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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, [email protected] will become [email protected] or [email protected] [email protected]

– 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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  • 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