Email Marketers, Unite!

I’m an email marketer and proud of it.

That’s right, I send email campaigns to opt-in lists — not just double opt-in lists — and I email to third-party lists comprising recipients who have previously given advertisers permission to email them. I do it ethically and I do it with pride.

Please don’t overreact. I’m not ushering in Armageddon.

In the 1800s when Sears and other direct marketers first started using unsolicited direct mail to sell consumer products such as Colgate, toilet soaps, and Velocipedes, the world didn’t end. And it won’t end because consumers receive unsolicited email advertising, either.

I’m not for even a second suggesting we should abandon proper email practices, and I don’t in any way support the right to send spam. In fact, I am in favor of the recent movements within the industry to set guidelines and determine the best methods for battling spam. Most recently, ClickZ issued its own call to action, urging the industry to build an email marketing coalition to come up with an actionable plan.

The key is the word “actionable.” Unfortunately, too many other attempts to find balance between legitimate email marketing and spam have fallen short, often enduring scathing criticisms before they were even fully unveiled.

In January, privacy organizations TRUSTe and ePrivacy Group announced their “Trusted Sender” program, which offers a seal of certification for commercial email messages. Immediately, the critics pounced, pointing out the seal, which allows recipients to click on the link and validate the sender’s identity, is only visible upon opening the email. And while the guidelines prohibit list rentals, they still tend toward opt-out policies.

That latter criticism was also leveled at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in February when it unveiled its commercial email marketing guidelines, with critics lambasting the organization for failing to mandate the use of opt-in standards.

Fair or not, the criticisms heaped on the recent attempts to control spam illustrate the complexities surrounding the issue. Sadly, the passage of time is not making it any easier, particularly now when even fully confirmed, opt-in email generates complaints of spam and aggrieved recipients are heading to court to be compensated for their injuries. It’s not a simple matter, but we’ve got to do something; and we need to make sure to protect our own interests in the process.

Sending unsolicited email to consumers whose names are on lists because they have agreed to receive advertising is as American as apple pie. We legitimate marketers and advertisers have to make certain we don’t lose the right to conduct business because of the superfluous complaints of misguided spam protesters and the knee-jerk overreactions of ISPs. Our rights are already being chipped away, and if we don’t take action now we won’t be around to take action later.

Consider this recent experience at my company. One of the ISPs we deal with threatened action because of an erroneous spam incident. When we investigated, we discovered the culprit had subscribed someone else’s email to our database, thereby creating a situation completely out of our control. Unfortunately, the ISP overreacted before we could get to the heart of the matter, and it didn’t even want to know the facts when they were revealed. Instead, we were forced to defend our good name against spamming charges — all because one person played a practical joke on someone else. It’s a situation we can’t prevent, yet we are held accountable.

Also problematic is the reality that many ISPs now have technology in place to filter and block emails they perceive to be spam. But the technology isn’t perfect, occasionally producing false positives that leave legitimate marketers holding the bag.

What could be worse for our livelihoods than ISPs blocking mass emails without even bothering to check the validity of that email or considering the sender’s right to mail to those recipients (not to mention the recipients’ rights to receive the messages)? And they’re not even required to tell us they are taking that action. Our emails just don’t go through.

Do you suspect this is happening to you? If so, I hope you’ll take a minute to send me your story, because not only is this practice unacceptable, it could also signal the beginning of the end for many of our businesses.

We simply cannot let ISPs and hosting farms throw out the baby with the bathwater. As an industry, we must rally together and address this problem head-on. We’re talking about the defending the right to free speech and advertising, two critically important processes that are the backbone of this country.

That is why I believe we should take ClickZ’s coalition concept one step further by creating an e-marketer’s protection association — a lobby with active, dues-paying members working to defend the rights of professional email marketers. It needs to be founded on a realistic premise with solid practices. And it needs to stop gatekeepers from overreacting by, for example, encouraging the charging of fines for incidents and violations rather than the summary ending of business relationships.

This association could also provide outreach, educating consumers through email public service announcements and across the Internet about the importance of maintaining our right to market electronically and about the differences between a valid solicitation and spam.

Finally, by taking on the role of lobbyist, this association would prevent strong-handed actions from being taken against its members, and members would be bound together by a set of best practices — including providing consumers and gatekeepers with an easy course of action to pursue violators.

If either of these concepts interests (or disinterests) you, we’d love to hear from you. Send a note to nospam@clickz.com or to me. By attacking the issues proactively and positively, we will be moving in the right direction. Keep reading.

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