E-Mail Marketers: We Have to Do Something

By Erin Joyce

Creating the email marketing equivalent of the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval is about more than building “best practices” in a developing industry, email marketing officials say.

The new “Trusted Sender” seal, a beta program launched by privacy advocacy groups and marketing companies this week, should help opt-in marketers get their email messages through instead of being filtered out with the rest of the spammers.

“Consumers are getting much more sophisticated with filtering programs,” agrees Al DiGuido, chief executive officer of Bigfoot Interactive, a New York-based email marketing firm. “This seal is going to be very obvious to the reader that there’s a level of approval” from marketers and the industry that the message was formed under best practices.

The “Trusted Sender” program, announced Thursday, is a brainchild of non-profit privacy group TRUSTe and privacy consulting firm ePrivacy Group designed to help build best practices into email marketing and, hopefully, lift consumer confidence in commercial email.

Microsoft, DoubleClick and email firm Topica are working on the beta test for the “Trusted Sender” seal program. Direct response marketing companies such as Bigfoot Interactive, RappCollins Innovyx, E-Dialog, Enterprise Marketing Solutions Inc. and Virtumundo have thrown their support behind the program.

In order to gain the “Trusted Sender” seal of approval in the top right hand corner of the message, the emails have to follow guidelines that start with the basics, such as deploying fair information practices that clearly identify who the sender of the email is.

Subject lines have to be genuine, too, and must accurately reflect the content of the email. Every email must include options for the reader to opt-out of further commercial emails.

Importantly for the online marketing industry, TRUSTe’s best practices highlight the use of email addresses for consumers with whom a company has a prior business relationship — such as a sale. The rules do not apply to rented lists or shared databases.

“I’m all for separating the good guys from the bad guys,” says Richard Baumer, president and CEO of New York-based direct response marketing firm Venture Direct. “So I’m in favor of a seal of approval.”

But he also cautions that some aspects of the guidelines get into fuzzy areas, such as the subject line rule. That’s a critical area for email marketers, he says, and it’s also a creative decision.

“The anti-spam initiatives have their heart in the right place” by boosting best practices among direct marketers, Baumer says. “But there are a lot of gray areas” on subject lines that could be subjective to those who anoint the seal of approval.

Christine Duffney, spokesperson for the Direct Marketing Association, which supports the seal program, says the association is all for anything that helps build more consumer trust in the marketplace, especially email marketing.

While she agreed there might be some question about how to enforce the rule about the subject line matching the content, she says at least we could see fewer subject lines about “an order confirmation when we have never ordered anything” from the sender.

The “Trusted Sender” program arrives as the Federal Trade Commission and other industry groups gathered for the 2nd Annual Privacy and Data Security Summit in Washington, D.C., and ramped up their fight against spammers.

The DMA, for example, has a new set of email marketing policies that are required of its 5,000-plus members. The guidelines are coming out on Monday, which happens to be during National Consumer Protection Week.

Duffney says the rules include tightened guidelines on how direct email marketers can state what they are selling and how they share, rent or sell consumers’ email address to third parties.

Like the “Trusted Sender” program, the DMA guidelines say the senders must clearly identify themselves in the return address, and must include opt-out information in the email.

The FTC is also planning to unveil its latest war on spammers, and what’s expected to be a bigger crackdown on spammers who use fake email return addresses.

“We’re very strident about the whole issue of privacy” in the email marketing industry, adds Bigfoot’s DiGuido. “The spammers are going to die under their own weight of the fact that consumers” are getting more sophisticated about deleting them.

Christopher Saunders contributed to this story.

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