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Political Candidates, Known Spammers and CAN-SPAM, Part 2

  |  April 10, 2006   |  Comments

Ignorance is no excuse. Steps you can take to protect yourself against dubious e-mail list vendors and service providers. Last of a two-part series.

In my last column I presented a real-life case study about an organization that discovered:

  • Its email was being sent from an IP address listed on the Spamhaus Register of Known Spam Organizations (ROKSO) as "being assigned to, under the control of, or providing service to a known professional spam operation."

  • The server it was sent from was blacklisted on a regular basis.

  • At least one person who bore no resemblance to the "target audience" in its third-party list rental agreement received its email.

  • At least one email address on the list was harvested, which is listed as an "aggregated violation" of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

We could talk about the definition of spam, how this type of email hurts the a brand’s (in this case, the political candidate’s) credibility, and why Seth Godin’s mantra of "anticipated, personal, and relevant" is still the best way to conduct email marketing. But I want to go a different direction. Today, I’ll examine the business issues raised by situations like this one.

No matter where you fall on spam issues, you have to question whether this email campaign was a good business investment for the organization. Reasonable questions to ask in this case include:

  • What percentage of the list met the list criteria specified in the contract? What percentage didn’t? How many unqualified names did the organization pay for?

  • What percentage of the list was harvested or otherwise gathered in a non-CAN-SPAM compliant fashion? How much of the organization’s budget went toward renting these names?

  • What percentage of the send was blocked by spam filters (since the server was blacklisted on a regular basis)? How much of the organization’s money was spent to send email that didn’t make it to the inbox?

  • What level of public backlash might have occurred had the organization’s dealings with someone on the ROKSO list been featured in local papers before the election? Was the potential upside of the email campaign justified by the potential downside of negative PR?

Want to factor the email’s results into your decision about whether this was a sound business investment? Unfortunately, they won’t be much help. The email’s primary call to action -- go to the polls and vote for our candidates -- isn’t one that can be directly measured from the email send. Metrics provided to the organization show a 43 percent open rate and a 2 percent CTR (define), although it’s uncertain whether these are based on total or unique opens and clicks.

So was this email campaign good campaign business? How would you feel if you found yourself in this position? It’s probably not something you’d want to experience firsthand. Here are some tips you can use, whether you’re a political campaign, an association, or a regular for-profit enterprise, to keep yourself and your organization out of these types of situations.

Protecting Yourself

The email list rental market, especially in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, can be a minefield. You can’t work on faith and hope the people you’re dealing with are being straight with you. "Trust, with verification" is definitely the approach to take. Some best practices:

  • Be skeptical of below market rate rental fees. According to Worldata’s Fall 2005 index, opt-in B2C email addresses rent for $167 per thousand on average; business-to-business (B2B) lists are setting companies back an average $281 per thousand. Special selections, such as political affiliation, physical location, or past activity (in this case, voting), usually add $10 per thousand or more each to a list rental fee.

    When I spoke with political campaign staffers, they couldn’t tell me how much they’d spent on the list rental for this send. When I did a quick calculation based on a mere $100 CPM (define), they stated it was unlikely their budget would have accommodated an expenditure of that size.

    You get what you pay for. The lower the price, the more likely there’s something not quite right with the list. Buyer beware.

  • Be completely comfortable with how the list is built. Confirm there was an explicit, knowing opt-in by registrants. Don’t just take someone’s word for it. Ask to see the Web page or the offline form that was used to obtain the opt-in.

    If you’re asking for very specific criteria, things like political affiliation, physical location or past activity, find out how this data was collected. Be sure the list source had a reasonable likelihood of being able to obtain the information. If you ask for something very specific, be skeptical if the vendor has "exactly that," particularly if they have it in a large quantity.

  • Be completely comfortable with who handles the send. Ask for the company’s name as well as the IP addresses of all the servers it sends from. Check them out. I like SenderBase because it aggregates information from a number of anti-spam sources. Look for recent issues; a spam complaint last week or last month is much more worrisome than one five years ago. It goes without saying that anyone who’s profiled on the ROKSO list is probably not someone you want to do business with.

  • Know whom you’re dealing with. Research everyone involved with your email initiative, including consultants, contractors, and vendors you deal with directly as well as their subcontractors, affiliates, and partners. A Google search is good; a SenderBase search (which you can do by IP address or domain) is better. Find out if they’re active players in the email community via their involvement with respected industry associations, online or print publications, or conferences.

    You can delegate tasks, but not responsibility. In the end, it’s your brand name that’s front and center on the email message, not your vendors’ or their subcontractors’. Be comfortable about putting your name out there with their work behind you.

  • Build remedies into the contract. If something goes bad, what are your options? If the email addresses don’t match your target audience criteria, do you still pay for them? If the email addresses were harvested, do you still pay? If the server was blacklisted during the send, do you still pay?

    You can add clauses addressing these types of concerns into the email list rental agreement, but this isn’t done very often. Some list rental companies push back on putting these types of things in the contract; they may not be comfortable "vouching" for the legitimacy of their email addresses or the ability of the server to avoid spam filters. If this is the case, think twice about working with them.

  • Don’t be so set on doing email marketing that you shoot yourself in the foot. A lot of organizations stumble into questionable email practices that end up tarnishing their brands (or candidates). Many say they didn’t know any better. That doesn’t erase the damage.

Educate yourself. Reading ClickZ on a regular basis is a good start. Take advantage of the many free email newsletters out there about email marketing. If you can, attend a few paid Webinars or conferences. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself.

Your Turn

Are there other steps your organization is taking to safeguard against these types of situations? See the "send feedback" link below? You can use it to start a dialogue with me and other readers. I encourage you to do so!

Until next time,

Jeanne

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a 20 year veteran of the online/email marketing industry, having started her career with CompuServe in the late 1980s. As Vice President of Global Strategic Services for Alchemy Worx, Jennings helps organizations become more effective and more profitable online. Previously Jennings ran her own email marketing consultancy with a focus on strategy; clients included AARP, Hasbro, Scholastic, Verizon and Weight Watchers International. Want to learn more? Check out her blog.

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