Spam: The ISP Solution

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
–George Santayana

I don’t claim to have achieved the wisdom of my forefathers, but I’ve worked long enough in media to have learned from past mistakes. As the year ends, my thoughts (and wishes) turn to a simple, clear solution for the uppermost problem for media and ISP powerhouses over the past 12 months: spam.

Connecting Buyers and Sellers: A History Lesson

Let’s start with history. Our economy is built on a basic premise: Sellers must understand buyers’ needs and develop products or services to serve those needs.

Sellers price their products/services high enough to cover the production and distribution costs, plus make a profit. Profits allow sellers to benefit from their investment in time and resources. The challenge is to do a better job anticipating needs, building awareness, and, ultimately, influencing preference and purchase.

Many media outlets provide content or environments attractive to buyers. Advertising is often needed to support media. In return for their investment, advertisers reach the audience that congregates around the content. Media, whether TV, radio, print, outdoor, or Internet portal, have a common objective: audience development. Millions are spent creating and promoting content designed to attract and retain an audience of potential buyers, who in turn are offered to advertisers.

Having held managerial sales positions in a variety of media, I know daily meetings are held in sales war rooms to strategize the value proposition of these “environments.” Advertisers gladly pay to reach valuable consumers, regardless of medium. If they don’t have the money? Access Denied.

When the Internet emerged as another medium serving as a congregation point for buyers, there was little difference. I was involved in building a leading technology and shopping portal and in business decisions behind the development of its value proposition: audience and environment. Access to these was central to the strategy. When ad revenue surpassed expenses for maintaining that environment, we succeeded.

Some of the largest ad environments today include AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, which happen to be the leading ISPs/email service providers (ESPs). These brands sell access to their audiences through an elaborate offering of banners, buttons, sponsorships, and skyscraper units across their environments. Those who don’t have the budget or won’t follow the guidelines regarding appropriate advertising… Access Denied.

Media and ISPs establish financial barriers between marketers and their audiences.

Why E-Mail Is So Different

Spam proliferates primarily due to one factor: It’s almost free. Why don’t banner ads promote the dilemma of a certain Nigerian monarch on Yahoo? A financial barrier eliminates the most common, annoying, and/or deceptive advertising: spam.

Where we can take email in the future? ISPs are private networks. They have full control of their environments and won’t loosen the reigns. They have the power to change the current system.

ISPs sort of get it, yet don’t. They understand email’s value. They’ve created mini “environments” in their email sections, featuring ads right alongside the messages in email accounts.

E-mail is the most common online activity. Inboxes are where people can be found. Is a banner ad by your mailbox spam? ISPs would say no. Advertisers paid to be there. They overcame a financial barrier. They support the environment by adhering to guidelines.

Why aren’t there similar email rules, requirements, consumer control, and protection? ISPs/ESPs have always assumed a consumer advocacy position: If our customers think it’s spam, it’s spam. Sensitive to consumer preferences, ISPs have invested millions in filters, anti-spam products and services designed to stem the spam tide.

The opportunity and power to create a business solution to solving spam exists. The focus must be addressing the problem, not building “solutions” that only attempt to control the result.

What If?

What if ISPs reexamined and restated email rules? New rules would include an enhanced version of today’s whitelist policy to cover messaging requirements/components, opt-out policies, identity verification, problem resolution, and more.

What if there were a reasonable and real financial barrier to accessing the email environment? What if 90 percent of spam were eliminated because it simply didn’t follow the rules or wasn’t financially feasible?

The impact and power of the federal CAN-SPAM legislation is not whether it will control or eliminate spam but the ability to set minimum rules. CAN-SPAM will drive consumers, ISPs, marketers, and the industry to act and think more about “what ifs” and to reexamine past lessons. Perhaps what’s needed is a “business solution” to spam.

I began discussing a commercial spam solution with Yahoo and AOL leaders back in 2002 and with the media earlier this year. The time to act is now. There’s momentum on all fronts: legislation (CAN-SPAM), whitelisting (AOL enhanced-whitelisting program), and technology (Yahoo’s Domain Keys program).

But we’ve yet to address the business or commercial opportunities. Economic enforcement, a financial barrier, may be the strongest weapon in the anti-spam arsenal.

What if we viewed email as we do all other media? Let’s think about this medium as we think about others. Access Granted!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Till next time,

Al D.

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