Spam — how we loathe it so.

I remember the early days of spam email. Working at a New York Times regional newspaper years ago, it wasn’t unusual to receive 300 junk emails a day. Back then, the company refused to use filtering software because of free speech concerns. They eventually relented upon learning journalists were spending an hour a day or more swimming in a river of spam.

Later as entertainment editor for The Indianapolis Star, I became jaded by a daily flood of coverage requests, news releases, pitches, reader complaints and just plain ol’ spam in my inbox. I saw it as part of my duties to give each email at least a glance, no matter how low the wheat-to-chaff ratio was.

After segueing to marketing a decade ago, I got to view things from the other side of the equation, seeing my carefully crafted media releases ignored or the news my client thought *very* important relegated to a tiny item in the back pages or end of the broadcast.

And even as a generator of what some would consider spam, I still received a fair share myself.

(30-second PR protip: Build relationships with outlets and individual journalists to understand what kind of information they value, then limit pitches to only things you genuinely think they will find useful. It won’t guarantee you get play, but at least you won’t become an automatic delete or block.)

Now as the marketing head of a large-ish healthcare provider, I had a decision to make last year while revamping our website: should I display my contact information on the site? Of course, I was afeared of opening a floodgate of spam.

I was cognizant of the contradiction so many companies fall into, making it virtually impossible to contact the people who are in charge of communications. As a reporter or editor, I groused about the ridiculousness of having no findable email address for someone in a position like the one I now held.

Short version: I published my info, and the expected wave of spam rolled in — and still does.

Yes, I receive a lot of unwanted email. But something else started to happen. Opportunities that I never would’ve thought about trickled in — a sponsorship here, an event there. A few yesses amongst all the noes. It wasn’t a lot, but enough to justify spending a few minutes glancing at that daily dousing of spam.

As time went on I found myself getting ideas based on something I’d seen in an unsolicited message. Maybe it would become a social media post, perhaps a newsletter item. Or I’d find myself connecting with the spam sender on a related topic.

Recently the watershed “Piece of Resistance” occurred. A vendor sent an (obvious) mass email trolling for business related to a nonprofit grant. I’d already looked at this opportunity and dismissed it because the eligibility language clearly states organizations like mine don’t qualify.

Rather than just hitting delete, I spent 20 seconds writing a reply about the lack of eligibility. The vendor responded, saying there is a backdoor into getting the grant, and they’d done it for other clients. I was put in touch with them, verified their experience and followed the procedures to apply. Not long ago, I learned we received the grant.

So to sum up: a piece of spam in my inbox led to an exchange, which led to a conversation, which led to me learning something I didn’t know, which led to more conversations, which eventually led to a substantial grant, which I’ll use to do more communications.

And that only happened because I was willing to open myself up to a daily stream of spam.

So while nobody wants to wade through an icky spam bog every day, consider at least dipping a toe in. Perhaps it’s just one or two people on your organization’s comms team who need to expose themselves, so those who want to present a legitimate opportunity don’t encounter a brick wall with no way in.

Yes, spam messages may tend to stink up your inbox, but just remember there are nuggets of gold amid all the sewage. Put on your big-girl/boy waders and go panning.

Aspire Indiana Health is a nonprofit healthcare system serving Central Indiana that includes primary medical care, behavioral health, addiction services and social determinants of health such as housing and employment.

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