Form Spam and Global Marketing in the Printed Circuit Board Industry

Imagine if you will your company as a shiny blue door and your customers as the door frames holding you up.

On the inside of the blue door is your staff and equipment. On the outside, spread across the land are 2,000 more blue doors each representing your competition but only 400 are still standing. The rest lay motionless on the ground, their frames carted off to foreign lands by a horde of industrious and gleeful door-to-door salesmen.

It may seem like an odd way to describe what has happened to the North American Printed Circuit Board industry in recent years but what makes it even odder is when you consider the door-to-door salesmen are not just trying to tear down your door, they are knocking on it en-masse, relentlessly trying to convince you to buy from them. Welcome to the land where Omni Printed Circuit Boards and roughly 400 other North American PCB manufacturers compete.

When I joined Omni, our website was of mid-nineties (600 x 800) vintage and there may have been a notice on the Home Page which proudly announced the last update had occurred in November, five years previous. The sales email address was on the contact page and every day more robotic email address sniffers would detect it and add it to the pile. Each morning, we wade through the usual spam for male beauty and enhancement aids, offers of untold wealth from lost tax refunds or wills, or anxious requests to reset our banking passwords; but, the volume of these pale in comparison to the number [of emails] received from Chinese PCB manufacturers excited to explain their capabilities and requesting us to purchase from them. Over and over and…

…but, the volume of these pale in comparison to the number [of emails] received from Chinese PCB manufacturers excited to explain their capabilities and requesting us to purchase from them. Over and over and…

So we can all understand the everyday spammers sending out millions of offers from nebulous locations to avoid spam laws, all in the hopes of capturing a few leads. They hope to hook the gullible or the elderly but they probably don’t believe all their emails are opened, read in full and carefully considered before being placed in an email folder titled: Opportunities. Consider the emailers from the established, often publicly traded PCB shops in China unfettered by spam laws. They are attempting to enamor and capture the attention of the 400 PCB businesses left standing after their onslaught. [At Omni] we literally receive 50 to 100 emails per day from Asian shops who seem completely unaware their solicitations have reached the saturation point. Can it be working? Do North American firms succumb to the relentless email and decide to close down their operations in favour of being sales and distribution hubs for Asian suppliers? More likely they’ve chosen one to partner with already who can provide access to a market or technical field they can`t already compete in. It saves them the capital costs required to compete directly. And they choose to ignore the fact their actions will result in someone else’s blue door being knocked down shortly. Something else is happening as well. With the saturation point reached, the Asian PCB suppliers are no longer competing with local shops for North American work, they are competing with each other. The manufacturing reps are collecting their percentage and pitting one Asian manufacturer against another.

After redesigning our website with Kayak Creative, we knew it wouldn’t mean the end to spam. We didn’t change our sales email address and we know it will be in spammers contact lists until email is replaced by tinfoil beanies that telepathically inject communication/sales directly into our brains. But we didn’t anticipate how rapidly the Asian suppliers would adapt and contact us through our website forms. Similar to their spam email counterparts, some of the Asian contacts are simple: ‘we are a pcb manufacture,wish for the cooperation.’ While some go on relentlessly punctuated with exclamation marks and key words in all-caps. Having said that, I must admit, their use of the English language is infinitely superior to my Mandarin.

Consider if you will all the happy, excited messages sent by these energetic, enterprising people who won’t stop until all the shiny blue doors in North America are knocked down at which point they are sure to hear the unmistakeable sound of Vietnam, India and perhaps even Africa knocking and they can turn their attention to their own shining red doors.


Form spam discussion and defense actions:

(A note from Randy Milanovic at Kayak.)

We’ve seen a rise in ‘form spam’ recently. Relatives of those nastly email spam bots have been artfully coded to detect and complete forms. The most alarming difference between the two kinds of spammers has been the transition from random mass email distribution, which is essentially irrelevent and unfocussed, into quasi-legitimate (annoying) businesses promotion through the completion of forms – (either manually or automatically) with relevant content – and unabashedly providing their full contact information. Believe it or not, the very fact you invited website visitors to fill out your form, essentially gives them permission. [Fans of vampire movies will grasp the predicament immediately.]

Defensive tactics

In order of effectiveness (coincidetally these are also in the order of annoyance to real humans and legitimate forms completion):

  1. add localization (select your city from this pull-down list)
  2. remove “message” fields (fairly effective, but unfriendly to authentic conversions)
  3. block IPs, countries or regions from completing/accessing your website
  4. add a hidden field that humans cannot see (any time the hidden field is completed, terminate the form submission – only works with automated bots – doesn’t stop bad manners of spamming humans)
  5. Use social sign on (add Twitter, Google or Facebook sign-in – the flip side is that those services will know what you are up to)
  6. add “Captcha” image detection (very effective, though annoying as ever to humans)

In the end, just as with email spam, the form spammers have an uncanny knack of figuring out how to get past our defenses. Salvation appears to be on the horizon though, as progressive thinking countries tweak and tighen anti-spam laws, impose massive fines on offenders, and security organizations work globally to shut down spam networks.

Although the spam is different, it’s still spam, just as junk faxes, SMS texts and emails… Don’t be one of THEM. Download the 10-step Email Marketing Guide which discusses how you can be a concientious marketer, e-market legally and discover the fines already in place and planned for spammers. (US CAN SPAM Act and Canadian Anti-Spam Act.) 

Further reading: 2012 Laws for Email Marketing

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