How The DMA Hurts Businesses

Most arguments concerning the Direct Marketing Association’s laissez faire attitude toward unsolicited commercial email (UCE) is over alleged harm to consumers and the Internet.

Two notes that came into my inbox over the weekend show that this stand is also hurting businesses.

Before we get to cases, let’s define the term. Some activists consider any message not sent in response to their specific request spam. The DMA says the term should refer only to mass emailed fraud.

I fall between the two, arguing that an impersonal sales pitch risks the sender’s goodwill and reputation. No marketer should underestimate the value of goodwill and reputation.

Rodger Mansfield says SBC Communications shot its goodwill in the foot (if not the head) recently when it sent him an unsolicited email for its commercial web hosting service. He had just installed an SBC DSL modem, and the email included the email addresses of all recipients. This upset him as much as the spam, since some of the other recipients might also be spammers.

I called SBC in San Antonio, and as the conversation progressed I understood what happened. The web hosting guys assumed the new DSL customers were good prospects so they grabbed (or were given) the addresses of new subscribes as soon as they signed on, figuring they could hit them before rivals did. (They also forgot to blind carbon copy (bcc) everyone, and put all the addresses in the to: field.) Mission accomplished – Mansfield will take his hosting business elsewhere, and is looking for DSL alternatives.

I was the victim in the second example. This spam came from Rug Doctor, a Plano, TX-based outfit that sells and rents rug-cleaning equipment. I used to trace this spam through a Korean server, then used the Whois to find that the URL had been registered by an outfit called Dataflow Information Systems in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. A Kevin Anderson in Plano was the administrative contact.

I called the chairman of Rug Doctor, and his spokesman called back with an apology. “We thought this company was reputable,” he said. “We made a mistake and it won’t happen again.” (It should have been a hint that the “Internet marketer” they hired didn’t have a web site, but I don’t argue with apologies.) Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who called. Rug Doctor, a business newbie, was badly burned by its adventure in spam, and the company was smart enough to admit the mistake.

The point is, would SBC or Rug Doctor have made these mistakes, and hurt their reputations, if the leading direct mail trade organization were teaching that opt-out doesn’t work, that permission is a requirement of good Internet marketing, and that spam is counterproductive? I doubt it.

Rather than concentrating on legal rights, the DMA should be concentrating on what works and what doesn’t work. If the DMA wants to play in this space, they need to educate their members on practicalities, rather than fighting for the rights of those whom anti-spammers call “chickenboners.”

The math here is simple. If you send out 1 million messages, receive even 100 orders, but in the process get 990,000 people mad at you, how big will your business get?

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