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How Much Opt-In Is Enough?

  |  September 4, 2000   |  Comments

Kim is pro-permission. Very. Don't get her wrong. But sometimes misunderstandings arise, and even the most "opt-in" of opt-in marketers can run afoul of the self-appointed guardians of permission... with potentially disastrous effects. There's got to be a better way to protect consumers from spammers.

As most of you who've been regularly reading this column know, I'm an opt-in advocate through and through. However, although those of us who strive to remain 100 percent permission-oriented work very hard at it (and encourage those we deal with to do the same), situations can still arise from time to time that make us question the zeal with which some defend this very position.

What exactly do I mean by "situations"? Well, sometimes even the most "opt-in" of opt-in marketers can get into trouble due to misunderstandings and arbitrary rules set by third parties. And the consequences can be serious.

Take the situation with YesMail, for instance. Yeah... it's old news, and everything's now square. But this company that has always been permission-based - and proudly so - found itself in the spotlight a few weeks back when the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) declared that the method by which YesMail registered its members did not fit with its opt-in policies.

Why? Although YesMail opts folks in on its site and sends out an emailed confirmation message to every new member, it doesn't always require new members to confirm their registration with a "Yes, I signed up" reply. Only if members do NOT want to subscribe are they required to reply.

Yes, a double opt-in approach, in which members need to reply back in the affirmative, can be an excellent way to help prevent jokesters from signing up someone who has no interest in being signed up. In fact, that's how the trouble first started.

Apparently, someone signed up the email address for an executive at MAPS (of all people!), and when YesMail sent the confirmation message... Boom! It found itself on the receiving end of a whole mess o' gunfire. At one point, there was even a chance that YesMail would be put on the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL), which was ridiculous.

In my opinion, here's where the problem lies. It's quite simple, really, and boils down to two core points: 1.) YesMail is a permission-based company that is 100 percent focused on creating members who are truly opt-in. 2.) The two-step, double opt-in policy that MAPS advocates and that companies such as PostMasterDirect.com uses is good and is designed to protect innocent people from receiving unsolicited email.

Sound like a contradiction? Well, yeah, that's my point. The fact that this double opt-in policy flies in the face of a company that is focused on building permission-based lists and campaigns truly says it all. To me, it means that something is seriously wrong.

And it can get even worse. Companies can get shut down because of policies such as this. Or at least because of the method in which these policies are carried out. Take a look at what happened to Jim Sterne recently.

As many of you know, Jim is well known in the industry as an expert speaker, consultant, and author on Internet marketing and runs a company called Target Marketing. He offers a very popular emailed newsletter called Full Sterne Ahead.

After one recent issue, he received a very stern (sorry, Jim) email from a member of MAPS, telling him that the way that he collected email addresses was "unacceptable." (In effect, until he received this message from MAPS, Jim used the same method that YesMail uses - opt-in without a double confirmation required of the recipient.) The sender made a very obvious threat, telling Jim that his list was "mismanaged" and that his method of subscribing people was "not acceptable in today's Internet environment" and was cause for listing in the MAPS Realtime Blackhole List.

The real danger began when the person from MAPS told Jim that if he did not correct the problem by converting his subscription policy to a double opt-in within 24 hours, the MAPS representative would submit an RBL nomination.

Now I don't have any bones to pick with MAPS or the RBL because they're designed to get rid of the real problem: those pesky spammers that flood ALL of our inboxes. But when it, in effect, threatens to shut a permission-oriented marketer down if he doesn't comply within a certain period of time... well, I have a real problem with that.

What if, as Jim asked, he didn't have access to his email for more than 24 hours? After all, he's a busy man and travels all over the world. What if he couldn't respond in that small window of time?

And it gets worse. Jim ended up changing his subscription method in order to appease the powers that be at MAPS. But when he sent the MAPS contact a note saying that he had changed it, he received a terse reply that essentially said, "It is most certainly NOT fixed." Mr. MAPS then went on to try to demonstrate how, after he signed up, he automatically started receiving his subscription. In other words, no confirmation. No double opt-in.

Trouble is, he was demonstrating how he received a newsletter called "Scientific Marketing," not "Full Sterne Ahead." In other words, Mr. MAPS was in error and his error could have made things very sticky for Jim.

Can you see how this type of policy can endanger innocent people? As I said, however, perhaps the problem lies not so much in the policy itself as in method in which it is enforced.

I think that instead of an organization's appointing itself as guardian of permission and having the power to instantly make deadline-based threats to credible companies, there needs to be a policy for the policy. (Actually, make that "policies for the policies.")

That's why I'm glad that an Email Standards Working Group is being formed, even as we speak. Made up of companies such as YesMail and MAPS, as well as NetCreations, 24/7, and DoubleClick, etc., this organization's goal will be to establish voluntary regulations for the email marketing industry. Emphasis on the word "voluntary." After all, until effective legislation is out there, MAPS is all we have.

MAPS is a good thing for those of us that ARE opt-in... but perhaps it should re-examine its approach. Which seems to be that the end justifies the means.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kim MacPherson

Kim MacPherson is President and Founder of Inbox Interactive, a full-service email marketing agency specializing in promotional copywriting, HTML design, planning, and deployment/tracking solutions. Kim is also the author of "Permission-Based E-mail Marketing That Works!"

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