more mail from same gentleman with a excel sheet attached containing email
    address of all 736 people.

    now my details were known to 736 people, who know that I and
    735 other in that sheet are willing to participate in a survey for money.

    several people protested for this by replaying to ALL.
    finally MD of that MR company apologise and nothing else.

    I wrote to The Privacy department of that Computer
    manufacturing company but they also after exchanging few mails refused to take
    any action.

    I tried passing on this news to several bloggers and media
    company but no one ever cared for this …might be the PR companies were
    already actively doing their job.

    well end result: each and every paid survey company who want
    to start operation in India now sends me mail one after other to enrol to their
    program … sometime 2-3 companies in a week approach me for this.

    I have avoided the name of companies above so that at least
    medianama can share this in comment.

  • Chirayu Patel

    Asking repeat visitors to signup for a newsletter (only once) using an overlay window has worked well elsewhere.

    Worth trying out with a A/B tested copy.

  • One can get 60-100 Cr Email id for Just Rs 999-3000..

  • purchased lists are bad …whatever be the source . Some marketers run email marketing business only to acquire your good database your working and not Spammed to death emails may be worth few hundred USD …forget $50 u will pay for mailing , he will rather do it free for u .
    Never trust your best friends too ..when it comes to your opt in lists , buy a good quality service for mailing if u cant maintain ur own email marketing systems .I recommend customer contact, mail chimp, I contact,Aweber etc..Apna hindustani companies ..u know mostly they are hot air multiple layer security ..and best practices…Hhuh..

    List u get for few hundred rupees are what you paid for ..Junk….and if u hire an agency to run mails to these hudnred rupess lists ..don’t expect miracles..junk gets u more junk…few thousands down the drain ..results .forget it .

  • A lot of unsubscribe links I’ve noticed don’t load at all. Pretty sure that’s intentional.

  • I had my e-mail id scrapped from one job portal by Times Jobs. I didn’t receive any e-mail from them opting me in for their newsletter or any marketing e-mail pitching their portal. They just created an account for me on Times Jobs and sent me a userid and password.

    And after that started the barrage of e-mails with jobs matching my profile. But they probably got my skill set and experience wrongly scrapped, as none of those jobs matched my resume.

  • I can certainly understand the genesis of this article. Being in the email marketing business (Octane.in), we’ve realized that one has to tread a fine line when dealing with companies and clients. First off, spamming is wide spread in the community. That’s the bitter truth! Many companies expect us to facilitate their spamming, many others look towards us for databases and others still look to us to pay them for theirs. With regards to some of the points raised by Nikhil:

    Sharing or selling of databases by websites/conference organizers That’s correct! It happens all the time and the funny thing is that many don’t even think there is anything wrong with that. Email addresses have become a monetized commodity that’s traded in bulk in a matter-of-fact way. Our Annual India e-Marketing Research Report shows that email marketing continues to be the No. 1 channel in India for marketers in terms of ROI. Perhaps this induces the temptation to go overboard and try to reach as many people as possible as soon as possible.

    Poor subscription/un-subscription practices & changing sending domains: One thing I would like to point out is that merely getting a business card from someone is not a valid opt-in. If you’ve gotten a business card, send them a personal mail asking if they would like to subscribe (even if they might have mentioned verbally), don’t assume they want your newsletter/promotion mailer. Secondly, honor the unsubscribes. Find out why they unsubscribed, fix the problem and invite them to join you again. Its just a more decent way of engagement!

    Sharing/Pooling/Stealing databases: Its quite simple really. If as a company and entity, you don’t make database security/integrity a prime valued asset/principle and abuse it to squeeze every last paisa from it, then you are setting the worst kind of example. It just tells other people that dis-regarding opt-in is ok and that they can do whatever they want with that asset. As for security, one should work with an ESP to create multiple sub-accounts under the main account. The sub-accounts are with limited access and email list download is password protected.

    Despite all the negative activities, as a part of our research, we’ve also seen that marketers in India are now learning to use good opt-in techniques which don’t compromise brand image and value through illegitimate and unethical practices like spamming (73% of them want either an anti-spam law or a code of conduct for marketers and a further 23% want to self-regulate). We have been powering ahead with and championing the No Spam India cause for a few years so its heartening to see this positive shift.

    I’m confident that over time, the industry will mature a bit more and choose to do email marketing the right way. Using opt-in communication and not ‘spray and pray’ as the method for engagement.

    Best Regards,
    Ahmer Hasan
    Team Octane

  • Grimmjow

    came through Google Reader. Good that you’re not indulging in these practices.

  • Manisha

    The worst part is, we now see email service providers start up their own affiliate networks!! this is so cheesy and fishy.

  • Great post. I’ve been fuming at the spammy practices by supposedly reputable companies too (here’s an earlier rant of mine on the topic http://www.legallyindia.com/201301013340/Legal-opinions/on-dealing-with-spam-emails-without-the-law-and-indias-lack-of-data-protection-rules ).

    The worst offender in my experience has been Airtel, particularly in recent months, when the volume of emails of random third-party companies spamming my bespoke Airtel email address has gone through the roof. Unsubscribe does not appear to have much effect, if any.

    We’re already their customers and they’re making a killing. Why do they need to sell us out too?

  • Anonymous

    I’m surprised that no one has called out what i think is the big elephant in the room: that the email spam spike in India has been caused by TRAI’s shutting down of SMS spam as a viable channel. The current “interest” in email marketing is merely SMS marketing (my apologies to the marketing discipline) companies trying to perpetuate their old practices and extend their client contracts.

    • i dont think so. email spam and some of these discussions that I’ve mentioned, have been around much before the SMS spam ban. it might have increased now, but it isn’t as if it wasn’t massive and debilitating inboxes then.

      • Anonymous

        Nikhil, thanks but I mostly disagree.
        Firstly, the use of the word email marketing is distracting; what is being referred to is database marketing and reselling, and its dismal state. I concede that the problem has always existed, and from my own experience not much has changed since the late 90s when list marketers would descend upon agencies like snake oil salesmen. What has however changed are two factors. One is what I mentioned: there has been a giant flight of SMS agencies and SMS database marketers to selling emails. This has been going on for about a year now and its effect is being felt. The second factor that has changed over the last ten years or so is superior spam filtering, like that of gmail, rendering the problem to a minor annoyance.

        • my personal gmail inbox, which has now been rendered unusable, disagrees with you. you might not be facing a massive problem with spam, but I am.

          it was bad before the SMS ban, and probably much worse now. doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad then.

        • Anonymous

          In any case, gmail’s spam filters improve as more servers get tagged. I had to train myself to mass select and tag them as spam until I stopped getting them in my priority inbox.

          The algorithms probably take a normal-curve view of email in regions and India, especially in recent time, would lie on the unfavourable end of the curve.

          If you still get inundated that’s probably because you are a big guy who’s chased by everyone! :)

          By the way, I think there’s a good story waiting to be writting on the SMS –> email push spam

  • Clicking on unsubscription link in the mail, tells the owner that you are the active mail-reader. So they use even this as their tool.

  • I mostly write back to such spamming organisations telling them that I am reporting them to the cyber crime department for procuring my mail id illegally and it works – each and every time!

    • Suyash Gupta

      Care to elaborate on that? I would like to do that myself.. Any additional info would be great!

  • While the issue with email marketing is being discussed another aspect is data security at Job portals like naukri,monster etc that are sell their log in’s.This is even more dangerous as your’e entire contact information is provided to anyone ready to shell out a few thousands.

  • Charlie Solano

    Not Only in India but it exist everywhere and its really irritating.

    Mylife Refund

  • Great points Nikhil. We, at Canvass, provide an email marketing solution (http://canvass.in/email-marketing) to SMBs as part of our marketing software. The number one request we get from new and current clients is whether we also provide a database of email addresses. A close second is whether they can upload a list of email addresses they purchased or rented from somewhere else into our software.

    The practice is very rampant and in my opinion a huge threat to the Indian email marketing industry in general. Think about it, why would a business believe you when you say that a 5-20% open rate from your organic list is not so bad, when they have been told by certain low quality ESPs that they can get “100% delivery rate” to over 5 lakh email addresses.

    It is the responsibility of ESPs and industry leaders in India to continue to drive awareness among businesses that buying low quality lists is only going to harm them in the long run. It is also up to ESPs to not tolerate shady practices by businesses in sharing and buying lists.

  • Hi ,
    This is Tapa from Hello Travel. I am looking for 3rd party Email marketing companies. Can you hep ?

  • I have site registered but could not hosting and design it. The main reason people ask money without showing what they will do.

    • vinay singh

      Hello Rajpal,

      I am a PHP developer, you can talk to me through my blog about your idea.
      if i feel positive, i can work.
      You can simply comment on any post on this blog or simply add me to google circles here:

  • Arun Purohit

    SPAM mails is one of the biggest pollutant of Internet ecosystem. The marketers are the animals who coax it out of even ethical business founders. The crux then is to not give in to the temptation of spamming people