Is Email Appending an Abusive Practice?

In this column, I am returning to a topic that I’ve visited once or twice before over the years. Some might say I’m like a six-year old worrying at a loose tooth. It’s not coming out but I just can’t help but poke at it. This time, though, I hope it can be for the very last time. This time, I’m ready for my quarter from the tooth fairy. (Yes, my daughter is about to lose her first tooth.)

There has been an enormous amount of debate about the pros and cons, efficacy and ethics, and value and pitfalls of email appending over the years. My position on the topic has always been quite negative, although I have been known to concede that if carefully managed, one may be able to eek out a positive return on investment.

At my company, we have always discouraged clients from email appending, though we’ve never had anything authoritative to point to that makes a clear statement that it should not be done. Until now that is. This month, the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) released a position paper that leaves no doubt as to its position on the matter.

One might reasonably wonder why this matters. After all, isn’t this just another industry association making another statement on best practices that have little meaning in the real world? I think it is far more significant than that for two very important reasons.

The first is that MAAWG is a highly influential industry association that brings together the leaders in messaging from across the globe. Its membership includes virtually all of the major mailbox providers, spam filtering organizations, and email service providers. That is to say, all the key players in email infrastructure. Most of the email delivered in the U.S. is either sent by, analyzed by, or delivered to MAAWG-member companies and often all three. These are the people and organizations that at the end of the day set the terms and conditions under which email marketers operate.

The second is the clarity of the position that MAAWG has adopted. The document is just a single page, and three sentences are enough to get a complete picture.

  1. “The practice of email appending is in direct violation of core MAAWG values.”
  2. “It is the position of MAAWG that email appending is an abusive practice.”
  3. “Legitimate marketers do not engage in email appending.”

These three statements alone make their position on email appending crystal clear. I have said in the past that I think it sucks as a practice, but MAAWG has gone further and stated clearly that in its opinion, it is an abusive practice in which no legitimate marketer will engage. That’s important from the Anti-Abuse Working Group, the group that works ceaselessly to put a stop to messaging abuse.

I believe this will have significant implications for email marketers. I don’t believe it will immediately put a stop to the practice but I believe email appending will become increasingly marginalized and difficult for the following reasons.

The first is that email service provider (ESP) terms of service that do not already outlaw the practice will start to do so and those that already do so will enforce their prohibitions more rigorously. Most of the largest ESPs in the world are MAAWG members. Employees at those organizations now have an even stronger argument for outlawing appended lists from their systems. I expect the major mailbox providers (aka ISPs) to adopt a stronger stance on appending, resulting in more blocklisting for companies that use appended lists and for the append companies themselves.

The second is that many of the more legitimate email appending companies may get out of the business. Perhaps they’ll move over to appending other forms of data, demographic, econometric, social behavior, etc. Perhaps they’ll do something else entirely. Either way, the likely result is that available appending companies will be of lesser quality, making appended lists even less attractive.

Many legitimate marketers may stop using appended lists for ethical reasons. This may include major corporations who don’t want the bad publicity of being exposed doing something seen as shady as well as individuals whose reluctance is now legitimized.

The result is that if you’re a marketer that currently relies on email appending to grow or maintain your list, it’s time to rethink your strategy and determine what you are going to do instead. Fortunately, there are a plethora of alternative techniques available to you and now is the time to start exploring and implementing.

Until next time,


This column was originally published on Sept. 29, 2011 on ClickZ.

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