Spam is annoying. It's literally unsolicited, unrelated, random begging to buy a product or service. It's usually done by bots. What I don't understand is how could this actually increase profits? What about the people who got annoyed by the spam and are now actively avoiding the product? Everyone hates spam, heck, I even occasionally find myself writing troll answers to spam questions, how does on Earth does spam increase profits?
Spam doesn't necessarily increase profits. In fact, this article from The Atlantic says that all of the spammers in the world may only earn $200 million in profits. Spammers and bots aren't interested in selling you a quality product or service. Instead, it is sent by people who are looking to profit off of gullible people who will click the link and buy the product or service, which could turn out to be fake or nonexistent. This is why spam is often sent by people in foreign countries: if a consumer attempts to file a complaint, it will be nearly impossible to resolve if the spammer lives outside the country's jurisdiction. When big corporations send many unwanted emails, usually they are not trying to directly increase sales. Instead, they are trying to increase traffic to their website, which they hope in turn will lead consumers to buy something. They may attempt to get your attention with deals, but the hope is that you will find something on their website that you like enough to buy. It is a form of promotional marketing, which is often misused. According to the previous link, promotional marketing can work if it is done in a way that causes positive association with the marketer's brand. So the real reason why spam is so often sent is because instead of increasing profits, spammers are focused on trying to build their brand, but their lack of experience or poor execution results in a negative association with their brand. If done properly, promotional marketing can cause serious increases in website traffic, which can boost sales and brand image. However, it is often done poorly, which results in annoying spam emails and anger at certain brands for their constant flood of useless emails.
TL;DR The legitimate spammers do expect "an increase in sales" - and in fact many of them analyze the effects of email campaigns (e.g., A/B testing) to see what works. However, most spam is not legitimate.
"Spam" generically just refers to UCE: Unsolicited Commercial Email. But there are two totally different categories of spam:
These are either never requested (company bought or shared a list or harvested addresses from somewhere) or sent more frequently than desired. This includes a lot of different things:
- Companies you already do business with, where at some point (often in conjunction with a legitimate purchase), you agreed (often by default - not seeing the checkbox to uncheck it before "submit order") to accept promotional emails.
- Companies you considered doing business with, where you requested information and now they send you messages every month/week/day.
- Companies or other organizations where you signed up for some reason - e.g., to answer questions on a Q&A system - and provided your email address as part of the process with either direct or implied permission to send emails.
- Companies or organizations (particularly political organizations in election season and charities towards the end of the year) who buy or share lists created by others and then send you emails.
There are many other examples. What they all have in common is that they follow the basic etiquette of "proper" UCE, which is the law (to varying degrees) in many countries:
- Provide a real-world mailing address and contact information.
- Provide a functioning Unsubscribe link or documented unsubscribe process in every email.
- Represent a real company or organization that is either selling an actual product or raising money for a legitimate purpose.
- Use a real From: address that is associated with the actual sender or, if the sender uses a 3rd-party service to do the actual sending, provide a way to contact the company or organization by email.
These are often annoying. But they are manageable - you truly can Unsubscribe if you want to or automatically file the messages based on From: address or other criteria (because they aren't constantly changing those things).
These companies and organizations may care about profit (companies selling products, political or charity fundraisers, etc.) or they may simply want to get their message out to the world (raising awareness of issues, providing what they perceive to be useful information about a topic, etc.).
These are the real problems. They include:
- Fake (e.g., counterfeit luxury products)/overpriced products - plenty of profit there if you can get people to buy.
- Credit Card scams - "sell" something but instead of shipping it, take a known to be valid credit card (because it was able to process a $19.99 charge) and use it to buy other stuff or sell it to others for such purposes.
- Identity theft - trick you into providing credentials for Amazon, PayPal, a bank, Dropbox or some other system so that then they can use those same credentials to buy stuff on Amazon and ship it to themselves, take money out of your PayPal account, send money from your bank to someplace else, steal confidential information from your Dropbox, etc.
- Phishing - Many variants: Try to get you to do buy gift cards (very common this time of year - "boss", "rabbi or pastor", etc. too busy, so can you buy some gift cards and send them the numbers so they can send gifts to valued employees/volunteers/etc.); convince you (if you are in a company and have such access) to sign off on a money transfer to "close the deal"; etc.
and there are many other variations. The point is, they don't care about "profit" - in the sense that they are not reporting Profit & Loss statement to the IRS or any other government agency or to their shareholders. They "take the money and run", generally (though not always) with no product at all exchanging hands.
The Unsubscribe links (if any) are either totally fake (often even helping them verify they got a "live" recipient!) or point back to a legitimate company (fake Dropbox email might have a real Dropbox unsubscribe).
The From: and Reply-to: addresses are usually either totally made up (reply and it bounces), stolen (scraped off various lists or web sites - reply and the recipient will have no idea what you are talking about because they didn't sent the original message), or hacked (this is often the case for Phishing - a legitimate person you know has their email hacked and then the scammer uses the email to send you a "I'm stuck in xyz country on vacation and lost my credit card/passport/etc. can you wire me some $?).
These are the spammers that have given spam a bad name. Unfortunately, no existing government laws that I know of have any significant effect because the scammers operate from countries beyond any normal law enforcement, and it is extremely hard to truly verify email without making it very hard to use.