Time to Clean Up the Neighborhood

Ever notice how so many people outside of our industry — friends, family members — think that email marketing is all about spam? It’s no wonder. Since most of us live and breathe in this space, I think that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that spam not just exists, it positively runs rampant.

Just go to your favorite pay-for-placement search engine (I won’t mention any names — to protect the innocent) and type in “email marketing.” Look at the self-styled “email marketing specialists” listed. The day I did my search, four of the top five were non-opt-in players. In fact, one was an “email extraction service” that claimed to allow you to “…EXTRACT targeted email addresses from newsgroups, Web pages, realtor databases, travel agents, classified ads, search engines, and more…”

Whoa! What??

Another on the hit list was a company that bragged about being the “#1 Bulk E-mail Service,” while another noted in its Web site’s sales copy that it had “some of the MOST TARGETED email lists out there,” and those lists could be broken down to 20 million… or even — wow, how about this — 5 million names. Now (insert sarcasm) that’s razor-sharp targeting!

Sheesh. No wonder I get at least 50 unsolicited commercial emails every day. These services make it easy for spammers to have plenty of opportunities (read: thousands, if not millions, of email addresses) to send emails to.

And these bulk services are paying good money to be on these pay-for-placement search engines — more than two bucks per click. (That’s $2,000 per thousand!) If they can afford to advertise at those rates, they must be getting plenty of business — which is disturbing, to say the least.

Well, let me tell you how all of this UCE — unsolicited commercial email, for the email newbies out there — has affected me and my company. (Because now that Ann is gone, it’s all about me, you know. Just kidding, Ann!)

Aside from the annoying daily spam, this problem has trickled down so far that it has now affected our email server as well. Our company’s Web and email servers are both provided by one very large and reputable hosting firm — one of the best out there. Last week, however, when some of our outbound messages to clients, vendors, etc., were suddenly getting returned to us with a “postmaster cannot deliver: email address does not exist” message, we realized something was amiss. After all, many of these recipients were folks who we’ve been emailing on a regular basis for months, or even years.

Turns out that one of our hosting company’s clients was sending out spam, and it got to the point where outside Internet service providers put our server on the you-know-what list. I don’t even want to begin to tell you how frustrating that was.

Of course, it can get even more troublesome than this. Entire servers can get shut down for days or even weeks from too many of these types of events. Many important messages may end up in the black hole of cyberspace. Slow messages, no messages… Not to mention the fact that we marketers who focus on sending out only 100 percent opt-in messages have the potential of being given a bad name — all because a few unsavory types can’t seem to grasp the concept of permission-based marketing.

So what can we do to help this growing problem? To start, join the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), which lobbies for legislation in this area. In fact, there is a bill on the table — S 630 — that proposes to outlaw spam, though its definitions of true spam are debatable. If this bill were to pass, opt-out commercial email would be allowed, meaning that any bulk spammer would still be able to send out messages en masse. It would also mean that the onus would be on recipients to remove themselves from the list if they don’t want to receive any more messages. Not a good way to go. And the penalty for not complying with all the rules pertaining to this proposed law would be paltry — a mere $10 per violation.

If you really want to get something done, write to your congressman and senator. According to CAUCE lobbyist Ray Everett-Church, “Far too many congressional offices are uninformed about Internet technology issues and don’t know that the massive explosion of unsolicited commercial email is even a problem.”

To find your U.S. congressperson, go to the House Web site and then mail your thoughts to The Honorable [representative’s name], Washington, DC 20515. For a list of senators by state, go to the Senate Web site and then send mail to The Honorable [senator’s name], Washington, DC 20510.

Yes, email addresses are listed on those sites, but if you really want to get something done, send them a letter by U.S. mail (chances are, a hard copy will be seen by more eyeballs). A few state senators, including those from New Jersey, Louisiana, Alaska, Connecticut, and Virginia, are cosponsors of S 630. Let them know that you’re opposed to opt-out and that S 630 in its current state will not solve the spam problem. Then email this article to others who may also have a vested interest in getting this legislation as strong as it can be before it is passed. We have more than 60,000 readers here on ClickZ — we can create quite the viral marketing campaign!

Seriously, guys, we need to get this bill revised. If not, things will only get worse. The only way that spam can ever be outlawed is via legislation that condones only opt-in messaging. Otherwise, it just won’t work.

So I’ll get off my soapbox now, but if you feel as strongly about this issue as I do (and if you’re active in this space, you really should), write that letter today!

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