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PC World

Web site helps you dump junk mail

Internet spam

How much unwanted e-mail finds its way to your in-box each day?

less than 10 messages
10 to 20 messages
more than 20 messages
View Results

March 11, 1999
Web posted at: 1:18 p.m. EST (1818 GMT)

by David Needle

(IDG) -- Are you tired of those dinnertime phone calls enticing you to switch long-distance carriers or sample a timeshare condominium? Is your mailbox full of unwanted catalogs and junk solicitations that go directly to the recycle bin?

A free Web-based service from a start-up called Populardemand purports to eliminate those junk phone calls and mailings "for life." What's the catch? Another Populardemand feature -- and the way the firm plans to make money -- is providing targeted information and deals on products and services that interest you.

Ironically, to free consumers of junk correspondence, Populardemand requires its users to provide some of the same kind of personal contact information that direct marketers thrive on. But it's not as bad as it sounds. It takes about 5 minutes to sign up for the service at Populardemand's "Unlistme" Web site. The process includes providing your name, address, e-mail address, and phone number, and Populardemand promises to keep it all completely confidential. You must provide a phone number, but no one from the company or its affiliates is supposed to call you. Neither should you get any paper correspondence, just e-mail from Populardemand. Company representatives say telephone numbers are part of the verifiable information they need in order to get you off the telemarketing lists. Also, you can remove yourself from Populardemand's service at any time.

Good junk mail

What if you want to keep getting some of the catalogs that show up in your mailbox? Actually, Populardemand can do very little about it. When Populardemand gives your information to what's called a list suppression service, the idea is to stop the random mailings you get because you fit a certain demographic or some other criteria in a vendor's database. But the catalog companies have a lock on customers who have purchased a product from them. To get off those lists you have to contact the specific catalog or related company yourself.

On the other hand, if you're interested in receiving specific catalogs, Populardemand will facilitate that. As part of your sign-up sequence, you'll see a checklist of ten popular catalogs (including Hammacher Schlemmer, Harry and David, J. Crew, Pottery Barn, and Victoria's Secret). You can select any of them or type in one that's not listed, and Populardemand will have it sent to you.

The other side of this two-edged consumer service is Populardemand's intent to provide deals on consumer goods. I say intent, because no such deals are available yet. This was no accident or failing, according to Eric Knorr, Populardemand's chief operating officer and a former PC World editor.

"We don't want to be shills for the vendors with a pre-selection of products they want to push," Knorr says. "We want this to be consumer-driven."

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You can check off items in a list of product categories that might be of interest, from desktop computers, software, and digital cameras to airline tickets and life insurance. You don't have to check off a thing to take advantage of the unlist feature. But when you choose some categories, Populardemand gives you a personalized page that shows how many other users are interested in the same thing.

I signed on the first day the service went live and saw, under the heading Buying Power, how popular my interests are. I was 1 of 192 people interested in airline tickets, 1 of 111 interested in software, and 1 of 61 interested in life insurance by early afternoon. As these numbers grow, Populardemand intends to approach name-brand vendors and try to bargain for group rates that would include discounts as well as so-called value-added features like extended warranties.

Since the deals aren't available yet, it's hard to evaluate how good they are, though company officials are quick to stress that getting the best discounts won't be their only priority. "People will pay more for name brands and quality of service, which really doesn't exist online," says Shyamala Reddy, Populardemand's vice president of products.

By offering targeted lists of prequalified buyers -- that is, people who have expressed interest in specific products -- Populardemand expects to be able to charge vendors much more per prospect than a company offering only a demographic mailing list.

Users can also explain why a deal doesn't appeal to them. Then, vendors can use that feedback to tailor their deals to be more appealing. For example, if hundreds of would-be customers complain the price is too high or they dislike an item's color or its service contract, a vendor might change the deal.

Users can also choose how often they want information about new deals, which is sent by e-mail. You can specify weekly, monthly, quarterly, or as soon as the new information is available; or you can say "Never" and scan your personal Populardemand page for the latest information.

No threat to spam

Eventually, Populardemand wants to provide filters for unwanted spam, those random e-mail messages we all get advertising everything from pornography to get-rich-quick schemes. But spam, as America Online and other online entities have discovered, is far more difficult to control than paper and phone solicitations.

Meanwhile, junk mail is a broader problem; not everyone has an e-mail account. The average adult gets 11 pieces a week -- that's 572 pieces a year -- of third-class direct mail, according to Populardemand's research and independent studies. On average, Americans spend eight months of their lives opening junk mail. Populardemand wants to give you back some of that time.

Populardemand's consumer rights angle is a bit of a Trojan horse, since its bottom line goal is providing vendors with lists of ready buyers. Still, you can't fault the company for trying to create a viable business. And they should be applauded for letting their customers have the final say over what information, if any, they receive. Populardemand is a breath of fresh air compared to the many other "free" Web services, which provide free e-mail, services, and even free computers, but as "payment" send you countless ads and extract far more detailed personal information.

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Who was that masked spam?
(The Industry Standard)
You've got junk mail
(The Industry Standard)
AOL takes a bite out of spam
(The Industry Standard)
Stopping the spam: A report from the front
(PC World Online)
Top 10 spam-control tools
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Methods for policing e-mail are sometimes even more criminal than spam itself
Why wait for Congress? You can fight spam today
(PC World Online)

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