Changin’ Times for Online Lead Generation

Bob Dylan wrote and sang about changing times in the ’60s. For online lead generation marketers, the times are changing now, and in ways that could hurt best-practices firms.

Recent news articles and research reports suggest the FTC may be looking into certain online lead-gen practices. ValueClick’s WebClients was mentioned in a widely published RBC Capital Markets report on the subject, along with such sites as PinkPhone4Free.com, eatandbemerry.com, and FreeLawnTractor.com. (ValueClick emphatically states it’s not the subject of any FTC or other government investigation.)

The RBC report gave a comprehensive view of the free process in which users get caught: from banners to landing pages to data captures to data reselling. And the maze repeats.

An anti-spyware bill currently being debated in Congress (H.R. 964) could have immense ramifications on black-hat operators, as well the rest of the industry.

Advertisers are also getting wiser about what transpires on the Web on their behalf and are increasingly hammering companies they catch extending any unapproved offer. In the crosshairs are offers designed to trick users with something for “free” when they sign up for the product or service.

Online lead gen has been trying to self-regulate, with mixed results. Many of these black-hat practices violate the Direct Marketing Association’s policies, yet there have been no repercussions.

The Internet Advertising Bureau’s recent lead-quality whitepaper gave a low score to some bottom-feeding lead-gen tactics. As I wrote then, there was no mention of how users are lambasted with offers until they leave a site in frustration — after giving their data to God only knows how many marketers.

None of this has begun to clean up the space to where the honest white-hat businesses vastly outnumber the black-hat ones. The questionable companies don’t care what happens to users. They certainly don’t expect users to return — at least not knowingly.

If online lead generation is to hit the scale and potential it deserves, it will be through clean distribution. Some companies can continue to mislead the public for only so long. A government crackdown could drag down the whole space for an extended period wherein neither Web sites nor advertisers will want to have anything to do with online lead generation.

Some black hatters (many of whom made a ton of cash over the last several years) have been destroying the space for awhile. Those of us who wear the white hats are stuck picking up the pieces and beginning the education process from scratch.

Whatever happens in Congress, the Online Lead Generation Association stands ready to support best practices through our lobbying efforts. If you have any thoughts in this regard, please share them with me.

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