Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Digital Nativity

I thought this was really well put together and worth a watch:

I hope everyone has a happy and safe festive season!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Twitter humour

It's slightly rude (and brings out the child in me) but this made me laugh on Twitter yesterday:I guess whatever floats your boat - and a happy Christmas to you too sir!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stuart Baggs (The Robbed)

As I've said previously I love The Apprentice, and I have particularly enjoyed this year's pseudo-panto candidate Stuart Baggs - who has been great value throughout.

This week marked the interview stage, and my has 'our' Stuart been hard done by out of it as Alan Sir Alan Lord Sugar makes up for his obvious guilt over the firing of the (very) lovely Liz last week by making Stuart his scapegoat, based on the advice of a totally clueless lackey.

Stuart has a telecoms licence on the Isle of Man you know, one as an ISP. ISP being an abbreviation for 'Internet Service Protocol' you know.

Apart from the fact that ISP actually stands for Internet Service Provider and the argument over his licence (from the lackey) was complete and total nitpicking of the highest order when his company is a triple play provider - and hence offers TV, broadband and phone services.

In my mind that's a telco, regardless of the minutiae of what technology is used to deliver the services, definition-wise (and in the eyes of a regulator) - which is clearly what was used as a justification to sack him by our favourite entrepreneur.

I can't argue with the other sackings, but it should be Stuart up against Stella next week - and winning, as this year reaches it's final duel.

Stella will win at a canter next week. It's almost not even worth watching it, were Stuart not set to return for a guest slot.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Phishing Alert

Yesterday we were alerted to one of the more advanced phishing attacks against our customers we have seen, and having received the mail myself I thought I'd share what it looked like:Click on it for a larger version, and note the strapline at the bottom including the e-mail address it was sent to (which I have Photoshopped so I don't get more spam!).

Note: This is not a genuine e-mail to our customers and was not sent by Virgin Media.

As per our standard practice, as soon as we were alerted to the message we put up a warning on our website and blocked the site the link went to from being accessed by our customers until the network team at the other end take it down, and with the site it linked to being a very convincing copy of My Virgin Media (this is a genuine link!) it's clear that phishing attacks are becoming more advanced - even if the message did include some of the characteristic spelling mistakes you usually see in phishing attacks.

My spam e-mail folder is full of attempted phishing attacks and the usual advice is to be wary of a message unless you know it's genuine. Personally I never click on links in e-mails, but go to the website myself instead via typing in the website address manually into a browser window.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


With the first places on our network now able to get 100Mb broadband, I thought I'd share a speedtest graph I spotted via Twitter from a customer who recently left their ADSL supplier to join our fibre optic broadband service:I wonder if anyone can guess which day he was installed on 50Mb :-)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dara Ó Brilliant

[Image Credit - Wikipedia]

I've been to three comedy gigs this year (and Tim Minchin at the O2 with full orchestra is yet to come - can't wait for that) - Frankie Boyle (poor and really lacking in new material), Al Murray (really good) and Dara Ó Briain, who was truly excellent and one of the funniest gigs I have ever been to. Would highly recommend to anyone to go if you get a chance to see him live.

He's also been a revelation as the host of 'The Apprentice - You're Fired' since Adrian Chiles went to ITV earlier this year, and he was on great form this week in offering truffles to the fired candidate (no spoilers), some of his one liners and how he interacted with one of the best panels so far on the programme - which has had a new lease of life and I'm enjoying it almost as much as the main show itself.

And I can't wait to see him with Stuart Baggs when 'The Brand' eventually leaves ... that might have to be a four hour long special!

More @ The Apprentice: http://www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice.

Monday, November 29, 2010

BBC drives Baggs traffic

I had a look at my blog statistics the other day in Google Analytics, and noted a recent big jump:
Hunting around to see why, I checked out where the traffic had originated from and it's predominantly coming from the BBC Apprentice page which is linking to my Stuart Baggs blog:As one blog poster said, I do hope he makes it as far as the interview stage before he gets fired!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Over egged headline of the year?

Having recently blogged the dullest news 'story' ever I was quite taken by the over exaggerated (just a bit!) headline I saw of a local paper in the shop yesterday:Clicking on the image will help you understand more of the scale of this appalling 'massacre'.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Back me up

We aim to ensure we are offering our customers the best products and services, and we're aware that VStuff (the backup service we offer) has had its ups and downs. I thought I'd share with you what we’re currently focusing on doing to improve it.

For example you've told us that the software is difficult to use - which we're fixing with a significantly improved look and feel and far simpler interface. The software's reliability and the VStuff online web site also needs attention - and we're improving those too.

So here's what's happening:


In order to upload or download files, V Stuff users connect to a "back-end platform". A number of stability and capacity improvements are being implemented to this platform within the next month.

This will vastly improve the stability of the service along with an increase in transfer speeds when uploading or downloading files from and to your online data store.

Couple this with the upload speed improvements we're currently rolling out and you'll start to see considerable improvements.


The big changes come early next year with the overhaul of the backup software interface and improvements to the website. We've made the changes after listening to feedback from customers and working with them to improve the design – so we're sure you'll find it more intuitive and simple to use.

We're also changing what we call things, updating the core software itself, simplifying some of the more complex options in the software to improve usability and rebranding the service to 'Backup & Storage' (it does what it says on the tin!) but don’t worry, the photo service will still be there.

We were hoping to have all these major improvements released this year but are taking some additional time on testing to ensure we are as confident as we can be that the experience is brilliant and we fix all issues present today.

Here's a taster of what the service will look like, we hope you agree a huge improvement….

We'll be in touch with backup & storage users shortly to let them know when exactly these changes will take place, so please bear with us while we get these improvements rolled out.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dullest news 'story' ever?

I am wondering if this - which I was sent last week - is the dullest 'news' story ever seen, highlighting what local media can be like sometimes?Needless to say I shared it with a friend who works at Amazon immediately!

Also, I don't speak Dutch but even I can work out that this is a rather unfortunate example of advertising placement in a newspaper:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Stuart Baggs (The Brand)

"Everything I touch turns to sold" (Episode One)

I love The Apprentice. And by that I don’t mean the US version where you sit there in amazement at Donald Trump's hair and the fact he can go out looking like that every day (the only hair on TV to rival Gerry Francis' appalling mullet on Sky Sports News).

I mean the Alan, sorry, 'Lord' Sugar version of it in the UK – which gets sillier by the episode and this year has been highlighted by Stuart Baggs, a 21-year-old telecoms entrepreneur from the Isle of Man who comes out with ridiculous statements, irritates the hell out of everyone with his arrogance and this week proved to be a team leader so spectacularly bad that even John Barnes would get a management job ahead of him.

He was actually growing on me over the last few weeks when he learnt to keep his mouth shut, but his inability to contain his 'extreme masculinity' along with his badgering his team members left me convinced (as Dara O'Briain said on You're Fired afterwards) that Sugar might actually change the rules and fire him this week – but with his team winning he didn't.

He's got to go next week doesn't he? Who do you think will win by the way? Got to be Liz for me – she's doing really well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

We top 15,000 Twitter followers!

Overnight we (@virginmedia) passed the landmark number of 15,000 followers on Twitter going by the 'worm' from Twittercounter:And backed up by our Twitter profile:We generally get anything from 20-60 new followers a day looking to hear news from Virgin Media or seek help from our wonderful Twitter 'Tweam' of Billy, Pete and Sam (more on them here) and the 'jump' last week (250+ new followers in 2 days) was due to the launch of 100Mb and the Gadget Show's Jason Bradbury tweeting about it ... keeping the Tweam busy with many enquiries from both customers and non customers!

As ever the team are here to help and I look forward to our followers continuing to grow :-)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


A few months back we launched a new 'Gateway' device for customers on our non 50Mb broadband tiers - the device being a combined modem and router from Netgear that we've called the Virgin Media Hub.

And it's gone very well, with a much lower rate of customers contacting us for help with both setting it up and using it on an ongoing basis - as well as improved customer satisfaction scores with additional steps being taken at point of install by our engineers.

Combined with the new broadband activation process coming early in 2011, it's part of a whole programme of works to improve the 'join' experience - as is the 'Gateway' device for the 100Mb service that's coming soon, the 'Superhub'.

The Superhub, which will also replace the separate modem and router as part of 50Mb installs, looks like this and I think you'll agree is a very shiny piece of kit:You should be able to click on any of these for a larger version of them by the way if interested.

The Superhub is 'N' wireless capable, can do speeds of something like 400Mb (so is quite future proof!) and has been through a full product design process including plenty of usability testing with customers (along with all the other testing you would expect us to do) - so as well as looking great hopefully it'll be easy to use.

The usability testing we did enabled us to make some important changes to the stand and the port configuration to improve it, and huge thanks are very much due to all the customers who helped us with ideas on improving it at the usability sessions ... as well as on the upcoming CD activation process which we're all looking forward to having out there next year.

And on that note, I'd best keep an ear on the door as my own beta trial Superhub is due to arrive today I hope!

Update Feb 14, 2011:

Thanks to all those who have commented on the Superhub, and for the feedback on what additional features you would like to see included in a future firmware release for it in particular.

For those who have inquired about 'bridge' mode (which would enable you to use your own router with it), there is an update on our help & support forums here and there is also another thread for any other ideas on what you would like to see in future releases here.

If you can supply your thoughts there we can keep them all in one place and collate them for consideration accordingly.

Many thanks!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What a way to pitch

I just received this pitching e-mail from a company and, given the nature of the e-mail, it's quite ironic how they've started it off:
[Click on image for a larger version]

I've written back to point out that I am, in fact, a man.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Arriba Arriba

As you may know last week we opened pre-registrations for the 100Mb broadband service, which is being so ably promoted by Speedy Gonzales (who you can follow on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/speedy by the way) and to celebrate the launch the media relations team managed to get some very flash cars out to act as London taxis ... a Ferrari F430, a Porsche 911 Turbo and an Aston Martin DBS.

They happened to rock up outside our Covent Garden offices so I nipped out to get a few pictures:
[My colleague Ryan and Simon from our brand team, L-R]

Did anybody else spot them around London, and more importantly did anyone get a ride in one? If so, were they as much fun as they looked?

I gather we’re looking into whether we can have some elsewhere in the country too so keep your eyes peeled!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Speedy Gonzales

The Speedy Gonzales TV advertisement that debuted during the X Factor at the weekend can be found here on YouTube:

Thursday, October 21, 2010


We had a billboard made entirely of cheese installed in Covent Garden today to promote our broadband services with 100Mb on the way.

With it being around the corner from the office I had to drop by for a look:What I didn't see though was a supply of cream crackers nearby. I'll have to have a word with the PR team in the morning.

As a customer said on Facebook today:
"Virgin media gone into the carpet business? 'Underlay, underlay!'"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My issues with Apple

This week Apple appear to set to make their latest consumer product announcement with plenty of speculation all over the web as to what it might be.

Personally I couldn't care less as I won't be buying it whatever it is.

And before I go on to explain why, I'd like to remind you that this is my own personal opinion and doesn't form the opinions of anyone else, including my employer!

The issue I have with Apple is the fanboy mentality that their products have generated amongst a certain niche of the population.

This type of person is perfectly summed up by a BBC TV news story when Apple launched the iPhone4 in the UK in June.

A teenage girl in the Apple store in London who'd just purchased one was asked by a reporter why she needed one. Her response was:
"I dunno really, I just do"
This was mere seconds after she had spent hundreds of pounds buying one - and this was on the device's first day of launch - in fact she was probably one of the disciples that I saw queued for one when I walked past the Apple store at 830am on launch day:
'Disciple' is not a word I use lightly, as there is an almost Jones-like slavish devotion to buying their products (at whatever the cost) from those who queue for hours (even days, as in one report in the US on the iPad launch), buy every single version of every Apple product as soon as they come out and go on and on and on about how great they are and how everyone should have one.

I wouldn't mind if people were buying them on merit as the best product to suit their needs based on having researched the product and found it to be the best in the market.

Some do (such as my colleague and friend Nick), but a heck of a lot don't - people want to be seen with the white headphones, so they buy an iPod. They want people to see them with an iPad so they get it out on the train and hold it up in a way where everyone on the carriage can't help but have it thrust down their throat - almost saying "I have a new Apple product, look how great I am".

When one version of the iPod first came out I was in the market for an MP3 player so I asked around for some recommendations and tried it out in a shop along with a Creative one and an iRiver. The iRiver had the best sound quality of those in my price range, so I bought that. I don't care what colour the headphones are or how 'cool' I look with it - I'm interested in the storage space, the user interface and the sound quality.

The Apple 'sheep' (as I call the devotee) doesn't, and will only consider the Apple product regardless of its quality, functionality or cost. If an iPod cost £10,000 they'd buy it. This way of thinking is well summarised in the below not safe for work video:

Plus Scott Adams has a good take on the same mentality via Dilbert:


The other thing that annoys me about the sheep mentality is the suggestion (by the sheep themselves) that the Apple way should be applied across everything.

In my day job I get to work on bringing products to market and making sure they deliver the correct end user experience. Countless times I have heard phrases like:
"You should design it like an Apple product."
People who say that are generally the same, self selecting users who have the company's products coming out of their ears. And that's the point really - they're self selecting.

The 84 year old in my local pub wouldn't use an iPod and designing a product for him that works like one isn't going to be of any use whatsoever. While the products they design work well for people they design them for, I doubt they would for those who would never use one - so I do need to think differently.

At this point I have a confession to get off my chest.

I actually purchased an iPod once as a gift for someone, but did bore them to tears in ensuring that they had done due diligence and were buying it based on its merits rather than its 'cool' factor, so I didn't feel quite so bad. To me it's a triumph of marketing over functionality (as The Telegraph so succinctly put it), but it did the job for them and they were happy.

The sheep mentality is not for me and I won't be buying whatever this week's new product is for myself ... I'll stick with doing my own research and choosing my tech on merit rather than marketing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Good time today lol

I've just been having a look at my Twitter wordcloud over at tweetstats (the below screenshot was after I imported it into Wordle) and, other than reminding myself that I do tweet quite a lot, I also managed to make a sentence of 'good time today lol' out of some of my most commonly used words:So I seem to have the perfect antidote to a friend who accused me of being miserable on Twitter this morning :-)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Our discovery channel

Recently we launched what we are calling the 'Broadband Discovery Zone', which is a section on our website that looks like this ...
... and can be found here.

So why have we done this? From all the feedback from our broadband customers (as well as with a bit of research thrown in) the messages that we hear loud and clear are that the most important things to them are: their speed, the reliability of their connection and their security when online, especially when news like this appears in the press.

We set up the Broadband Discovery Zone to give some top tips on the common problems people might experience with their broadband and what they can do to fix them. With well over half of the speed and connectivity related problems our customers experience being down to their own equipment (hardware, software, wireless routers etc) there's plenty that we've learned that we are happy to pass on.

As well as tips, tricks and useful information about what to do when you have a speed or connectivity problem, there's a section in the Broadband Discovery Zone about ensuring you're safe when online with advice about how to secure your wireless network included. Given this can be quite complex to do, our Digital Home Support Team are also there to help (this is a chargeable service – more details on this can be found here).

Also included in the Broadband Discovery Zone are some help videos for our customers and news on developments to our network – including the increased upload speeds we announced last week.

While we've deliberately kept the Broadband Discovery Zone focused on the most common queries we get from customers and advice on how they can help themselves without needing to give us a call, we’re interested in any and all feedback on what else we should put into it in future – do please let us know your thoughts.

For another blog ...

This isn't what I would call a 'proper' blog posting (I'm working on another of those at the moment) but is an opportunity for me to upload a Twitter conversation (from TweetDeck) between our fab Twitter team (see here for more about them) and a customer as I want to correct some misconceptions on his blog about how they work and need to be able to upload a screenshot of the conversation.
So apologies for the unusual blog post!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


A service improvement initiative our networks and change teams have been working on rolling out is something called Advanced Spectrum Management or ASM for short.

ASM is intelligence within our access network (well it sits at the bridge between the access and IP networks) that identifies problems that would otherwise result in customer affecting outages, and by flicking a clever switch in the background ensures that customers maintain service while we get working on fixing the root cause of the problem.

Any particularly tecchie people out there might want to read up more about what it is and what it does on the Cisco website here.

Many outages have been prevented as a result of the rollout of ASM, which recently completed and is showing to be a great success in terms of keeping our customers’ broadband and interactive/VoD services connected when things do go wrong on the network that need to be addressed.

So how well has it actually done? Well thankfully (for people like me), I've been sent a presentation on it that distils the oodles of technical detail that I know is behind this into a high level summary – and I think the graph below of tickets (faults) raised speaks for itself:
[Click on the image for a larger version, scale removed as it’s commercially sensitive]

ASM is helping our networks team do a better job and ensuring less customers are affected when we do have problems and also helping us focus on areas where further attention is needed to improve things even more in future, so overall it’s been a great job well done by all.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sofa Shenanigans

We’ve made quite extensive use of social media in Virgin Media (as can be seen in the presentation I posted last week) and are doing more things in the future.
One of the successes we’ve had over the last year or so has been something that we call ‘The Sofa’, which is in essence a community we set up in order for customers to be able to give us feedback and generate ideas about our products – alongside the help & support forums we have setup to compliment our invite-only ‘Sofa’ community (customers being invited based on survey feedback they have given us).

We’ve learnt a lot from it, taken plenty of ideas back into Virgin Media and are always being challenged with interesting questions to answer.

The next step was clearly for us a really good event I was lucky to attend (along with our product, marketing, customer research and PR teams and a number of our senior management team) in our London offices last Friday - a face to face get together with some of the customers.

After a bit of a meet and greet we were able to quiz customers about what services they have from Virgin Media, what they do and don’t like and their ideas for other things we could be doing and how we can do things better – which is my day job after all!

After some lunch we went through some presentations from the product teams covering how we’re bringing together home phone and mobile services, what’s coming up in the near future for broadband (100Mb, more upstream speeds etc) and the presentation that seemed to get the most people excited, the one about TiVo.

We followed up with some ‘speed dating’ where we paired up with customers and got to dig deeper into some of their issues and ideas and I came away with oodles of great insight after a really enjoyable day interacting with customers direct – which is something I always love doing.

From speaking to those present they all seemed to get a lot out of it (both staff and customers) and I’ve included some pictures from the day below.
The voice (home phone & mobile) team 'speed dating' with customers

One of the breaks - the PR, broadband, mobile and customer research teams speaking to customers

Home Phone director Alex Perrin (far right) shares a cuppa with some customers

The marketing team 'speed dating' with customers

Talking TiVo with the TV team

With some customers even coming from as far away as Scotland for it, thanks for taking the time out to help us improve our products and services even more – it really is appreciated.

We look forward to doing more events like this in the future.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Presentation to Institute of Customer Service

I've been asked by the Institute of Customer Service to do a presentation in Birmingham tomorrow about how Virgin Media is using social media for customer service, and the slides can be found below (hosted at SlideShare) if you're interested:
Thanks to all those who've helped out with information, especially our wonderful media relations and Twitter teams!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

@virginmedia Wordcloud

Am working on some slides for a presentation about social media customer service, and I headed over to Wordle to do a Wordcloud of our @virginmedia Twitter feed - which I thought you might like to see:Click on the image for a larger version.

Seasoned followers of us on Twitter will recognise 'st' as being the signoff from Sam of the 'Twitter tweam' as well as 'bmc' being Billy and 'pm' Pete of the same team respectively. They're doing a wonderful job and we think they're great.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I do enjoy the daily Dilbert e-mails that I get through - and today's has to be the funniest one I've seen for a long time.


Reminds me of a few conversations I've had with some companies about social media!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Growing up a country that’s very young (geologically that is, although John Cunningham probably still jokes that it closed at 8pm … In 1950!) as New Zealand is, earthquakes are a fact of life – and it’s the seismic activity that brought about most of New Zealand’s natural beauty.

I’ve been in a few in my time, the most memorable of which was one that was (if I remember rightly) a 6.7 on the Richter Scale and really shook the house up at breakfast time at our house in Dunedin.

But this weekend it’s been something quite different, with a massive quake of 7.1 hitting Canterbury. The epicentre was about the same distance off the coast of Christchurch as the Haiti quake (also a 7.1) was to Port-au-Prince.

It was the worst quake in New Zealand for 80 years, when there were two 7.8 quakes in a period of two years (my late grandmother remembered the Murchison quake only too well).

While 230,000 people were killed in Haiti there was just one person lost in the Canterbury quake, and that was due to a heart attack during the big shake.

There’s an interesting article as to why there was such a big difference here, but the fact it was at 0435 in the morning and in a much richer country have to be the key factors (the ‘depth’ of the epicentre in the earth is usually the other key one). All the same, something like NZD$4bn worth of damage has been caused (c£1.9bn).

I don’t have any close family (just some cousins of my Dad, and they are all fine - but dealing with property damage) in the Christchurch area, but my best friend from school Bernie lives there and posted some scary pictures on Facebook (which I have blatantly plagiarised):
I feel especially sorry for his daughter, who has been terrified with all the aftershocks, and it’s been really heart wrenching to read some of the bloggers and Twitterers, but at the same time some of the most spectacular pictures have been posted online:
Also, have a look at the Google Earth visualisation of the quake.

While some of the gallows humour (a friend of mine decided it wasn’t serious as Dunedin was just lightly shaken awake and no beer spilt!) has no doubt kept spirits up, it does make me think of the ‘big one’ we were always told was on the way as I grew up … and most likely to hit Wellington (where my nephews live). Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen in their lifetime.

Friday, August 27, 2010

E-mail help videos

My colleague Steph has been working hard with the wider Virgin Media team over the last few months on getting a whole suite of new help videos available on our website to help our customers out, and they're starting to flow through to YouTube as well.

While I'll post some more of them over time, I thought I'd share two of the first ones - those for Virgin Media Mail (our Google powered e-mail service).

The video about the basics of the service can be found here:
And the advanced version here:
More videos can be found in the help section of our website, and any and all feedback is appreciated!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Air NZ's great safety video

Coming from the rugby obsessed nation of New Zealand, it's hard to explain to someone in the UK just how much it permeates every nook and cranny of Kiwi culture.

I really enjoyed this link I got sent this morning though of Air New Zealand updating their on board safety video ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup:
Graham Henry needs to stick to being a coach though, as I can't see a glittering career in acting just over the horizon.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A funny thing happened on the way to the office

If today, being Friday the 13th is the day where unlucky and weird things happen – it'd take some topping of my trip to work yesterday.

I got on the bus at 745am to see a jaw dropping sight.

On the bus there was man dressed in a very smart business suit (which I can only liken to the sort that vendors always wear when they're in trying to sell you something) with impeccable hair and shoes – who must have been in his early 30s and had his Bluetooth headset in with a very expensive laptop sat on top of his brief case.

So what's odd about that? Also on top of his briefcase was an open one of these he was drinking:This is not something you expect to see before 8 in the morning. Were I less stunned I’d have got a picture on my camera phone, but it does make me wonder what meeting he was off to that would result in such a thing happening at that time of day?

Overall it was quite an odd day with running into a man walking a ferret down Long Acre in London too (am told this isn’t actually that unusual, but it looked very strange to me) – but what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on your way into the office?

Today I walked to the station.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Football's back

I'm looking forward to the football season starting and glad Rafa Benitez has gone (having achieved all he was ever going to with Liverpool), with Roy Hodgson now on board to lead the mighty reds.

Yesterday I wandered past the local (Woking) football ground and noticed they were playing Luton (where my mate Ben is from) in a friendly, so I thought I'd have a look online this morning to see how they got on (Luton won 2-1).

Two things struck me from the Woking FC website - firstly that a club at this level is using YouTube to upload their match highlights and get additional exposure, which is a good sign given how technologically naive football clubs were when I was involved with them a decade ago.

The other thing was the league table shown on another page on the site:And zoomed in:Seriously, if you were the last team in the division you're in alphabetically you wouldn't show a league table with you in last place on your own official website before the first game was played would you?

Friday, July 30, 2010

90% of all e-mail is spam

That's an incredible statistic that took me aback when I first saw it (in March from Symantec), which is why security vendors have been so successful in the development and takeup of anti-spam products – such as the ones that Google acquired and implemented into their Google Apps platform, where our customer mailboxes are now all hosted. Spam e-mail levels were also up 16% in the second quarter of this year compared to the first (according to Google).

Previously mailboxes for Virgin Media customers were hosted on three different platforms, all of which took a different approach to dealing with spam (and in fact viruses) coming as they did from the three ISPs that we ran before Virgin Media came together.

In the last few weeks, as the @ntlworld.com migration from the old platform to the Google one has completed, we've seen an increase in customers reporting an increase in spam – and I'd like to explain why this is, and what customers can do about it.

Our previous platform was configured to reject the most obvious of spam messages, so they would be either bounced or actually deleted without ever hitting a customer's mailbox or being seen by them – so, while customers may have noticed an increase in spam messages there's actually no more being attempted to be sent to them than there was on the previous platform, now they just appear in a user's spam folder on webmail.

The previous platform was classifying around half of e-mails inbound for @ntlworld.com mailboxes as spam – which is a heck of a lot of e-mail:
[Note: The volumes have dropped as mailboxes were migrated off this platform and to Google]

As you would probably expect, we always took a conservative approach to what was and wasn't classified as spam given that we didn't have the tools to allow a customer to 'fine tune' their own spam filter (unlike how we do now on Google) – but even then we were still deleting around 20 million messages per day of the most obvious spam without them ever getting to a customer's mailbox.

So, what should a user now on the Google platform do if they are seeing a noted increase in spam messages?

1. Tune their spam filter

In Virgin Media mail (i.e. webmail) you can tune the spam filter to tell it what a user considers to be both spam and not spam (as one person's spam is another's valuable e-mail).

This is easy enough to do, by opening the message and clicking on 'Report Spam' if it's a spam message delivered to a user's Inbox – like this one I received overnight:
[Note: Screenshot, like others, is of Gmail – where I import my Virgin Media Mail. Slightly different colours etc accordingly.]

Similarly if a user finds what is a genuine message appearing in their spam folder they should open the message in webmail and click 'Not Spam'.

Doing both these helps the platform learn what the end user considers to be spam and not spam and is used in the decision making process around e-mail delivery to them in future.

2. Add contacts

If someone regularly e-mails a user and they want the e-mails delivered rather than classified as spam, they should put them in their 'Contacts' (link on left hand side navigation of webmail) address book.

This also makes it a bit easier when typing e-mail addresses into webmail in future as it auto remembers them, as well as other features like being able to create a mailing list of people someone regularly e-mails.

3. Use filters

Once the spam filter has been tuned over time to a point where someone is confident that no genuine e-mail is being classified as spam, they might want to consider setting up a filter in Virgin Media Mail whereby any spam messages will be deleted rather than put into the spam folder.

There's more info on how to do this in the help pages on webmail (and we do advise to only do it when a user is confident no genuine mails are appearing in their spam folder), and I think this is something I must do myself this weekend given the amount of mail in my spam folder (which is down to my address having been used in public forums and on web pages for the last decade):A filter whereby mail from a particular user will never be classified as spam (in addition to adding them to the contacts list) can also be setup. This is done by following these steps:
i) Open a message from the e-mailer in question
ii) Click on the option to 'Filter messages like this' from the menu (use the down arrow) beside the 'Reply' link
iii) Enter the sender's e-mail address
iv) Click 'Next Step'
v) Select the checkbox beside 'Never send it to Spam'
Once done messages from that particular e-mail address will always be delivered straight to the Inbox and never appear in the Spam folder.

4. Prevent it in the first place!

Of course the best way to not get so much spam is to make sure it doesn't get sent in the first place - which is done by being careful where an e-mail address is used and who it is given out to, never replying to a spam e-mail and never buying a spammer's products.

Another good tip is to try and make life a bit more difficult for the automated software spammers use when you do post on the web such as on social networks. When posting on the web, use spacing around the '@' sign to do this – e.g. support @ virginmedia.com rather than support@virginmedia.com.

These, and other good tips, are covered in this BBC article.

However, it is important to note that a user will not be able to prevent all spam – spammers have software that guesses e-mail addresses in huge volumes and sends them spam e-mail. This is known as a 'dictionary' attack and, while we filter huge numbers of these attacks into user's spam folders, some will always get through to Inboxes.

We're going to add some further advice to our website to beef up the advice on how to manage spam in the next few days to provide more assistance.