Oh! You Do Spam.

Have you ever been in a situation like this?

I’m at a social event, having a chat with someone I’ve just met. The person asks what I do for a living. I reply that I’m an email marketing consultant. She makes a face and says something like, “Oh! You do spam.”

That’s it. Try as I may to defend myself, in a split second I’ve gone from casual acquaintance to email fiend.

When this happened last month, the culprit was a teenager, the child of an acquaintance and, taking it a step further, the next generation of consumers we’ll be trying to reach via email. I began to think. Are we killing the goose that lays the golden egg? Is what some companies do today going to cause a backlash against all email marketing?

I fear email is headed down the same path telemarketing is on, at a greatly accelerated pace. Have you spoken to anyone recently (outside the telemarketing industry) who likes telemarketing? At least 26 states now have some form of “do not call” regulations on the books. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a national do-not-call list. Many groups oppose the FTC recommendations, including:

  • Consumer activists who say the law is too lax. They want a national “do call” list, a sort of opt-in for telemarketing calls.

  • Some state officials. They are concerned that a national do-not-call list isn’t enough and would supersede tougher state laws.

  • The telemarketing industry, fighting for its right of free speech, which it says do-not-call lists infringe on. It claims industry self-regulation, in the form of the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA’s) do-not-call list, is sufficient.

Does any of this sound familiar? Twenty-six states also have some type of antispam law on the books (see Spam Laws). Both this Congress and the last have discussed federal legislation, but so far nothing has been passed by both houses. The FTC recently cracked down on “deceptive email marketing.” People are choosing their corners:

  • Consumer activists and antispam organizations are calling for active opt-in as a requirement for commercial email.

  • The DMA, though it’s recently toughened its stance, still doesn’t consider active opt-in a necessary part of an email marketing campaign.

  • Industry associations and big companies are lobbying for opt-out, which they define as any message containing an unsubscribe link (no need to get permission to send it, as long as there’s a way to unsubscribe).

(Side note: Have you noticed the terminology creep? I’m showing my age here, but back in the day, “opt-out” meant the “Yes, send me this email” box on the registration page was prechecked. For the most part, when people say “opt-out” today, they are referring to what I think of as spam with an unsubscribe link. Much of this has to do with industry lobbying efforts mentioned above. After all, “opt-out” sounds much better than “unsolicited commercial email” or “spam,” doesn’t it?)

Each month, more organizations embrace the opt-out or “spam with an unsubscribe link” practice. Here are three examples I received in the past few months:

  • The now-infamous message from Yahoo that included the line: “We have reset your marketing preferences and, unless you decide to change these preferences, you may begin receiving marketing messages from Yahoo”

  • The publisher who sent an email stating: “We are writing to you as a subscriber to [publication here”. We would like to send emails to you with information about special deals, new products, and other third-party offers… If you would like to receive [these offers”, you do not have to respond to this email.” It goes on to say the publisher will start sending me these offers unless I take action to stop it.

  • A new email newsletter about customer relationships was sent to an address I never use for email newsletter subscriptions. The sender didn’t say how it got my address, but I’m guessing it was harvested from a discussion list. The email did offer an unsubscribe link, but the lack of an acknowledged opt-in leaves me less than enthusiastic about the organization and its newsletter.

Why is this happening? It’s viewed as a way to optimize email marketing by forcing as many names as possible onto the lists used to market additional products and services. Trouble is, it’s a short-term strategy (see my article on negative option opt-out) that creates consumers who dislike email promotions that are forced on them. It hurts the entire industry in the long run.

Enough about me. What do you think? Is email marketing headed the way of telemarketing? Have you needed to lobby within your organization for opt-in? If so, what was the outcome? Is this an issue you, as an email marketer, are interested in or actively involved in? Will opt-in win in the long run, or will email addresses be fair game for marketers unless recipients take action to unsubscribe? I’ll publish your comments in an upcoming column. (If you don’t want me to use your name or your company’s name, let me know.)

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