Fighting Spam: It’s All About the Opt-In

In previous columns, I’ve laid out my arguments as to how and why email marketing is headed toward the same slippery slope down which banner ads tumbled. One of the reasons I foresee this decline is the growth of the email annoyance we call spam.

Although I still stand by my statement that we will never completely rid ourselves of insidious junk email, I do firmly believe we, as an industry, must do whatever it takes to reduce the amount of unwanted email solicitations we send to our customers and prospects — whether they originally invited those solicitations or not.

It’s been said a thousand times already, but it bears repeating: The number of email solicitations received by consumers on a daily basis is bordering on overwhelming, making it nearly impossible to distinguish valid promotional offers from spam.

Much of the blame can be placed on unscrupulous email marketing companies that bombard random email addresses with unwanted solicitations. But they can’t shoulder all the blame. Other contributors include:

  • Companies that rely on opt-out methods to build their lists, forcing hapless recipients to take action to stop the emails (some even employ the dreaded double opt-out, forcing recipients to opt out twice before they’re removed from the list)
  • Companies that create lists based on the belief any publicly available email address, such as those included in an association directory or printed on a business card, is fair game as long as an unsubscribe option is included in all emails
  • Companies that believe anyone who sends an inquiry or drops a business card in a fish bowl at a trade show is giving permission to be added to an email list, which can then be swapped and even sold

I can see all of you nodding in agreement. At least you were until now, because here’s the controversial part of today’s column: Even those of us who are completely scrupulous with our email campaigns, adhering to strict opt-in and double opt-in list development practices, bear some of the responsibility for the downward spiral.

That’s right. Even the most upstanding members of the email marketing community aren’t in any position to cast the first stone. Poor-quality opt-in processes exacerbate the problem, as does taking advantage of privacy policies that allow opt-in email databases to be “swapped” with “marketing partners.”

Sure, in the strictly technical sense, emails sent to these shared databases aren’t spam, because the consumers really did, at some point, grant permission for their addresses to be shared. But it’s pretty darn rare they recognize this fact when they’re faced with an inbox filled with what is, for all intents and purposes, junk mail.

Whether these emails are definitively spam or just exist in that gray area between legal and appropriate, everyone suffers from the solicitation deluge. Customers suffer the frustration of dealing with an overload of unwanted email they are powerless to combat. Advertisers suffer because recipients view the email offer as junk mail, which ultimately results in brand degradation and/or lack of response to valid email offers.

But as I’ve said before, email marketing is cheap. Just one successful response often justifies the original expense of developing and distributing the campaign. That’s why marketers are going for that quick fix rather than taking the long-term view. That lack of long-term vision results in the email marketing industry failing to police its own programs and processes.

True, the updated Direct Marketing Association’s guidelines on email marketing have taken some baby steps in the right direction. The guidelines are designed to help put a stop not only to spam but also to questionable email marketing programs that fall in a gray area between credible and unscrupulous. But these guidelines don’t really go far enough.

That’s why I believe advertisers must demand their marketing partners take proactive steps to distinguish their valid offers from the plethora of junk email their customers receive. One way to do that is by integrating scalable Web-based opt-in processes with sophisticated e-CRM systems, real-time reporting, and financial analysis to produce pristine lists of highly motivated prospects.

We’ve successfully used these types of proprietary systems to build databases of people that convert into loyal customers — a method that far outperforms the practice of collecting or renting lists of random addresses and sending emails that are never opened.

I’ve seen firsthand the positive results such a seemingly simple technology process can have on response rates and customer conversions. More important, it reduces spam complaints to virtually nothing.

Don’t forget the halo effect from sending only wanted (indeed, requested!) information to engaged consumers. That should more than make up for the smaller database.

Best of all, by implementing this kind of sophisticated opt-in process, we’ll be well on our way to salvaging what is left of what should be the best, most effective marketing medium — not to mention our livelihoods. Keep reading.


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Author and e-business expert Alexis Gutzman undertook the complex process of starting and publishing an email newsletter and details her experience in this briefing. “Publishing Your Own Newsletter” originated as a multipart series on internet.com. This briefing is a compilation of Gutzman’s essential writings about the email newsletter publishing process. Along with tips, tricks, and advice on what works best and what pitfalls to watch for, this ClickZ Guide includes product evaluations, code for capturing user information, and sound advice on user privacy concerns before implementing some of the tools discussed.

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