Can the DMA and Interactive Marketers Kiss and Make Up?

An incredibly weird thing happened this week. A Direct Marketing Association (DMA) spokesperson sent me an email — about email.

Now, normally you’d find nothing strange about the dominant marketing organization sending information regarding interactive marketing to a leading interactive marketing publication.

But we’re talking DMA here.

For a while now, the DMA has steered pretty clear of talking to this, and other, publications in the interactive marketing space. Not entirely without reason. The organization, along with the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), its interactive subsidiary, has been nursing black eyes since the run-up to CAN-SPAM. Its stance on spam-related issues (not to mention do-not-call) earned a heap of enmity: from consumers, government officials, much of its own membership, and, most particularly, the interactive marketing community. A number of AIM members publicly, and scornfully, resigned or let lapse their memberships in protest of a squelched email best practices document. The DMA forbade AIM’s then-executive director to make public statements of any kind.

Suddenly, things simmered down. CAN-SPAM was enacted, former DMA head Robert Wientzen retired (some close to the organization say his departure had much to do with his incendiary statements regarding spam). Things got very quiet over there. John Greco took over the reins last July, and AIM got a new director, too. By that time, AIM had pretty much been written off by most of the interactive community. We in interactive media had long abandoned the expectation that our calls to the DMA would be returned.

Dusting Off the White Hat?

So imagine my surprise on Wednesday when into my inbox pops a note from DMA Public Policy Manager Jordan Cohen. It was an advance of a briefing to the entire membership of the DMA and AIM. The message apprised members of last week’s FTC-hosted E-mail Authentication Summit. It also contained a recommendation from Greco urging DMA members to adopt Sender ID, ASAP:

We must encourage legitimate emailers to publish their Sender ID Framework records for “step one” authentication to be effective — so if your organization hasn’t done so already — if you have been taking a “wait and see” approach, I cannot be emphatic enough: publish your records today. It takes very little time to complete, and there is no downside whatsoever to being authentication compliant — there are only potential benefits.

The DMA and AIM are busy lining up a series of Webinars to educate marketers on the hows and whys of Sender ID and SPF (define).

That message may be the most proactive and responsible move the organization has made to date in regards to spam. And the fact it’s reaching out to the media (in particular, online media) isn’t to be discounted. A senior DMA official who used to ignore my calls completely even took the time this week to call me… expressly to give me his cell phone number.

Winds of change, all right.

The move is a heartening one for many in the industry. “I applaud them for not just words, but actions in educating members and trying to move us toward effective solutions,” said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the E-mail Service Provider Coalition. “I think it’s critical to get their help in getting the word out on authentication.”

The DMA’s role in authentication, and other anti-spam initiatives, will likely be confined to education — which is fine. CAN-SPAM is more or less a done deal, and the body isn’t part of the ongoing dialogue about various anti-spam technologies, much less developing them.

Does the DMA, or more particularly, AIM, still have the interactive chops to do the job? Bigfoot’s Michael Della Penna, a co-chair of that body’s email council, says it does. Della Penna stuck with AIM while it bled members. It also went through three executive directors in fairly rapid succession. “Webinars are only the beginning of what you’ll see,” he promises, saying the body is also committed to “stuff around reputation, accreditation, and more as we learn it.”

The DMA’s most senior spokesperson, Lou Mastria, told me initiatives to boost the ranks of AIM members are forthcoming. This, from the guy who told me a little over a year ago, as enraged AIM members were resigning in disgust, “Our members come and go, and that’s fine.”

Mastria says the DMA is working to more closely incorporate AIM into the parent body. “It’s very much a joint effort. We have over 5,000 members. We want to be able to leverage more of the expertise that’s in AIM on the interactive side,” he said. “The DMA and AIM offer those opportunities. Other organizations don’t have the critical mass. Some of the reenergizing of the brand will help woo back marketers. We feel there is a very viable marketplace out there for email, and we want to protect that.”

Adopting Sender ID absolutely makes sense for now. The DMA certainly should spur its members toward adoption. I’m heartened Greco recognizes potentially better technical solutions are in the pipeline and that he seems open to them. It’s not that there isn’t an element of self-interest involved. Bulk emailers who don’t adopt authentication methods will soon find their messages are undeliverable to recipients at the major ISPs.

And despite all its hardships, email just keeps growing. Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division) expects U.S. permission-based email marketing to triple in size, from $2 billion last year to $6 billion by 2008. You just know the DMA sees those dollars out there.

“In terms of the events of two years ago,” said Mastria, alluding to the CAN-SPAM era of extreme DMA unpopularity, “the past is the past. We have a new executive director who is looking to reenergize AIM. We are a powerful force in this marketplace because we do represent big brands and household names. We are going to absolutely reenergize AIM. We see a huge promise here, and we intend to protect it.”

Is it too late? I’d love to hear thoughts from email and other interactive marketers.

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