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A Big, Big Year for E-Mail

  |  December 22, 2003   |  Comments

Lessons were learned, legislation’s looming. 2003 will go down as the year of all e-mail, all the time.

It’s been almost a full year of writing for ClickZ. Today, I’d like to reflect on the "best of" 2003. In other words, what points do I really want to drive home before moving on to another year? As a result of the new CAN-SPAM law, I’ve updated several previous discussions to consider CAN-SPAM in respect to compliance as well as potential industry impact.

Permission: In the Eye of the Beholder

What’s clearest in the CAN-SPAM law is there’s not a federal permission standard for email marketing. This may not change most email marketers’ acquisition practices, but it certainly creates a baseline for emailers who may be concerned with whether they need permission for email prospecting. The expectation is emailers won’t look to the law as a best practice, but rather to industry resources such as ClickZ to help guide the way.

In "Permission: Black, White... and Grey?," I describe the many levels of relationships that should be considered when creating a permission strategy. Prior to initiating an email acquisition campaign, emailers should ask themselves: Am I messaging to businesses or consumers? Is the message’s primary purpose commercial or content related? How sensitive are the relationship and messaging? And most important, -- am I providing this data for third-party use?

After these have been answered, the next step is to determine a permission strategy, or perhaps consider a multichannel approach, to acquire and engage email recipients.

Confirm Relationships

It amazes me some marketers out there refuse to confirm an email address. As "The Confirmation Quandary" discusses, email confirmations aren’t about double opt-in. They’re about email quality, loyalty, and deliverability.

ISPs block email from senders who bounce too many messages. To mitigate this, emailers should consider the confirmation process as one of quality. Many recipients will mistype an address, enter an erroneous address, or use an old address that bounces upon confirmation. With mistaken addresses, giving the recipient a chance to opt out prior to engaging them may save you from getting placed in a junk or filtered category if the recipient labels you a spammer.

A confirmation email is also branding re-enforcement. What better way to establish a relationship and set expectations than to send an email detailing that relationship? On the deliverability front, a confirmation message can request recipients note the sender field and consider placing it in their address books. It can remind them of the frequency and format of future messages. Finally, the most critical element of loyalty and deliverability in a confirmation message is including a way to manage preferences, even to opt out if there’s been a mistake.

Unsubscribe Confidence

CAN-SPAM mandates Internet-based opt-out. It doesn’t require emailers to use any specific method for this, just that the option be available and operable for 30 days after the message is sent. The expectation is recipients will more actively use an unsubscribe option than press the delete button, filter the message, or report a message as spam.

"The Unsubscribe Dilemma" outlines the best ways for emailers to provide an unsubscribe option. My top five choices:

  • Click to a branded Web page that confirms the request

  • Click to a branded unsubscribe Web page where recipients enter their addresses (pre-populated form preferred)

  • Reply to the received email with a removal request

  • Send a blank or unique email to a specific email address

  • Forward received email to a unique email address

Each of these options is a good one. Ideally, the industry will establish a standard for unsubscribe actions to increase consumer confidence when unsubscribing.

An E-Mail Policy Isn’t a Privacy Policy

I have to give credit to my ClickZ colleague, Jared Blank, for raising eyebrows with "Opt Out of This (If You Can)," about burying email-address-sharing disclosures in a privacy policy. "What’s Your E-mail Policy?" outlines the necessity of separating email practices from other data-collection disclosure, sharing, and use policies.

I’m pleased to note several companies followed this advice and separated email practices from their privacy policies. Although nothing in CAN-SPAM regulates posted notice and disclosure when collecting email addresses, the practice of separating this information is wholly to your benefit. If you can increase confidence with your email practices, subscriptions and loyalty will also increase. So what’s stopping you?

E-Mail Delivery: A Two-Way Street

If I were to sum up the year with one cheesy catch phrase, it would be "the year of email delivery." How many Webinars, seminars, conference calls, white papers, metrics, and technology providers have you heard about that will help with email delivery? Truth is, none of them can guarantee your message will reach the intended recipient.

Deliverability is a constantly changing battleground. It will continue to change in months to come. The good news is ISPs are recognizing there’s a false-positive problem. Many have proposed, endorsed, or are considering solutions to help authenticate and account for legitimate email delivery.

In the meantime, emailers can manage delivery outside of being whitelisted or having strong ISP relationships. Manage expectations through the acquisition and confirmation process; consider regular reconfirmation; offer frequency preferences or test for frequency optimization; maintain message consistency; and provide the best permission and suppression description as possible in headers and footers. Equally as important are proper processing and management of bounce replies.

We Must CAN SPAM

The industry is grateful to have one CAN-SPAM law rather than 37 state email laws. Compliance is only the first step toward solving the problem. E-mail’s anonymous, borderless nature allows spam to proliferate. Legitimate emailers must partner with ISPs to stop spam. There are multiple pending proposals for email authentication and sender accountability. There are also proposals that emailers pay recipients for the right to message them. Whatever the solution, let’s hope it happens soon and is a coordinated effort among the industry.

That said, I encourage you to contact your colleagues, discuss the pending situation, and reach out to your respective industry trade organizations. Everyone with a vested interest in email communications must work together to support efforts to protect and improve email communication. Some earlier initiatives have fizzled, perhaps because industry trade organizations weren’t coordinating efforts and providing support.

Perhaps 2004 will bring enough incentive and coordination to further a solution initiative.

Until then, send me your thoughts!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ben Isaacson

Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.

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