The Grudge

In this day and age, software to weed out spam is a must. The only problem is that it is never fool-proof. You have to be careful that genuine mail does not get deleted with the junk. So I still have to check my junk folders on a regular basis. A quick look today in the junk folder shows the usual assortment promising to make me more attractive, forward me the proceeds of a Nigerian banking transaction, increase my “potency”, and sell me cheap software. Ho-hum. But what is this? It is an advert for revenue assurance software. An unsolicited and unwanted advert from a business I did not know existed. So what should I do? Should I

  1. just delete it and not waste my time worrying about it?
  2. or

  3. write a blog about it?

Unlike most people, I opt for (2). Fortunately, it says I can unsubscribe at the bottom of this first email, thus avoiding the “series of short emails” that I am promised would otherwise follow. So I do unsubscribe. But, sucker that I am, I still feel compelled to check out the company’s website. It turns out they sell the first software engine that blah blah saves millions blah blah marketing guff. That is a cleverly worded claim. I do not know if they really were the first (though I have my suspicions), but they are certainly not the only ones to offer a product like this. I think straight off the top of my head of a few rivals selling very similar kinds of tools. I check out the date of when they attained this “first”, and it was this year. Ummmm. Without doing lots of investigation I cannot work out why they think they were first at anything. Perhaps in the long sentence describing the product there is some feature they feel is unique to their offering. Or perhaps they have no idea (and do not care) if anyone else offers something similar. After all, it is not like there is a simple industry-wide product index that tells you who makes what.

The question that is still bugging me, of course, is where did they get my email address from? Or rather, how did I became a subscriber to these blasted marketing emails? There are lists floating around with my name on it, of course. I am not just talking about the lists written in shaky handwriting that begin with “come the revolution…” or “first against the wall…” and which have doodles in the margin of me suffering some gruesome form of torture. I know about those of course. It gives me great satisfaction to be at the top of so many of those lists ;) No, I mean the ones with lots of contact details that get sold to a certain kind of telecoms vendor so they can cold call or send me junk in the post. Perhaps this firm bought one of those lists. It would certainly fit with their company motto (here is where the bright sparks amongst you can work out who spammed me) which is “competitive advantage from data”. Rather. But does blasting out unwanted marketing material work? Or is it counterproductive?

Here is some games theory from my university days. Take a population with a finite number of people. Any person can do a favour for anyone else. A favour is not a zero-sum transaction: the recipient benefits by more than the amount it costs the giver. Favours never happen simultaneously. Because only one can happen at a time, it means if two people swap favours, then someone has to go first. Divide the people into one of two characters: good people do favours at random, bad people receive favours and never do any. Who wins the game? You got it. The bad people. Because they receive charitable favours, but never give them, they win. So how do you change the rules so the good people win? Well, one way is to give them a memory – let the good people remember who paid back and who did not. Then, also let them hold grudges, so they never do favours to people who have not paid them back for a previous favour. If the population is relatively small, and you play the game long enough, the grudge-bearing good people will eventually win, because they keep doing more and more favours for each other but never do more than one favour per bad person. If you then add another feature, allowing grudge-bearing good people to share information on their grudges, and to act collectively, they win the game faster. Because the grudge-bearing good people have some knowledge of who will not pay back, even before they give a favour, they reduce the number of favours given to bad people. That is what I think of when I hear the phrase “competitive advantage from data”.

You can drastically change the outcomes of a game by playing with the mix of good, bad, grudge-bearers and non-grudge-bearers, or by introducing in some or all a probability of being “good” or “bad” or of bearing a grudge. Which strategy is best will depend on the strategies being played by others. So which strategy should I apply to the junk email revenue assurance software company? Should I bear a grudge? Or should I (forgive and) forget? Should I share info about them, or keep it to myself? If I forget and do nothing, that means blasting out unwanted marketing material does work – because of the possible upside but with no downside. On the other hand, this being the real world, if I bear a grudge and share it with others, I know that others may not really care, and that more likely it will just rebound on me ten-fold. So it feels like my world (at least in terms of revenue assurance) is very uncharitable: do not expect favours and do not give out favours probably being a better strategy for “success” than looking to trade favours and then holding grudges against the “bad” guys. But that means we cannot have such things as collective data – the ability to readily share information. Which is going to make it harder and slower to improve, as it means everybody has to learn from their own experience, and their own mistakes. What a very uncharitable bunch we are.

And then, as I am finishing off this entry, I hear the postman at the door. “What junk mail am I getting now?” I think to myself. This time it is not an invite to a conference where I can learn from the usual bunch of industry thought leaders and operator case studies. Instead, it turns out to be a letter from Oxfam telling me of people that depend on rain that may not come. I am suitably chastened by this reminder that there is a very important place for charity after all, and that there are some distribution lists I am happy to be on. Which put it all into perspective.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.