E-Mail: A Job for Professionals

The industry can’t come to a consensus on the definition of spam, but one thing’s for certain: Nobody, but nobody, who sends bulk email ever calls himself a spammer. Not even Thomas-Carlton Cowles, head of Empire Towers, who sends literally billions of unsolicited messages, was receptive to the sobriquet at the FTC’s Spam Forum last week.

If Cowles doesn’t spam, then you certainly don’t. Or do you?

A very affable gentleman approached me during the Forum. His company, one of the top 15 most-trafficked Web sites, just appointed him to oversee email compliance issues and vendor relations. His site boasts over 35 million members. The company sends a lot of email. No wonder he was spending the week networking with ISP reps and soaking up information on how to get email delivered.

He buttonholed me in the hallway with a long list of questions — good ones — about email marketing. He’s obviously eager to learn all he can about his new job. He’s brand-new to email marketing.

A few days later, I received an email from the VP of Internet marketing at a well-known business and financial services concern. It’s a public company with over 27,000 paid subscribers and several hundred data contracts. The message read:

As the people in the forefront of new technology related to email, I wanted to know if you were aware of any technology/software related to processing bouncebacks. We use a very rudimentary email process, want to keep it in-house versus having outside vendor handle [it”, but want to “suck out” the email addresses from the return mail message and tag our database accordingly.

In other words, the company knows its email is bouncing. It’s known this for a while, possibly for years. It has no idea which addresses are bad, how many are invalid, and probably how many ISPs blacklist all its email communications as a result.

ClickZ’s writers and editors receive questions like these from readers every day, which is hardly surprising. What’s shocking is a casual disregard surrounding email marketing and communications from the last quarter you’d expect it: major online properties whose very existence (not to mention responsibility to shareholders) is inextricably linked with their ability to email fully opted-in customers, contacts, and prospects.

These, on the surface, are the responsible companies employing legitimate marketers. There’s a big distinction between “legitimate” and “well-intentioned.”

Here’s another one: At ISPCON a couple weeks ago, an AOL executive related a problem the ISP is having with a huge global retailer’s mailings. An in-store promotion asked customers for their email information. So many addresses were falsified, illegible, or improperly entered into the database that 60 percent of the retail giant’s mail is addressed to nonexistent AOL accounts. If all that email isn’t blocked by AOL now, you can bet it will be soon.

All you “legitimate” marketers out there — listen up. E-mail is a job for professionals.

Sure, email costs dramatically less than practically any other form of marketing. But it ain’t free, folks. When it’s spam, it gets mind-boggingly expensive — spam will cost U.S. businesses $10 billion this year, says Ferris Research.

Corporations want to cut costs, especially in this economy. Cutting investment in email marketing infrastructure, technology, and services is not the way to go now, most particularly for companies that rely on email communications for survival. The bitter pill marketers, IT departments, and bean counters must swallow is the realization it’s probably time to increase your email budgets.

That can mean many things. If you mail in-house, you may need to upgrade to a system that can handle bounces and maintain clean lists. It’s time to seriously consider outsourcing to a full-service vendor with the staff and expertise to do the above, as well as to maintain ongoing relationships with the ISPs that determine if your communications will be delivered — or not.

It’s time to migrate to a fully opt-in list, which could mean changes to your Web site. If your list is opt-out, you’re a spammer or DMA member — the distinction could soon be moot.

In addition to cash, emailers must invest time in education. On-the-job training is playing with fire (and potential litigation) in the current anti-spam environment. Even if you outsource, you need to be on top of how your vendor is messaging your customers. Your organization needs formal policies covering email practices and privacy. Already have one? Revisions may be in order. Is your marketing and IT staff versed in email best practices? Are they continuing to learn about this ever-changing environment? (ClickZ’s E-Mail Strategies section is a good place to start.)

E-mail remains an effective, cost-efficient marketing tool for businesses and customers. But it’s not free. Never has been. As with anything else, you get what you pay for. Now’s the time to up the ante.

Meet Rebecca at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

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