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May 21, 2007

Direct E-Marketing Industry vs. Consumers

The bulk of blog entries here focus on the scum of the Internet, especially those who lie, cheat, and steal their way into inboxes, computers, and wallets. But there is another, very large group of email senders who perform their activity as a (generally non-criminal) profession. It is in those folks' company I want to spend this entry.

A great many of direct marketing professional who use email as a communication tool toe the line of not only CAN-SPAM legality (in the U.S.), but even go the extra mile to be good netizens by sending only to those recipients who have truly opted in to the mailing list (via the trackable confirmed opt-in method). These companies, organizations, and individuals (I include newsletter senders here) deserve a lot of credit for doing the "right thing." I normally don't pat anyone on the back for doing the "right thing," because it should be expected; but in light of the enormous volume of those doing the absolute "wrong thing," any exhibit of the "right thing" really stands out.

I not only subscribe to numerous newsletters and mailing lists, but I also welcome email communication from vendors with whom I have done business. These senders commonly follow the rules of CAN-SPAM, often doing so voluntarily before the law was enacted because the practices were the "right thing" to do, with or without the Federal Trade Commission or Attorneys General breathing down one's neck.

A few of the senders whose messages I welcome are not sophisticated email marketers. A one-man-operation hobby manufacturer, in particular, sends announcements of new products to a highly specialized audience of previous customers. People on his lists really want to know about his terrific offerings, and his messages have a folksy charm to them. But, as I said, he's not one of the sophisticated email marketers. He sends out his messages from an AOL account. I cringe when I see a ton of email addresses included in the open in the To: and Cc: fields of the message (I'm going to try to educate him about that—if for no other reason than to prevent other recipients who get infected by viruses from snarfing up my address).

Even with a small list of recipients, I suspect he has occasional problems with deliverability of his messages. It can't help but happen that a recipient along the way accidentally hits the "Report as Spam" button in the web email page. Other large ISPs may block his messages outright because they contain attached image files (images of his really cool products).

Deliverability—making sure a message reaches the recipient's inbox—is a justifiably huge issue in the direct marketing industry. The high number of crooks and scam artists have poisoned the email well so badly that even senders whose behavior is the "right thing" have to jump through hoops to get their messages delivered to inboxes at the big ISPs. Senders are having to adopt various sender authentication systems, and even then may have to pay for additional services that guarantee delivery.

It's sad—genuinely sad—that those who do the "right thing" are penalized because everyone else around them has horribly abused the technology.

Now I turn to a grayer area of the direct e-marketing profession. I color it gray because it is a mixture of white (from the sender's point of view) and black (from the recipient's point of view). At the root of this issue is whether email marketing should be used for prospecting, that is, looking for new customers. It happens all of the time in other forms of advertising, including direct mail catalogs and flyers. I devote an entire chapter in Spam Wars to the differences between direct mail and unsolicited email, so I won't repeat that material here.

When the Direct Marketing Association meets, panel discussions and talks invariably touch on email. But in reading news reports about these sessions, it's not always easy to discern whether the participants are talking about deliverability and CAN-SPAM compliance of confirmed opt-in mailing or prospecting. The big hole in CAN-SPAM, IMHO, is that the law validates the opt-out model: senders can send as much as they want as often as they want to whomever they want as long as they offer a way to get off the list. It's the prospector's dream, especially because email is so cheap to send.

The problem ("of course," as Spam Wars readers can hear me saying) is that recipients pay the price in having their inboxes crammed with unsolicited automated messages. If there were some magic wand that could eliminate all non-compliant messages (medz spam, stock pump/dump hype, fake lottery awards, phishing messages, Nigerian scams, fake watch offers, bogus preapproved mortgages, malware loading lures, attached viruses, "survey" cons), the remaining CAN-SPAM compliant might be at a somewhat tolerable level. Instead, recipients lump it all together as "spam." Given the way the world is, that's a Good Thing.

The battle between law-abiding email prospectors and spam-hating recipients continues to boil down to consent. Either I give an automated mailing machine consent to take up my inbox space, or I don't. Without prior, verifiable consent, the sender's message is not welcome in my inbox.

You can see how far apart the industry and recipients are on this issue in a quote I saw from a recent DMA Email Policy Summit session. The panelist was Jordan Cohen, director of industry and government relations at Epsilon. Epsilon is a direct marketing service and agency, whose web site includes the following statement (cliché alert): Making every marketing program a win/win for you and your customers. As reported at the DMA's web site, Mr. Cohen asked what I presume to be a rhetorical question:

"Are we willing to have a world of opt in rather than opt out?"

I'm sure everyone in that room answered silently "No." If we consumers had been in attendance, I think the answer would have been a resounding "Yes, yes, yes!"

If there is one thing that a direct marketing professional understands, it's the concept of "zero response." I promote this notion heavily in Spam Wars because it's the most effective tool we consumers have to combat inbox abuse. The professionals would be the first to react to a world in which recipients don't open messages, don't download images, don't click on links, and certainly don't buy from spamvertised sites. Professional marketers pay a little more to get their messages out (the legal ones don't use botnets for their spew), so they'd be the first to recognize when a campaign yielded nothing more than the sound of one cricket chirping.

As the song says, "Mister Spam Man, send me no mail."

UPDATE (22 May 2007). It turns out that perhaps not everyone in the room would have silently answered "No" to the rhetorical question posed above. At another panel discussion at the same DMA-hosted E-mail Policy Summit, the discussion of "best practices" came up. A significant recommendation, reported here, is the use of confirmed opt-in to obtain marketing mailing lists. What a concept! According to the report, the panel was unanimous about obtaining permission before mailing. I know that this panel discussion won't change the behavior of the Bad Boys out there, but it may at least prevent a newcomer from going down the wrong path. Bravo!

Posted on May 21, 2007 at 03:35 PM