Not Just Another Article on Luncheon Meat

It is becoming increasingly difficult to be noticed and read, no matter how legitimate your email is or how much the recipient is looking forward to receiving it. Jupiter Research (a unit of ClickZ’s parent corporation) predicts that 39 percent of the email the average consumer receives this year will come from companies with no permission to contact that individual.

Those unsolicited emails do much more than exercise recipients’ “delete” key fingers. They lead many consumers to experience a loss of confidence in the quality of the email they are receiving, and they may even become suspicious of anything that appears in their inboxes.

The bottom line is even responsible email marketers expect favorable responses and conversion rates to become more difficult to achieve unless something is done to remedy this problem.

Quite a lot is being done to try to solve the spam problem. Unfortunately, the results, so far, are not encouraging, despite an abundance of good intentions. On the government front, several attempts have been made at legislation. Some state laws have been passed to “ban” spam or force senders to differentiate unsolicited commercial email from other categories of email.

There is no evidence these laws have had any effect, which is hardly surprising when you look at the problem from a technical perspective. Automated filtering and classification of email, based on either content or mailing patterns, are not sophisticated enough to avoid just the kind of false positives nobody wants — such as charities prevented from contacting people willing to give. In one well-publicized case, Harvard University was presumably prevented from sending admission letters to applicants.

To get some insights as to what we email marketers can do, I spoke to James “Jim” Koenig, chief development and legal officer of ePrivacy Group. Jim, citing a March 2002 Harris Interactive study, said that since “91 percent of consumers would do business with companies that proactively verify their privacy practices with a third party, this opens up some valuable opportunities.” TRUSTe (the nonprofit organization behind the most widely recognized Web site trust seal) recently announced the Trusted Sender (currently in beta) initiative. It applies the logic of the Web site trust seal to email communications, hoping it will bring trust and confidence to the medium.

Commercial emailers who participate in the program place a unique trust “stamp” in the top right of each email they send out, giving recipients visual evidence the message is from a trustworthy company that respects their privacy. The TRUSTe logo, one of the most widely recognized and trusted symbols on the Internet, appears prominently in the stamp, along with the date the message was stamped and the email addresses of the sender and the intended recipient.

The Trusted Sender Program is a major step toward industry self-regulation. Jim explained, “The most important aspect of Trusted Sender may be the way in which it has built consensus around email marketing best practice principles.” The program is based on the Fair Information Practice Principles (notice, choice, access, security, and enforcement). Companies wanting to participate in the Trusted Sender program must abide by a set of best practices that, in part, are derived from the “Six Resolutions for Responsible E-Mailers,” developed by the Association for Interactive Marketing’s (AIM’s) Council for Responsible E-Mail.

At this point, the Trusted Sender program is not a tool to reduce spam but a powerful way to visibly and positively distinguish and separate email sent by responsible companies. The Trusted Sender Program can be used by both ISPs and consumers to help minimize spam and assure that commercial email is more efficiently delivered. Program organizers are working with ISPs to help them better distinguish legitimate commercial email from mail that should be appropriately delivered to junk folders. On top of this, a number of email client companies are supporting the program by distinguishing stamped mail in the inbox with a special Trusted Sender seal icon, instead of the typical open or closed envelope.

Jim said, “Leading online and offline brands within major industries, such as retail, financial, news, healthcare, travel, and others, are agreeing to participate in the Trusted Sender Beta release. Participants in the beta program will be a mix of online and brick-and-mortar brands and will send various types of CRM and marketing communications. From high-tech companies, like Microsoft and EarthLink, to traditional companies, like Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge, to many of the largest email outsource service providers, the program is achieving broad support.”

Jim could not tell me which email client will feature this distinguishing stamp in the next revision; however, could it be that programs such as Outlook and Outlook Express might incorporate this sometime soon if Microsoft is currently supporting the program? Hmm, I wonder.

I think the idea is fundamentally a good one. Yet, I have some real concerns. Will enough companies participate to create the critical mass necessary? What will all this cost (somebody is going to pay)? Will we be creating one more huge bureaucracy more interested in the rules than in sound principles? Who will actually decide what the standards are? Who is going to audit mailers and how carefully and often?

I’ll be keeping my eyes open and working hard to keep those overzealous techies from applying spam rules to my legitimate emails. Let me know how you have been dealing with these issues.

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