Which is more annoying, spam or direct mail? UGA study reveals answer

November 02, 2006

Athens, Ga. -- You open up your e-mail inbox and are inundated with spam that offers everything from inkjet cartridges to "investment opportunities" that are obviously too good to be true. You open up your mailbox at home to find more unsolicited ads, everything from pizza coupons to credit card offers.

Ever wonder which is more annoying?

According to a new study by a researcher in the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, most people find spam more intrusive and irritating than direct mail. The study, published in the fall issue of the Journal of Interactive Advertising, also explores why people find spam so annoying.

"Overall, spam definitely is regarded as more annoying, irritating and intrusive than postal direct mail," said Mariko Morimoto, assistant professor of advertising. "That was pretty much our hypothesis. And while it's easy to figure out that spam is more annoying, I also wanted to know why."

Morimoto and study co-author Susan Chang, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Miami, randomly assigned 119 college students to a survey that asked about either spam or direct mail. On a scale of one to seven, where one is most intrusive and seven is least intrusive, students gave spam an average intrusiveness score of 1.93 compared to 4.24 for direct mail. For irritation, the average score was 2.46 for spam compared to 3.87 for direct mail.

Results from a focus group study conducted by Morimoto and Chang found that people find spam more intrusive than direct mail because it makes it harder to get to legitimate and wanted messages. Discarding direct mail, on the other hand, wasn't perceived as time consuming.

And while spam often contains adult content or other inappropriate material, direct mail pieces often contain potentially useful items such as sales promotions and easy-to-use coupons. E-mailed coupons must be printed, which is an extra step that consumers would rather not have to take.

Morimoto's focus group participants also said that the cost associated with direct mail leads them to believe that they're getting information from a reputable company. Because spam is inexpensive to send, consumers tend view spammers as being less reputable.

Despite the negative feelings associated with spam, Morimoto said it can be effective when used properly. Her focus group work found that people don't seem to mind receiving e-mails from companies with which they have previously done business.

Morimoto, for example, doesn't mind e-mailed suggestions from Amazon.com based on previous purchases. E-mails that read, "Mariko Morimoto, do you need a college degree?" on the other hand, are not welcome.

"If you cultivate your relationship with consumers in some other venue and then extend that effort to e-mails, then spam can work," she said.
-end-


University of Georgia

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