Perceptions of unsolicited electronic mail or spam
Journal of International Information Management
Perceptions of unsolicited electronic mail or spam
Jack T. Marchewka
Charles G. Peterson
Northern Illinois University
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Marchewka et al.: PJerocueprntiaonlsofofIunntseorlnicaitteiodnealelcTtreocnhicnmolaoilgoyr&spIanmformation Management
P(Erceptions of unsolicited electronic
mail or spam
Jack T. Marchewka
Charles G. Petersen
Northern IllinoisUniversity ABSTRACT
joiu^nal_ofjntematJioounrnaal_ltoefcIfnmteronloat^io^n_a^lIjnnf^or^mation Management, Vol. 12 , Iss. 1, Art. 6 volumejlj^umbet^
The main reason why spam has proliferated over the years is because it is a relatively
inexpensive means to reach a large audience. For example, the cost of an electronic mail
campaign is only $1,000 compared to $20,000 for doing the same campaign using direct mail
. However, the effectiveness of an electronic mail campaign becomes a
numbers game. Depending on what product or service a direct marketer sells, a response rate
of about 2% is typical (Mangalindan, 2002). To be effective, therefore, a direct marketer must
send out 5,000 emails in order to receive 100 responses. Moreover, the cost of sending out bulk
emails isso low there is very little need to target the emails directly toindividuals. Subsequently,
adults and children often receive unsolicited email that is either inappropriate or offensive. It is
estimated that the number of worldwide email messages sent annually will increase from 230
billion in 1996 to 9.15 trillion by 2006. Of the 9.15 trillion email messages to besent in 2006,2.92
trillion will be spam
Subsequently, many direct Internet marketers place a great deal of value on the email lists
that they create. These lists are often created by scanning Usenet postings, buying other Internet
mailing lists,or searching the Web for email addresses. In addition, direct markets can purchase
a "spambot" for $39.95 that searches message boards and lists that can provide up to 100,000
email addresses in an hour
However, the cost of unsolicited electronic mail usually comes at the expense of the Internet
user, especially to anyone who has a measured Internet service- i.e., where an individual pays
for their connection while he or she reads or sends their email. Often it costs money for Internet
Service Providers (ISPs) to store and transmit these messages to their subscribers. These costs
are usually passed on to their customers. It is estimated that Internet subscribers are unknow
ingly paying an estimated euro 10 billion a year in connection costs just to receive unsolicited
(The European Commission, 2002)
Unsolicited electronic mail is a growing concern for many organizations worldwide. One
concern in particular focuses on the loss of personal productivity when employees must wade
through a daily plethora of spam in addition to important email. Another concern is the flow of
unsolicited junk email that degrades network performance and floods email boxes while taking
up valuable server space. In addition, since1996, the growth of electronic mail viruses has led to
a growing concern. For example, in 1996 about 74% of computer viruses were spread from
diskettes, while 9% came from electronic mail. By 2001, only 1% of the viruses are transmitted
by diskette, while electronic mail accounts for 83%
. A study conducted by
ICSA Labs in Mechanicsburg, PA reported that the estimated cost of virus infections costs from
$100 to $1 million, while a study conducted by Ferris Research in San Francisco estimates that
viruses cost organizations at least $6 billion a year
Many individuals believe unsolicited electronic mail is an invasion of privacy and several
organizations have been formed tocombat spam. For example, although most unsolicited emails
allow individuals to opt out or be removed from a direct marketer's database, the argument is
that one should not have to do anything to get off a list you never intended to join. Moreover,
some unscrupulous direct marketers use these requests as a way to confirm that the email
Marchewka et al.: PJeorcuerpntiaolnosoffIunntesronlicaittieodnealelcTtreocnhicnomloaigl yor&spIanmformation Management
address isi valid and active. Even though most direct marketers may remove someone from their
list, the girowth of spam and the number of requests toopt out would be a drain on organizational
pI•od.ucti^'ity. Although an individual may elect to use the delete key when dealing with
unsolicit(;d email:>, over time he or she may find that they use this key more and more frequently and
iiiadvt;rterjtly deleting legitimate email.
Many companies have attempted to block unsolicited email; however, the process has not
been easy or inexpensive. For example, Xerox set up a firewall in the summer of 2001 and was
blocking 150,000 spam emails each month. By the fall, it increased to over 60,000 messages a
day (;>olomon, 2002b). Some organizations have gone as far as instituting a policy where em
ployees ai e not allowed to give out their email address
. This unfortunately
limits contact with important stakeholders such as customers and vendors.
As a result, many countries and organizations have taken steps to limit or at least control
the flow of unsolicited electronic email. For example,Austria's Parliament unanimously voted to
rnalxe: unsolicited "junk" email illegal, while Germany and the Netherlands have taken equally
. Although sending spam is still legal in the United States, the
Federal Trade Commission, has begun an initiative to control and monitor deceptive or fraudulent
s;pam arid Internet scams
. However, the Senate Commerce Committee is
(;onside:ring two bills that will limit spam by requiring email marketers to include a valid return
addnsss,, ]3rohibit the use of phony or misleading subject headers, and require recipients to opt-in
before companies can send unsolicited email to them.
However, many ISPs and other organizations are fighting spam. For example, Microsoft
announced that it would incorporate spam filter technology in its free Microsoft Network (MSN)
Hotmail email service that serves over 110 million worldwide users (Pruitt, 2002). In addition,
Sprint h!is also announced that it would provide a new service called Sprint Email Protection
Ser\'ice:s that will filter spam and cleanse incoming email messages of viruses before they enter
an organization's network (Weiss, 2002).
k disadvantage of using filters is that many use a simple keyword-matching approach that
either lets too much get through or blocks many real messages. There is an inherent risk asso
ciated with trying to distinguish between spam and legitimate email (Thibodeau, 2000). More
over, many peopledo not feel that the government, organization, or service provider has the right
to stop' unsolicited emails any more than they would not want the U.S. Postal Service from
stoppinj^ delivery of unrequested store coupons or appeals from charitable organizations. Many
people believe that they should be the judge of what is useful information or offensive. On the
other hand, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has argued that taking drastic measure
against all unsolicited email can infringe upon a medium that has many potential benefits for
custonaers (Thibodeau, 1999).
The problem is that most people believe that spam is annoying and counterproductive;
ho^ve^'er, most people cannot agree on a common definition of spam. For example, is one's
peiceplion of spam influenced by thefrequency of receiving unsolicited electronic mail? Does it
dejtend on the subject matter or message contained in the email? Or is the timing of a particular
product or service important?
Journal of InternatJioounranlalToefcIhnnteornloagtiyon&alIInnffoorrmmaatitoionnManagement, Vol. 12 , Iss. 1, Art. 6
Management Volume 12, Number 1
Depending upon an individual's definition of what spam is or is not, will this person believe
unsolicited email is an invasion of privacy or a drain on their personal productivity? Subse
quently, the individual may believe that spam should be controlled. And if so, should it be con
trolled by Internet marketers (i.e., self-control), Internet Service Providers, organizations, or the
government? Finally, it is important to understand how individuals deal with unsolicited elec
tronic mail in order to realize its effectiveness.
The results of this research will be useful to organizations and researchers. For organiza
tions, this may help focus policies and procedures for dealing with unsolicited email. For re
searchers, this is a new and important area of study that has not been fully explored, but has
important implications for understanding the use of technology and how it may guide public
An online survey was used in this study.The online survey conducted through the Web has
the advantages of reduced cost and reduced response time compared to mail surveys or inter
views. This study was conducted in November 2002. The research subjects were undergradu
ate and graduate business school students at a large Midwest university in the United States.
Over 200 students participated in the survey. Although the use of students is often criticized in
academic research, the use of students as subjects may not only be acceptable but appropriate
when trying to explore certain patterns of relationships
. There are two ad
vantages to using students as subjects; they are a homogeneous sample that reduces extraneous
variation and they are significant users of email.
The survey form was designed in ASP.Net. ASP.Net is the latest server-based technol
ogy from Microsoft for creating dynamic Web applications. Figure 1 shows the screen of the
online survey form. A copy of the complete questionnaire is provided in Appendix 1.
The respondents filled in the answers by clicking appropriate boxes and then submitted
their responses to a Web server, which was used to administrate the survey. All respondents'
inputs were recorded into a relational database. The entire process took only about 10 minutes to
complete. Perceptions on unsolicited email were measured using a Likert scale ranging from 1
to 7 with "1" for strongly disagree and "7" for strongly agree.
Marchewka et al.: PJerocueprntiaonlsofofIunntesorlnicaittieodnealelcTtreocnhicnmolaoiglyor&spIanmformation Management
Of the 204 responses to the survey, 68% were male and 32% were female. Approxi
mately 92% of the respondents were between the ages of 20 to 29. In addition, 42% indicated
that they have 2 email accounts, while 51% said they have three or more accounts. Table 1
provides a summary of email usage. As can be seen, 78% of the respondents check their email
at hias t twice a day. Moreover, it can be seen by the percentage of emails sent and received that
students are heavy users of electronic mail.
Journal of InternatJioounranlalToefcIhntneornloastiyon<fael IInnffoorrmmaatitoinonMManaangeamgeenmt,eVntol. 12 , Iss. 1, Art. 6
In addition, Figure 2 provides a summary of the respondents' self report of their email that
is unsolicited. As can be seen, over 50% of the respondents reported that over 50% of their total
email received is unsolicited
Marchewka et al.: Perceptions of unsolicited electronic mail or spaImnformation Management
Journal of International Technology &
Table 2 provides a summary of the respondents' perceptions of privacy. A seven point
Lik(in scale has a median of 4 and thus provides a benchmark for neutrality. As can be seen in
Table 2, the respondents tend to believe that unsolicited email is an invasion of privacy and
annoying. However, they are somewhat neutral about being offended by the contents or subject
headings of unsolicited email and asking to be taken off the senders list. It also appears that the
respondents are not likely to complain about receiving unsolicited email.
1 consider unsolicited email to be an invasion of my privacy. i: do not like getting a lot of unsolicited emails from a single parson or organization.
In general, receiving unsolicited email does not bother me.
[n general, I become annoyed when I get unsolicited email.
I am often offended by the subject headings or contents of unsolicited. 4.31
I am ver^ likely to ask the sender of unsolicited email to take me off their email list.
I am very likeliy to complain to a third party about a sender of unsolicited email.
On average, 61% of the respondents said that they spend less than five minutes a day
di^aling with unsolicited email, while only 15% said that they spend more than ten minutes a day.
Table 3 provides a summary of the respondents' perceptions concerning their personal produc
tivity. It appears that the respondents are neutral in their belief that unsolicited email impacts
their piersonal productivity. However, they are likely to delete these emails because they do not
have time to read them.
Note: Based on 7-point Likert scale ranging from "1"for strongly disagree to "7" for strongly agree.
Table 4 provides a summary of the questions that relate to the respondents' perceptions
regarding the control of unsolicited email. It appears that there is a strong belief that unsolicited
email should be controlled. However, it appears that the responds lean towards control by
Internet Service Provides or the organization itself and to a lesser extent by the government and
self-regulation of the direct Internet marketers.
Unsolicited email should be controlled by my company or the organization that provides me with my email address.
Unsolicited email should be self-controlled by the senders themselves. 4.89
I am most likely to delete unsolicited email because
I do not have the time to read it.
Note: Based on 7-point Likert scale ranging from "1" for strongly disagree to"7" for strongly agree.
In this study, we define effectiveness as whether users are likely to open unsolicited email,
read, or even respond to them. Table 5 lists detailed items surveyed in this study to measure the
effectiveness of unsolicited email. It appears that the respondents are not likely to open or
respond to unsolicited email. In fact, it appears that they are very likely to delete unsolicited
email without even opening it. Interestingly, however, they do prefer unsolicited email over
unsolicited phone calls.
Perc^t o s of Spam
I am 1 ikely to o])en unsolicited email if the topic or subject heading is timely to my needs.
1 am likely to open unsolicited email if the address is from some one or an organization with a good reputation.
When I receive unsolicited email, I am very likely to open and re ad theemail.
When Ire;ceive unsolicited email,I am very likely to delete the email. 6.45
Wh en I open and read unsolicited email, I am very likely to respond.
When I open and read unsolicited email, I am very likely to delete it Viiithout responding.
1 am most likely to delete unsolicited email because I am not intersisted in the subject heading or topic.
I am most likely to delete unsolicited email without opening it because i am concerned that it may contain a harmful computer virus.
I prel'er im solicitedemail more than unsolicited telephone calls.
th(i Internet continues to grow, Internet marketers will continue to reach millions of
pohmtial customers through unsolicited electronic mail. Although this marketing channel
providtjs girnple opportunities for sellers, many countries, organizations, and individuals have take
steps to limit or control the flow of unsolicited electronic mail. However, unsolicited electronic
mail that may be annoying or considered "spam" by one individual may be welcome and valuable
to a.noi;her. Although some people may consider spam an invasion of privacy, others feel that
limiting or controlling the free flow of information is a violation of their civil liberties.
It appears that many organizations may be caught in the middle. Anincrease in unsolicited
electronic mail will degrade network performance and take up precious disk space on servers. In
adclition, harmful viruses attached to emails can lead to lost data and productivity, as well as
major disruption. Email filters, virus protection software, firewalls, and the implementation of
Journalj)£InternaJtoiounrnaall TofeIcnhtneronlaotgioyn&al IInnfofromr mataiotinoMnaMnaagneamgeenmt,eVnotl. 12 , Iss. 1, Art. 6
security policies and procedures consume organizational resources. Although an organization
must ensure that protective measures are taken, strict controls and security measures can limit
employee contact with key stakeholders such as customers and vendors. Moreover, security
policies and procedures meant to protect the organization and its employees raise several issues.
For example, what types of electronic mail will be filtered? Electronic mail filters tend to restrict
email based on keywords. Certain words may have different connotations and could result in
restricting legitimate email, while allowing offensive or undesirable email to get through.
Another issue concerns ownership. Does an organization own the email address or does
the employee or student? Many people use their email address for both personal and profes
sional purposes so they may feel that an email address belongs to them. On the other hand, if
one believes that the organization owns the email address, does that give the organization the
right to read and limit the types of emails that an employee or student sends and receives?
This paper explores individuals' perceptions of unsolicited electronic mail in terms of its
impact on personal productivity and its effectiveness. A sample of students provided a homoge
neous sampleof frequent users of electronic mail. The results suggest that although the respon
dents receive a large number of unsolicited emails that they find annoying, they tend to spend
little time dealing with it. More importantly, the respondents are very unlikely to open, let alone
read, and respond to unsolicited electronic mail. Interestingly, however, the respondents to this
survey overwhelming prefer unsolicited electronic mail to unsolicited telephone calls by
Although the respondents believe that unsolicited email should becontrolled, it is not quite
clear as to who should control it. However, it appears that control by the govemment is the least
preferred choice. Unfortunately, control by Internet service providers and organizations results
in a myriad of different policies and procedures with many being ineffective, illegal, or immoral.
More research is needed to further explore these issues. This study provides a first step,
but is limited to a small section of the population of Internet users. Future research should focus
on cross sections that include different demographics, as well as other private and public orga
nizations. Of particular interest would be the study of peoples' perceptions in an organization
with respect to the policy and procedures the organization under study has in place. Moreover,
although this study suggests that most respondents prefer a non-governmental or private sector
solution, the issue concerning the cost of such a solution was not addressed. No doubt there will
be a substantial cost to the host organization or the Internet Service Provider who will be re
sponsible for controlling unsolicited electronic mail. Therefore, it would be interesting to gauge
electronic mail users' preferences and attitudes towards an increase in costs for service or a
reduction in access or service if the electronic mail address is hosted by an individual's em
Perceptions of Spa^
Marchewka et al.: Perceptions of unsolicited electronic mail or spam
Journal o f International Technology & In formation Management
Solomon, M. (2002b). "Spam wars," Computerworld, November 11. www.computerworld.com/
Thiibodeau, R (1999)."Congress steps cautiously to curb spam," Computerworld, November
Thibodeau, R (2000). "Defining 'spam' technically isn't easy," Computerworld, May 8.
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November 12. www.computerworld.com/securitytopics/security/story/
APPENDIX 1: ONLINE QUESTIONNAIRE
4. How many email accounts do you have?
° 3 or more
5. How often do you check your email?
° Less than once a week
° Once a week
" Twice a week
° Every other day
° Once a day
° Twice a day
° More than twice a day
6. Approximately, what percent of your email is unsolicited?(*Unsolicited email is defined as email from
Internet marketers or organizations that sell or advertise products or services or solicit monetary contributions that you did not specifically request.)
° < 1 0 %
M O - 2 5 %
° 2 6 - 5 0 %
" 5 1 - 7 5 %
" > 7 5 %
Please select one choice for each item below. The measurement represents.
1 - Strongly Disagree
2 - Disagree;
3 - Somewhat Disagree
4 - Neutral
5 - S;omev4iat Agree
£i - Agree
'/ - Sitrongl)' Agree
7.1 consider unsolicited email to be an invasion of my privacy.
11. Dealing with unsolicited email has little impact my personal productivity.
9.1 am likely to open unsolicited email if I am interested in the topic or s;uljjec:t heading.
10. I am likely to open unsolicited email if the topic or subject heading is
timely to my needs.
S t r o n g l y A g r e e
11.1 am likely to open unsolicited email if the address is from someone or
an organization with a good reputation.
Strongly Disai;ree M
12.1 do not like getting a lot of unsolicited emails from a single person or
S t r o n g l y A g r e e
13. In general, 1 believe that unsolicited email should he controlled.
14. Unsollicittrd email should he controlled by the government.
Strongly Agree °6
15. Unsolicited email should be controlled by my Internet Service Provider
16. Unsolicited email should be controlled by my company or the
organization that provides me vritb my email address.
17. Unsolicited email should be self-controlled by the senders themselves.
18. When I receive unsolicited email, I am very likely to open and read the
20. When I open and read unsolicited email, I am very likely to respond.
21.Wben I open and read unsolicited email, I am very likely to delete it
S t r o n g l y A g r e e
22.1 am most likely to delete unsolicited email because I do not have the
time to read it.
23. I am most likely to delete unsolicited email because I am not interested
in the subject beading or topic.
24.1 am most likely to delete unsolicited email without opening it because I
am coricerned that it may contain a harmful computer virus.
26. :1 aim very likely to complain to a third party about a sender of
27. Ira general, receiving unsolicited email does not bother me.
28. In general, I become annoyed when I get unsolicited email.
Strongly Disagree °1 °2 ° 3 ° 4 " 5 ° 6 ° 7 S t r o n g l y A g r e e V
29.1 am often offended by the subject headings or contents of unsolicited
30.1 am v ery dependent on email for communicating with others.
31.. On aiverage, how many emails do you receive a day?
" < 5
" 6 - 1 0
" 1 1 - 2 0
32. On average, how many emails do you send in a day?
" < f i
" 6 - 1 0
" 1 1 - 2 0
" > 2 0
33. On average, how much time do you spend dealing with unsolicited
email each day?
" 11-20 minutes
34.1 prefer unsolicited email more than unsolicited telephone calls.
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Solomon , M. ( 2002a ). "What is spam?," Computerworld, Vk'wv/ .computerworld.com/news/2002/story/0,11280,75735,OO.html. Journal of International Information Management , Vol. 12 , Iss. 1, Art . 6