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Advertising in Newsgroups

Advertising on Netnews (or Usenet) is a frequently misunderstood subject. The purpose of this page is to explain some Usenet conventions regarding advertising to new users and, hopefully, spare everyone involved a lot of needless worry.

1. The philosophy of Usenet

In the beginning, Usenet was largely confined to educational institutions such as universities and colleges, and to research companies and other commercial enterprises with Unix machines on-site. It has now grown to include millions of users at commercial sites such as America Online and at companies around the world involved in every sort of business imaginable. Nevertheless, many of the customs found on Usenet today have their origins in the days when Usenet was very small and most Usenet sites were universities.

That these customs and traditions began when Usenet was much smaller and quite different in nature in no way lessens the anger many users feel when these customs and traditions are violated.

One such custom is the tradition and belief that it is rude to advertise for profit in Usenet newsgroups.

Advertising is widely seen as an 'off-topic' intrusion into the discussions of any particular newsgroup (newsgroup is the Usenet word for discussion group or bulletin board). Each newsgroup has a specific set of subjects it is intended to cover, and in order for newsgroups to function as effective discussion forums, it is important that people stay 'on-topic'. If everyone disregarded the particular topics each newsgroup is intended to cover and simply posted whatever they wanted wherever they want, the entire system would break down.

Due to the decentralized nature of Usenet, there is no one person or body which can "enforce" the custom of staying on-topic. It falls on each user to help preserve the culture of open discussion and free speech that Usenet has come to embody by not posting off-topic material.

This, of course, includes advertising. Advertising is by far the most pervasive form of off-topic posting, and therefore, gets most of the heat.

2. An analogy

If an analogy will help you to visualize the situation, imagine a meeting at your workplace or school.

At this meeting, people are discussing a certain issue -- for example, getting new sidewalks installed downtown or getting new schoolbooks for the elementary school, or what to do about the new product your company is planning on introducing.

In the midst of the discussions on the new sidewalks or textbooks or product, someone walks into the room, interrupts everyone, then reads an advertisement for a local restaurant. He or she then leaves without waiting for comment.

Now imagine if this happened over and over again each time your group tried to hold a meeting. Every time someone tried to make a point, in walks some other stranger who reads an ad for some business that has nothing to do with the subject of the meeting. It would soon become rather difficult to hold effective meetings, wouldn't it?

Similarly, it's very difficult to keep Usenet newsgroups interesting and useful when people deluge newsgroups with advertisements.

3. The hidden cost

One of the things that attracts some people to the idea of advertising via Usenet is that it costs so little to do it. You pay $20 per month for an Internet account, and you can post literally millions of advertisements at no additional cost.

But there is a cost. Each message you post takes up disk space on each site around the world where it lands. People don't much mind paying for disk space to hold Usenet discussions since they know that people like taking part in those discussions and since they know that it's sort of like mutual backscratching. Everyone benefits from interesting, informative, or amusing discussions, so no one really minds paying for the space.

But there's only one person who benefits from advertising: the advertiser.

No one wants to give their disk space for free to someone who selfishly posts a copy of an advertisement to every newsgroup on Usenet.

4. How to advertise on Usenet

There are acceptable ways to advertise in Usenet newsgroups.

  1. The on-topic notice

    If you have a product or a message that is specifically related to a particular Usenet newsgroup, and you want to let people know about it, it's usually all right to post one notice about it.

    Note the word "notice." A notice is a brief mention of the product with information about how interested persons can find out more. It's not a sales pitch. It's not an advertisement. It's not a "BUY BUY BUY" sort of message. It's a notice.

    You are encouraged to make such postings one-time-only. When your polite informational notice starts getting posted every week, people are going to start getting irked at you.

    You are also strongly encouraged to keep such postings hype-free. What often works very well is to post information about your services or product and include a contact address, World Wide Web site, or phone number for people to use to get more information.

    This is not to say that on-topic notices will always be welcome; the proliferation of inappropriate advertisements (ads posted in the wrong way to the wrong place) has resulted in all ads, even informational notices posted to appropriate newsgroups, tending to get a cold shoulder. You can help by limiting your ads to informational postings posted only where appropriate, and abiding by any local restrictions a given newsgroup's readers have placed on advertising.

  2. *.forsale and *.marketplace newsgroups

    There are many newsgroups directly involved in selling. You can generally spot them by the word "forsale" or "marketplace" in their names.

    For example, the* hierarchy is full of newsgroups for buying and selling various computers, monitors, printers, devices, and so forth, as well as*, for selling stuff that's not computer-related. However, the* policy is rather resistant to *commercial* ads - the hierarchy is intended as a place to post classified-style ads.

    Many parts of the Net have local hierarchies as well where you can post for-sale and want-to-buy ads.

    For example, Oxford has the ox.for-sale group, where classified-style ads are the order of the day.

    It's generally considered rude, though, to crosspost a notice about your product to every forsale newsgroup, even ones on the opposite side of the country or world. Post your notice only to your local forsale newsgroup, if one exists.

5. How not to advertise on Usenet

Unfortunately, there are just about as many inappropriate ways to advertise on Usenet as there are appropriate ways.

  1. Posting off-topic messages in unrelated newsgroups

    Each message you post to Usenet, regardless of its content, should only be posted to related newsgroups.

    For example, you run a rug company. You want to sell lots of rugs. So, you post an advertisement about your rugs in sci.physics. Not surprisingly, a lot of people send you email telling you what a jerk you are.

    Why'd they do this, you ask? It's simple: sci.physics has nothing to do with selling rugs. Your ad was as off-topic as if someone had tried to get a discussion going there about the upcoming football season or started posting a lot of messages about their recent vacation.

    Try to look at it from the other person's point of view. If you'd resent someone posting an ad for their product to your favourite newsgroup, why would you post an ad for your product to thousands of other people's favorite newsgroups?

  2. Spamming

    Spamming is defined as posting identical or nearly-identical messages (not just ads, although ads are usually what spammers post) to a lot of newsgroups, one right after the other. Since it's really not that difficult to write a program that will post the same advertisement to dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of newsgroups, a lot of people have taken to doing this.

    What's happened to people who've spammed?

    They've lost their accounts, been mail-bombed (had thousands of pieces of junk email sent to them), had people call up and yell at them in the middle of the night, had people forward their mail (by this I mean paper mail, not email) to someplace strange, had people sign them up for thousands of unwanted magazine subscriptions, had people send them thousands of pages of condemnatory faxes, and so forth.

    Nothing is as hated on Usenet as spamming. It's extremely, unbelievably rude and if you do it, you will come to regret it. (This is not a threat - it's an observation. Any benefits spamming might have brought you will be more than counteracted by the intense public outcry against you in every newsgroup you posted your ad to).

    Some members of the media have gotten the mistaken impression that spamming is hated because it's advertising. While it's true that Usenet users don't have much fondness for advertising, the real reason spamming is hated so much is because it's unbelievably rude.

    If you don't regularly read a newsgroup, why would you post an ad to it? In so doing, you're basically saying that you don't care what the people in that newsgroup think or whether your ad might inconvenience them; you're out to benefit yourself. When you spam by posting the same advertisement to hundreds or thousands of newsgroups, you're saying that your personal profit is more important than the discussions of millions of people.

    Would you like it if someone came by your house day after day and shoveled several thousand copies of an advertising circular through your windows?

    So please, don't do it. It's just not worth the grief you'll get.

    Another consideration against spamming is that Usenet readers developed defenses against it, so it's not very effective. There are quite a few spam detectors running on Usenet, and if one of them detects that the same message has been posted repeatedly to multiple newsgroups, the humans who run those spam detectors will step in and actually erase the spamming messages with 'cancel' messages which are honored at most sites around the world.

  3. Unsolicited junk email

    Another often-practiced and often-punished scheme is to send email to thousands of strangers whose addresses you found in various Usenet newsgroups. Many people have lost their Internet access after sending thousands of strangers ads for timeshare condos in Cancun or dubious credit schemes, and yet, the junk email continues to flood in.

    Suffice it to say that junk email, using Usenet posters' addresses, is a really bad idea. Most sites will yank your account if you do that kind of thing.

  4. 'Mail-Merged' ads

    Some advertisers noticed that it was only identical postings that were getting cancelled by the spam cancellers, and cleverly came up with a way to post their ad to dozens of newsgroups while varying a line or two to make it look sufficiently different to avoid being cancelled.

    For example, one book editor posted ads to dozens of newsgroups about his book, essentially giving a sales pitch for said book, while adding a paragraph to each article that purported to contain the text that had been printed about each newsgroup in said book.

    It was rather obvious that the editor wasn't interested in getting feedback on the text since the book had already been published; eventually an employee at the company admitted that the technique had been used to try to avoid triggering the spam cancellers -- and that the point had indeed been to broadcast the ad widely without getting cancelled.

    Don't do postings that say things like "Congratulations, REC.FOOD.DRINK.BEER reader, you are among the lucky few to be included in this amazing offer." Spam that makes a token effort to relate to each newsgroup it's posted to is still spam, and will still be erased on sight.

6. Conclusion

To make a long story short, off-topic advertising and advertising that equates to a bullhorn stuck into someone's window in the middle of the night are bad ideas.

Please exercise restraint and don't make the mistake many have of thinking that just because there's no central authority that can punish you for spamming newsgroups, that there will be no consequences if you do.

There will be consequences if you spam -- and you might be surprised by the lengths that vengeful Usenet users can go to when someone spams their favorite group with yet another off-topic advertisement.

If you want to advertise on Usenet, you can, but please follow the tips contained in this document's "How to" section and don't make the mistakes listed in "How not to do it."


Written by IT Services. Latest revision 5 September 2014