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Do Your Part to Prevent More Government Oversight

  |  June 9, 2010   |  Comments

Just because something is legal, doesn't mean it's right for your customers.

In our largely self-regulated direct marketing industry, e-mail marketers in both B2B and B2C sectors are well advised to follow the spirit of the law, not just the letter. Just because it's legal, doesn't mean it's right for your subscribers. Pressure is increasing to act in the interests of customers first, as North American marketers may see more oversight and harsher penalties in the near future.

  • The U.S. Congress is contemplating a new, wide-reading privacy law as well as expansion of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) powers as part of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (H.R. 4173). The FTC role as a "civil prosecutor" includes regulating and enforcing protections from online offers, advertising, and e-mail marketing.

  • Privacy legislation (CA-28) was reintroduced in Canada in May with significant ramifications for any marketer with Canadian customers or subscribers.

We marketers are not without influence in this situation. Our treatment of customers, website visitors, and e-mail subscribers makes a difference in the trust that regulators put in our industry. Consider these choices that many marketers make every day - balancing the pressure for higher short-term revenue with long-term customer experience - and which encourage regulators to sharpen their reach and teeth:

  1. Not collecting active permission grants from every subscriber (e.g., many B2B marketers add white paper downloaders or Webinar attendees to the newsletter file without notice, just as many retailers add buyers to the marketing file without notice).

  2. Adding data to the file from internal or external sources without express permission, even if it's customer data.

  3. Using poorly worded privacy statements or those that don't keep pace with changes in the business.

  4. Lack of transparency in the use of data (e.g., the sharing of customer data between business units).

  5. Opaque notice on the use of data in all Web forms and at the point of collection/sign-up.

Be sure the choices you make put you squarely on the side of the subscriber - respecting and treating with care their interests, selections, and personal data. Dismissal of these practices as unimportant does little to demonstrate to regulators or customers that marketers are making a good faith effort to protect consumer data or interests. Besides, it's just not good for business. I've never seen short-term decisions that quickly boost file size or generate quick revenue at low margins ultimately result in long-term customer value. Generally, the opposite occurs. Response rates degrade and inbox placement rates depress, which lowers sender reputation, ROI (define), and revenue. Marketers are then left struggling to make up for lost time amid a reduction in subscriber loyalty.

Partnering with all of us in the e-mail industry, and watching to make sure we self-regulate well, remains a key component of the FTC's plans, says Lois Greisman, director, division of marketing practices for the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, who joined the second annual DMA/Email Experience Council legislative update Webinar on May 19. I was privileged to serve as moderator for that event. "Our goal is to stop fraud and scams as quickly as possible, to shut down offenders, and, where appropriate, seize assets and reimburse consumers," she said in the Webinar. (I blogged about the Webinar in detail for the DMA/eec website.)

The U.S. CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which regulates permission practices for e-mail marketing, continues to be a key anti-fraud tool for the FTC. "CAN-SPAM has worked well to level the playing field among legitimate online marketers," Greisman said in the Webinar. She also added that she was not aware of any active proposal by the FTC or Congress to expand or change the law.

More details on these and other legislative issues important to digital and direct marketers is in the DMA's quarterly government affairs newsletter, "Politically Direct."

I hope that everyone will do two things this summer to demonstrate you are doing your part:

  1. Audit your practices and be confident that they (and your brand) are above reproach by either the government or customers
  2. Get involved with an industry association that is active in working with regulators - including the DMA, Online Trust Alliance, or CAUCE in Canada

Use the comments section below to tell us about choices you made that kept you firmly on the side of subscribers - and the spirit of the law. (Or to mention other associations active in this important industry cause!)

What are your e-mail marketing priorities? Take this quick 10-question survey and we'll share the results back in a future column. Thank you!

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Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable online experiences. A digital marketing expert, she helps responsible data-driven marketers connect with the people, resources, and ideas they need to optimize response and revenue. She speaks and writes regularly and leads many industry initiatives as VP, Member Relations and Chief Listening Officer at the Direct Marketing Association (www.the-dma.org). Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT the-dma DOT org or @stephanieSAM.

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