Marketing Is Not the Enemy

In the midst of the recent blackout, many in the eastern U.S. had the opportunity to catch up on mail at home. ClickZ’s editors had forwarded reactions to my last column, “’Do Not’ Madness,” so I had more than my fair share. I received plenty of email regarding the issues surrounding the Do Not Call Registry and potential Do Not Everything legislation. Some messages posed constructive counterarguments, which I value. But most were abusive in tone and manner. I thought name-calling went out in kindergarten.

Most surprising was many readers overlooked the column’s core concepts. They include a call-to-action for marketers to spend more time understanding consumer preferences; the obligation to respect those preferences; and recognition the government should play a role in protecting consumers from fraudulent and deceptive marketing practices, without going further. In addition, the column attempted to put forth the facts and potential pitfalls of an ineffective idea (a do-not-email registry), touted by some as an effective spam solution.

A do-not-email registry will have little to no effect reducing spam. In the words of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Tim Muris, “My advice to consumers would be: Don’t waste the time and effort to sign up.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. But wait, I did. It wasn’t something the zealots wanted to hear.

We’ve got to put this issue in perspective. Most of us are law-abiding citizens living lives full of challenges. We worry about paying our bills, making our children’s lives better, and protecting our rights as citizens. We do this in the context of a world filled with annoyances. At the end of the day, we all deal with annoyances, whatever they may be. But let’s not encourage the government to legislate our lives as a way to filter out some of the clutter, especially when it will prove ineffective and costly to do so.

The vocal minority has time to be noisy about issues without understanding them and without realizing what they’re fighting for is shortsighted and, more important, ineffective. For some, spam isn’t the issue. It’s deeper. They dislike the fact big business has once again wielded power to subvert the right of the citizenry. In its greedy quest for profits, the thinking goes, corporate America wages a war of abuse and manipulation on the consuming public.

These folks believe our world would be a better place if we rid it of profit-making enterprises. Perhaps we’d be better off if we stripped away all marketing and advertising tools that provide these organizations (which employ millions of our friends, family members, and neighbors) with the ability to increase sales and distribute their products. Should we entertain how we might continue to extend their vision to other media, as well? Should we stop the millions of unsolicited direct mail offers businesses send each day, to which hundreds of thousands of people respond? Behind all the righteousness in the spam argument, is this the cruel truth?

Amid the zeal to rid the world of the spam scourge, I worry not about cyberterrorists who use the medium for truly ill-gotten gain. We will pursue them by working together (FTC, ISPs, legitimate marketers, and consumers). Rather, I worry about those who want the government to legislate marketing with misinformed solutions. We must protect all organizations that use this medium properly and responsibly. The free marketplace will ultimately reward those that do.

In my work with reputable, profit-making companies, I meet many people who are truly concerned with providing customers with wanted and needed information via the Internet. They worry their opt-in, permission-based messages will be blocked or absorbed by ISPs in the quest to stem the tide of spam. They worry about providing a valuable service to consumers through the Internet and invest heavily to grow these initiatives. But they also worry about potential legislation that will limit their ability to conduct business online while their criminal counterparts evade prosecution.

The email channel continues to evolve as an information superhighway. Time is necessary to educate all constituencies on the power and limitations of this emerging medium. There’s no silver bullet to spam. The definition of spam continues to evolve. I believe the solution requires an approach that combines education, technology, self-regulation, and best practices with legislation and prosecution of the fraudulent senders among us.

Hats off to Muris and the FTC for their vital role explaining the challenges and realities of a potential do-not-email registry. Perhaps his advice and knowledge won’t be lost on open-minded individuals committed to helping the industry build effective solutions.

Let the education process continue.

Until next time,

Al D.

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