Scared Straight: A Tale of Spam Redemption

Date.com didn’t know it had a drastic email problem until October 2002, when AOL began blocking the company’s messages.

Puzzled, executives at the online personals service started an investigation. They quickly made some frightening discoveries. They found Date.com’s alias for complaints related to email had never been checked. They found its affiliate program completely unregulated and running amok. They even found the company was on a watch list the Federal Trade Commission had set up to address deceptive unsubscribe practices.

“We immediately set about evaluating every aspect of our email delivery and list rental practices,” said CEO Meir Strahlberg.

A year later, the company is white-listed with AOL, Yahoo and MSN and it maintains careful oversight of its affiliates and list brokers. Delivery rates are up 20 percent.

How did Date.com navigate the turn-around? Step one in the process was appointing a privacy manager. The man for the job was Mike Ellis, previously with Date.com’s errant marketing department.

Ellis had no idea what he was in for. “They gave it to me and said, ‘handle it,'” he recalls. So he did, methodically sorting through thousands of email complaints that accumulated, unread.

The oldest was one year old, dating back to autumn, 2001. At the time, the company was small, ambitious and completely lacking in email policies. As part of its growth strategy, it launched an affiliate program, increased online media buying and began to rent email lists in earnest. Nothing was tested, bad practices proliferated.

As Ellis learned more, he realized he had a huge job ahead of him. Before he could clean up the mess, he had to educate himself. To get up to speed, he headed to ClickZ’s email marketing conference in San Francisco, where he bumped into Brian Huseman, an attorney with the FTC’s division of marketing practices. (ClickZ.com is ChannelSeven’s sister site.)

“I said ‘Oh, I’m supposed to talk to you,'” Ellis recalled. “He looked at my name tag and said, ‘Oh, we’re supposed to sue you.'”

As it turned out, the FTC was in the middle of a test of commercial email unsubscribe practices. The agency had added Date.com to a list of companies to investigate, as consumers complained that they couldn’t get off its lists.

Ellis confirmed the unsubscribe URL didn’t work. “No one had tested it.” He added that Huseman was very helpful, guiding Ellis through the process of making Date.com compliant.

At the same conference, Ellis met SpamCop’s Julian Haight, another email luminary who knew Date.com’s email practices all too well. Ellis worked out an arrangement with Haight to deal with complaints and avoid being blacklisted by ISPs.

Yet another horrifying discovery came when Ellis investigated the company’s affiliate program. He found it had run amok. Among the unsavory companies and individuals pushing Date.com’s services were a white supremacist and a child porn site. Ellis hastened to shut down the objectionable affiliates.

“All of this led me to understand a few basic rules,” Ellis said. “First, if you talk to people, they’re always willing to cooperate. Second, you have to respond to complaints. Every person who sends a complaint now gets a personal response from us. Third, you have to have a consistent advertising policy.”

Ellis implemented such a policy. It’s among the most thorough and ethical you’re likely to find among high-volume online marketers. The company maintains its white list status through ongoing relationships with the major portals. It keeps a suppression list of users’ requests not to be mailed, which it requires all brokerage firms to check against their lists. Date.com’s threshold for complaints is one per million. Above that and it terminates its relationship with a list brokerage.

While list rental remains an important part of Date.com’s marketing strategy, the company now relies on it less and spends more energy verifying the quality and freshness of its lists. The result is more effective campaigns, to the tune of a 20 percent increase in delivery rates over the past year.

“We’re relying less and less on the email model,” said Ellis. “It used to be the major part of our advertising, and now it’s at best 30 percent.”

The company replaced bloated list rental spending with online partnerships, offline advertising, and more proactive strategies for developing its brand and strengthening customer loyalty.

During a routine Web search, Ellis discovered a Yahoo group for Date.com members. A large number of them were planning to meet in Vegas for the marriage of two members who met on the site. The company sent its CEO and VP of marketing to throw a party for the happy couple.

This summer, the company sponsored a Date.com cruise.

Date.com undoubtedly faced setbacks while getting its ducks in a row. Turnarounds can be subject to the laws trial-and-error, and the sometimes murky ethics of email and list rental.

“There’s been a gray period in the last year,” said CEO Strahlberg. “Now I’d say we’re completely white. It’s been a long road, but it’s one we had to embark on.”

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