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E-Mail Polices: Solution or Problem?

  |  August 29, 2005   |  Comments

Many companies still take liberties with their e-mail campaigns. They appear to value opt-in relationships, but recipients view their messages as spam.

The spam/not-spam issue is a continuum. At one end is the strictest form of double opt-in. Registrants thoroughly understands what type of information they’ll receive, from whom, and how often before they provided their email addresses. The company sending the email sticks to what it promised. This is the area just about anyone would agree is not spam.

At the other end of the spectrum, the sender harvests email addresses off Web sites and discussion lists, performs dictionary attacks (define), or even steals email addresses. Then, he uses an open relay to blast the email, using an innocent person’s or organization’s email address in the sender line. The content? A pitch for Viagra or some other physical-enhancement drug, or maybe pornography. This is the really nasty stuff. If you ask most people, they’d call it spam.

What about the area in between? Where does your organization fall?

Too many companies still take liberties with their email campaigns. They seem to value opt-in relationships. But when their messages land in the inbox, recipients see spam.

Sharing E-Mail Addresses With Other Groups

One way this happens is when various company divisions share opt-in names. A while ago, I signed up to receive football and hockey updates from a well-known sports site. It’s a trusted name; I didn’t hesitate. But I did use a unique email address, one I’d never used before and would never use again.

A month or so later, I began receiving soap opera updates. I was annoyed. I knew I hadn’t signed up for updates on daytime TV shows I haven’t watched since high school (long before I had an email address). These updates were sent to the address I used to sign-up for football and hockey email.

It appears the sports site shared at least some of its opt-in names with a sister company responsible for promoting soap operas. That’s a breach of trust. I didn’t ask for soap opera updates. There was no suggestion I would receive soap opera updates by signing up for hockey and football information. Would a spam complaint to a blacklist hold up? Unknown. I had opted in using that address, but not for the content the organization started sending. Is sending soap opera updates outside the intent of our agreement? Undoubtedly. Do I consider this organization a spammer? Unquestionably. It abused my email address, using it to send me information I didn’t ask for.

Renting Third-Party Lists That Don’t Meet Your Guidelines

Too many companies, particularly big ones, try to straddle the email fence. They put in place strong opt-in standards for their house list. Third-party rental lists? Well, let’s just say the bar isn’t set quite as high.

Often, the legal team doesn’t know what the marketing team is doing. One privacy expert in a large organization told me his organization doesn’t have any policies regarding third-party rental email lists because the legal team wasn’t aware the organization used them (it did). Though there was an opt-in standard for the house list, rental lists meant "anything goes."

Permission isn’t transferable. Let’s say IWannaWinAFancySportsCar.com collects email addresses by offering to enter people in a sweepstakes to win a car. Chances are the "we’re going to sell your email address" disclaimer is in the fine print, either on the home page or (more likely) buried deep in the privacy policy on another page. The Web site isn’t about giving away cars; it’s a clearinghouse for email address collection. Does it still meet CAN-SPAM requirements? Maybe.

But, wait. Let’s say you’re not renting the list directly from the IWannaWin people. You’re renting it from someone, who bought the list, or, from someone who bought the list from someone who bought the list from the IWannaWin people. Would you rent this list?

For far too many companies, the answer is, "Sure!"

Third-party list rental companies make it enticing. One colleague I spoke with called it the "crack approach." They provide you, for free, a list of email addresses they’ll mail for you. If you get a good response rate (you should, because they’re usually the newest email addresses), they assume you won’t be able to resist; you’ll rent these email addresses and more for future mailings. Then, you’re hooked -- even when you’re unable to replicate the initial great response rate in future sends. (Deny it, but I’ve seen it in action. People always assume they can recreate some high point they had in the past.)

Are the companies that rent these lists, of dubious origin and without an explicit opt-in for their own company’s information, spammers? You tell me.

Sunshine Heals All Wrongs

Another colleague tells this story: She worked for a large company that was a big client of a company then known as Gator. The ads were doing very well. A few people in the organization were uncomfortable with what Gator was doing. But it made money for the company, so no one listened. Then, negative stories began to appear in the media about Gator and its practices. These stories included the names of Gator’s advertising clients (including the name of my colleague’s company). There was a customer backlash. My colleague’s company’s legal department stepped up and forced the marketing groups to stop working with Gator.

Are you using email in a way that would embarrass your organization? Stop now. Sure, you could wait until it’s in the news and you’re forced to, but the damage is being done to your reputation with every send. (Remember that sports Web site? I’ll never trust it or it’s huge corporate parent again.) By contributing to the spam problem, you increase the need for stronger spam filters -- filters that undoubtedly will falsely snare some of your own legitimate opt-in email down the road.

Years ago, I made the business case for opt-in. Though the research I referenced is now somewhat dated, the case stands. Being devious, deceptive, or just downright dastardly with email doesn’t work. Being straightforward does. If you don’t think people will willingly opt in to the email you’re offering, either find a group of people who will or change your email offering.

If your company has an opt-in standard, apply that standard to all groups within your organization and to every third-party list you rent. An explicit opt-in for your information, not a third party’s, provides the best results. Anything else? It’s spam.

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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