Disposable E-mail Addresses No Problem for Legit Marketers

Disposable email addresses (DEAs), the latest in anti-spam tactics, let people set up and discard email identities as easily as yesterday’s soiled shirt. How will their adoption affect email marketing? Marketers take the trend in stride, as long as they aren’t the ones being dumped.

This new permutation on the email address allows people to set up multiple addresses that they can use when they register or buy something online. They could use one for site registrations, another for e-commerce transactions and a third for Internet coupons. While lots of people already use free Web mail accounts this way, many DEA services make it easy for users to manage and track the various addresses. Companies like Spamex, Mailblocks, and Mailshell are among those that offer disposable addresses.

One major ISP has even gotten into the game, making it more likely disposable email addresses’ popularity will take off. In October, Yahoo launched Yahoo AddressGuard as one of a raft of spam-fighting features.

“E-mail is moving to more of a permission-based system,” said Rand Wacker, director of product strategy and planning for email technology maker Sendmail, “where you have to have a pre-existing relationship in order to communicate, sort of like an instant messaging buddy list.”

The changes brought about by disposable email addresses shouldn’t bother marketers, said Justin Greene, president and CEO of Spamex, a DEA service provider. “A marketer’s goal is to reach people that want to get their information. If you’re sending them information they want, they’ll keep that DEA turned on.” Spamex advises customers to follow normal procedures to unsubscribe from valid mailing lists, rather than just turning off the address.

Kevin George, vice president of products for email marketing provider Silverpop, had positive words for DEAs. “Anything we can do to help differentiate legitimate email from spam is exactly what we want to spend our time focusing on,” he said. George is co-chair of the Association for Interactive Marketing’s Council for Responsible E-Mail and co-chair of the industry consortium E-mail Processing Industry Alliance. He said DEA services put consumers in control of deciding what’s legitimate email. “It’s truly an individual preference,” he said.

On the other hand, DEAs could open up a world of hurt for marketers who sell or share email lists without authorization, said Andy Sernovitz, CEO of marketing consultancy GasPedal Ventures. “You’ll definitely get caught, because consumers will know who they gave the address to.” For good marketers, Sernovitz said, it’s no big deal. “If you’re a brand-name marketer sending good emails that consumers want to see, they’ll give you accurate addresses.” Sernovitz said any kind of email winnowing service for consumers actually improves response rates for email marketers. “The marketer knows that it’s not just a good email address,” he said, “but the address of someone who genuinely wants to receive this email.”

As ISPs promote DEAs and other anti-spam measures to compete for customers, “There’s a downside for marketers if ISPs don’t train people to use DEAs effectively,” said Kevin Johnson, senior vice president of products and marketing for email service provider Digital Impact. Ideally, consumers would use one DEA for trusted companies or publishers and another for unknown businesses or riskier contacts such as chat rooms. He said the average person has three email addresses and turns them over once a year, and part of the reason people abandon addresses is because they’re too full of spam. An October 2002 study by ReturnPath and NFO WorldGroup supports Johnson’s contention. It found 16 percent of respondents abandoned their email addresses to escape spam. If consumers maintain one DEA for trusted communicators and use another for risky ones, it could help reduce churn for marketers.

However, if consumers simply cycle through DEAs the way they do through Hotmail accounts after indiscriminately giving out the addresses, neither consumers nor marketers will see the benefits. Consumers will just be abandoning DEAs instead of accounts, while marketers could see even more churn.

Susan Bratton, vice president of marketing for Mailblocks, an anti-spam service that offers both challenge/response filtering mechanisms and disposable addresses, said that just 34 percent of the company’s “very mainstream” customer base employs DEAs. Mailblocks DEAs tag the username with a hyphenated addition to help people understand how to set them up as filters. For example, a user might create andrew-ebay, andrew-sweepstakes and andrew-travel to use for various registrations. “Not everyone understands it yet,” Bratton said, “and we think that’s why not all of them are using it.” They are becoming popular, however, with those who have figured out the system. “Once they use them,” Bratton said, “they love them and want more.”

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