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A Bleak Future for Email Marketing?

  |  September 27, 2001   |  Comments

Marketers can gain great insight when they take a break from what they’re doing and watch people engage in interaction with interactive media. So... how does your mom use the Web?

Anybody who markets or advertises on the Internet should get into the habit of watching others use the medium. It can be enlightening.

A few years back, I wrote a piece titled "How My Mom Uses the Web," which was fairly well received, even though the subject of the column was a completely unscientific test. And although I wouldn’t make important Web-marketing-related decisions based solely on what my mom thinks, I think marketers can gain great insight when they take a break from what they’re doing and watch people engage in interaction with interactive media.

I recently went through this exercise again with several individuals, and after the exercise was over I was left questioning the future of email marketing. Although what I am about to say may bring flames galore, I think any dialogue that results from the points I am about to make will be healthy for the industry.

There... Now that that’s out of the way, let me throw this out there: It’s time to re-evaluate the practice of buying email lists.

While watching several different consumers access and read their email, I was struck by how similar they were in their behavior. Anything that was recognizable as commercial email that came from an organization they were unfamiliar with was immediately trashed or filtered into the trash. The only commercial mailings that didn’t get trashed were from companies that the consumer remembered signing up with to receive information or offers. Standalone commercial emails from site partners were lumped in with unsolicited spam and unceremoniously dumped.

OK, watching a group of consumers access and read their email is not a scientific test, but it does raise a few questions: Are consumers so sick of spam that they are no longer open to the idea of receiving information or offers from marketers who buy double opt-in lists? Does the consumer take the time to make a distinction between the email from marketing partners of the sites they regularly visit and the run-of-the-mill spam they get every day?

I would argue that it’s fairly tough for a consumer to make that distinction. Though buying a double opt-in list might ensure a marketer that the people on a given list are interested in receiving offers in a particular product category or interest, it doesn’t ensure that those prospects are open to the idea of receiving those offers from anybody and everybody. I’m starting to believe that consumers have heard the "You are receiving this because you agreed to receive offers from one of our marketing partners" line so many times that they associate it with useless spam.

My observations didn’t indicate in any way that consumers are tired of commercial email in general. They just seemed to be tired of getting it from organizations they weren’t familiar with. Most commercial email that the participants directly signed up for was happily opened and read.

What does this tell me? Well, I think it tells me that we should re-examine the idea of buying lists on behalf of clients and instead consider the notion of helping our clients build their own lists.

I haven’t seen a study yet that explores which types of commercial email are most likely to be opened and read, but I think it would be interesting if a research company benchmarked the effectiveness of unsolicited spam against legitimate list purchases and home-built lists. I think we would find some surprises.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Hespos

Tom Hespos heads up the interactive media department at Mezzina Brown & Partners. He has been involved in online media buying since the commercial explosion of the Web and has worked at such firms as Young & Rubicam, K2 Design, NOVO Interactive/Blue Marble ACG, and his own independent consulting practice, Underscore Inc. For more information, please visit the Mezzina Brown Web site. He can be reached at thespos@mezzinabrown.com.

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