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Can AIM Survive the DMA?

  |  August 8, 2003   |  Comments

Why's the DMA suppressing AIM's e-mail best practices document? EXCLUSIVE: ClickZ acquired, and posted, a copy.

We obtained a draft of AIM's suppressed document. Details below.

Would supporters continue to donate if the pope dictated Planned Parenthood's policies? If Saddam Hussein were Amnesty International's mouthpiece? Imagine Ronald McDonald as PETA's spokesclown.

Similarly, Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM) members are asking themselves why they should support the group when The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is squelching the voice, the message, and the mission of its "independent" subsidiary.

Last week, the DMA swooped in to put AIM's long-awaited (and already postponed) email best practices document on "indefinite" hold. The parent organization had already muzzled AIM Executive Director Kevin Noonan, who's expressly forbidden to speak with the media and virtually never represents AIM publicly.

Squelching the best practices document led to a public defection by AIM member Rapp Collins, whose Ian Oxman co-chaired the organization's Council for Responsible E-mail (CRE). "When we joined AIM, it was a separately run, independently operated organization serving the interests of its members. Now, it's totally run to serve the DMA," Ian told me. "The executive director can't talk to press. We want publicity on these important issues. What's the point of supporting the DMA's wrong-headed positions?"

DMA spokesperson Lou Mastria described Oxman as a "lone wolf" to IAR, ClickZ's sister publication, later telling me that "all press comes through this office." Mastria claims Oxman's views aren't representative of the vast majority of AIM members.

That's not what I'm hearing.

"[My company] is probably not going to renew our membership in AIM. I think it's imploding," is typical of AIM member reactions (typical of the ones fit to print, at any rate).

Marketers and AIM members are almost unanimous. If the DMA doesn't release an acceptable version of the email best practices document -- and soon -- they'll either resign or let their memberships lapse.

NetCreations chief and AIM member Michael Mayor says, "The need [for the best practices document] is immediate. I don't think this is something we should put off." Mayor, who heads the IAB's email task force, "loved" the first draft of AIM's document and successfully lobbied for official IAB endorsement. "It's clear the DMA is making additional changes," he said. "I contacted AIM and withdrew endorsement pending review of those changes."

"A lot of people are going to leave AIM in disgust," Mayor affirms, "and that could spill over to the DMA."

The DMA wouldn't say much about the defections. "I can't comment on what they're going to do or not do," said Mastria. "Our members come and go, and that's fine."

CRE co-chairs Michael Della Penna and Kevin George say there's no hard evidence the DMA is making any changes to the document they spent six months drafting. But both are deeply disappointed. According to George, "The kibosh got put on it. It's unfortunate. The DMA needs to promote leadership. My personal position is the document itself is extremely valuable. It can be used as an educational vehicle so marketers who want to do right thing can get legitimate messages delivered. The DMA is missing an opportunity to show some leadership."

Officially, the DMA will not comment on the reason for the delay. "We're working with it at this point," said Mastria. "When, how, and the method of release is still to be determined."

In separate discussions, both Oxman and George told me that on a conference call, DMA President and CEO Bob Wientzen claimed a best-practices document would "confuse" lawmakers who would perceive it as "raising the bar" for email marketers as the DMA lobbies to lower such requirements in pending legislation.

"It was clear to me they were going for an opt-in standard," says SpamCon President Laura Atkins, who met recently with CRE members. "The DMA basically said, 'You've set the bar too high, go away.' I understand the DMA's perspective. If they admit opt-in is the best standard for email, they have to justify why opt-out works for everything else."

Atkins spoke with the CRE officials at a high-level meeting last month between emailers and ISPs. Initially, the CRE was a sponsor of the meeting, together with Habeas. Though all CRE co-chairmen attended, CRE sponsorship was pulled when the DMA caught wind of it, according to Oxman and Habeas' Anne Mitchell.

"AIM is not a viable organization," says Vincent Schiavone, president and CEO of the ePrivacy Group, soon to be a former AIM member. "It's not in any way, shape, or form independent from the DMA. Kevin [Noonan] is muzzled; they kill the document. The damage to the credibility of the organization is already done."

The DMA's clout on Capital Hill is considerable (and well-financed). It's questionable whether this influence extends to spam. I recently asked a top Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official how his organization works with the DMA on spam policy. "Oh, the group that's suing us over the Do Not Call Registry?" he retorted contemptuously.

Following a recent meeting with Sen. Schumer at which Bob Wientzen unsuccessfully pleaded DMA opposition to the proposed Do Not Spam Registry, Wientzen began to publicly refer to the senator as "our former friend."

Curiously, the DMA quietly released its own "working strategy" in May outlining anti-spam practices. It almost went unnoticed (it was emailed to members late on the Friday preceding Memorial Day weekend). But by both failing to define spam and apparently preempting the then-imminent AIM best-practices document (then promised in two weeks' time), the working strategy created a flap.

The kerfuffle intensified when Wientzen, asked by "CBS Sunday Morning" to define spam, replied it "misrepresents an offer or misrepresents the originator... or attempts to confuse or defraud people." Legitimate marketers, together with many AIM and DMA members, are infuriated Wientzen elided the opt-in/-out issue. Many point out fraud is already illegal anyway.

The AIM's best practices document, its authors emphasize, addresses delivery issues. It's intended to help legitimate marketers get messages past ISP gatekeepers. A very real barrier is ISPs believe the DMA's stance on email is representative of the industry. Dave Baker, EarthLink's vice president for law and public policy has stated, "I think we ought to be very careful about any law that would try to accommodate the direct marketers and by doing so create loopholes that spammers can exploit." This sentiment was echoed by three company executives I met with last week. EarthLink was formerly an AIM member.

"We are going to be talking with people at both AIM and DMA to get a better sense of what the situation is with this effort," said Jennifer Jacobsen, AOL Time Warner's director of domestic public policy, upon learning the DMA squelched AIM's initiative. AOL is an AIM member.

AIM was among the first, among the biggest, and, at one time, the most influential organization in interactive marketing. Its influence in policy and government affairs was once strong and laudable. The DMA supported AIM after acquiring it in 1998 and gave it a long, long leash.

Today, AIM is toothless and voiceless. E-mail best practices, once a core competency of the organization, haven't been updated in three and a half years. A lot's changed since then -- not necessarily for the better.

Editor's Note: After this column was filed, ClickZ obtained a draft of the AIM email best practices document. It was accompanied by a note from Executive Director Kevin Noonan to CRE members. We've posted that document here. More background on the draft and Noonan's note are on our sister site, IAR.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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