Beware of the Opt-In Matrix

Meet Jane.

Jane just bought a computer and is relatively new to the Internet. While searching the web for screensavers, Jane stumbled upon an opt-in page like this one.

Jane closely studied the grid of categorical boxes, intrigued by the vast amount of information in front of her. She began to see the possibilities of the web. “There’s so much stuff out there,” she thinks, “how would I ever know where to begin?”

After reading the categories more closely, Jane saw an empty box next to the category “Health” and thought to herself, “Wouldn’t it be nice to receive ideas on how to stay healthy and fit?” So Jane checked the box, entered her email address, and clicked the send button. Jane had opted in to receive email about health, and a warm, fuzzy feeling came over her.

A week went by, and Jane sat at her computer eating a Hershey bar while checking her email. She had received an email advertisement for an allergy drug and another for therapeutic shoe inserts. Jane read the emails and then deleted them, uninterested in the information and also unaware of why it was sent to her.

Over the next few weeks, she continued to get email with information about everything from cough drops and medicated powders to pain relievers and healthful massage oils. Jane no longer opened these messages; instead, she immediately deleted them, still oblivious to the reason she was receiving them.

By now she has forgotten she once asked to receive “Health” information via email; she’s paranoid her doctor might be selling her medical records to pharmaceutical companies; her Hershey bar intake is up to two per day; and she’s still not receiving any emails telling her why chocolate is not a food group. In this situation, Jane represents an example of an opt-in subscriber no one wants to advertise to.

Jane is not to blame for choosing to receive something she didn’t know she would get. Jane was lured in by what I call the opt-in matrix, and her chances of knowing what she was getting into were about as good as her knowing what the phrase “opt-in” means.

When a salesperson explains the term, opt-in email sounds like an advertiser’s dream. Cries of “You mean thousands of people have asked to receive this stuff!” will often bounce off conference room walls when the term is explained by a pro.

Yet users are rarely pitched the same way before opting in to receive information from advertisers. In fact, the term “opt-in” is almost never presented or explained to the user.

Instead, users are often confronted by an opt-in matrix, a gridlike paradox containing something for everyone but nothing for anyone with a specific idea of what they are looking for. The opt-in matrix can make users believe they will receive exactly what they are looking for, but it’s up to the list owner to determine who can advertise on the list they own, and who or what will ultimately reach the user.

So how can you, the media buyer, avoid advertising on lists full of people like Jane, and who’s responsibility is it to make sure that Jane, and others like her, are left off of the lists you buy? The how is not entirely preventable, but the responsibility is that of the media buyer.

As a responsible buyer, you must keep your clients’ interests in mind and find the most qualified lists for their advertising message. In order to do so, you must understand the intentions of the list owner and the list broker when you consider buying a particular list.

List owners make money by selling the names of people who have given them permission to do so. That’s it, nothing more. The more names they offer in a specific category, the more money they stand to make, and the more appealing their list looks to the average buyer who wants to put all their eggs in one basket.

List brokers make money by selling you, the media buyer, lists that reach your client’s target market. Much of the broker’s job is to offer you the best lists available to reach your target, but a broker can also try to sell you something you don’t want. A list broker can try to sell you a list that his own company owns, for example. It may not be the best, but the broker stands to make a commission if he sells this list to you over others.

It sounds hopeless, but there are list owners and brokers out there who try to maintain and sell high-quality lists. These lists are compiled by informing users about what they are opting in for before they submit their email address.

These lists, however, can have fewer names and come with a higher cost per name than some lower quality lists. It is up to the buyer to find a happy medium between quantity and quality, at a price that fits the client’s budget.

To do this, the buyer has to do a little digging into how each list is compiled. The simplest way of determining the quality of a list is by looking at the opt-in page for that list. The opt-in page serves as the sales pitch to users who consider subscribing to the list. The majority of users who have subscribed to the list know little more than what is said on the opt-in page.

Knowing this, a buyer should place more value on a list that informs its subscribers about what they are subscribing to rather than a list that simply provides an opt-in matrix for subscribers. The rationale is that subscribers who know they will receive advertisements and still subscribe are more likely to accept these messages and read them when they arrive in their in box.

This does not mean that opt-in matrices are altogether bad. Some include lengthy explanations on how to use them, and others are broken down into subtopics after a general topic is selected (the one at the top of this article is a lot better than most).

Opt-in email advertising is still young compared to banner advertising, and neither is an exact science to date. As email evolves as an advertising option, privacy issues and public opinion will change, making your job as a buyer more and less difficult in different respects.

For the time being, use this as a reference on how to approach list brokers, list owners, and your client about email advertising campaigns. And until a brighter day comes, remember: The opt-in matrix does exist.

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