Welcome to the newest installment of our weekly blog series, Ethical Questions for Marketers. Each week we plan to introduce a new topic and explore it in detail, preparing marketers for the day when they face such a problem at their organization.

When I talk to email marketers today, many of them think that spam is a thing of the past. I say good for them. But the reality is that there are still far too many organizations engaged in this years’ old practice. We just have to define it better.

Usually they’re thinking that spam is when you try to deceive or trick someone with email. They think of phishing attacks and Nigerian princes sending you offers with bad links in an attempt to steal your identity or your life savings.

This isn’t spam so much as a scam. And modern email providers like Gmail and Yahoo have gotten so good at filtering that stuff out that it’s hardly a problem anymore.

Today’s spam looks like a perfectly good email. It comes from a legitimate company with a legitimate offer. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the subscriber never asked for it. They never signed up and they never gave you permission. It’s the email equivalent of a telemarketer’s cold call or a flyer you never asked for in your mailbox. Except that its more prolific than either of those forms of outreach because of the relative cost.

Email is nearly free. But that doesn’t make it okay. Spam can hurt your brand, and get you in trouble. For every 100 people you send an email to unannounced, you might get 1 additional sale. But you will anger 20-30 people to do it. (I’m making up numbers of course, but the reality is not far off)

What your company needs to decide is how far you are willing to go to find new customers. How far are you willing to bend the rules? How many people do you risk turning off of your brand forever?