Trade Group Splintering Could Hinder Lead Gen Self-Regulation

In December 2006, Perspectiv CEO Jere Doyle ditched the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Lead Generation Committee and joined the lesser-known Online Lead Generation Association, which plans to vote this week on new board member nominees, including Doyle. He was fed up with the IAB’s “lack of movement” on developing standards for the growing industry sector.

Since then neither organization has been particularly prolific at producing specific guidelines for advertisers or establishing standards all members can agree on. Considering the continued advertiser interest in lead gen, and an ongoing Federal Trade Commission investigation into lead gen firms, the sector could use a little unity.

“It would be silly to have some kind of rivalry between OLGA and the IAB,” said Doyle. Still, because OLGA by its nature is focused on lead generation, he believes it will raise the presence of lead gen more so than the broader-reaching IAB has.

But the IAB and its Lead Generation Committee have been particularly attentive to the sector in recent months. In March, the committee published a Marketer and Agency Guide to Lead Quality, and in August it published its Lead Generation Data Transfer Best Practices. Last month the IAB itself challenged lead gen advertisers to adopt those data transfer practices by April 2008. The guidelines call for encryption of lead generation data when transferred, and the use of a common, secure platform for doing so.

“I thought they were great,” said OLGA Board Chairman and Opt-Intelligence CEO Dan Felter of the IAB’s data transfer guidelines. In fact, OLGA plans to incorporate them into its upcoming proposed “Preferred Practices” for lead gen. The group already has published guidelines for “success” with co-registration campaigns on its site, in addition to a list of five relatively brief “Guidelines for Online Lead Generation” dealing with consumer opt-out mechanisms, incentive-based offers and publisher transparency.

The IAB refers to its also-brief page of Lead Generation Best Practices as “a very high-level approach to lay the foundation for ethical practice in lead generation.” Like OLGA’s guidelines, the practices cover consumer-focused issues like disclosure regarding data usage and consumer consent, in addition to lead quality.

IAB Lead Generation Committee Chair Gayle Guzzardo defended the pace of standards development by the group, noting the IAB Lead Quality Guide was conceived of and published in a three month span.

“I would prefer for us all to be unified,” said the IAB’s Guzzardo, also SVP, product management at Q Interactive. She added she doesn’t think there’s any feud between the two groups.

Yet some are concerned about separate industry groups gunning to represent the same market. In a letter penned to ClickZ on the topic of standards in lead generation, Q Interactive President and CEO Matt Wise called on lead generation marketers to unite under the IAB.

“Rather than splinter off into factions, I invite all parties to join with the IAB to discuss their concerns and establish a clear, unified path for the online lead generation category to move forward and prosper,” he wrote.

Currently, OLGA lists 38 members on its site, including Return Path, EarthLink, Monster and Tickle; others are pending, according to the group. The IAB’s Lead Generation Committee has 45 members according to the IAB Web site, including 24/7 Real Media, AOL, and Yahoo’s Blue Lithium. A handful, including Azoogle Ads, Motive Interactive and SendTec belong to both groups.

In light of the FTC’s investigation of the industry and heightened awareness of the potential for privacy infringement, the lead gen industry could do without the in-fighting, effort redundancies and muddled guidelines that can arise when multiple trade groups seek to serve the same purposes.

The FTC is inspecting online lead generation practices, particularly misleading techniques offering free merchandise in exchange for providing personal data. Indeed, a member of the IAB committee, ValueClick, is one company the FTC has looked into as part of the broader investigation.

“We want to regulate ourselves before the government does,” said Guzzardo, noting the committee will focus more on improving lead generation’s reputation among consumers and the government. Its data transfer guidelines for securing consumer data were a first step, and publisher best practices are on their way in two to three months, she added.

“If consumers don’t want to select lead generation offers anymore because they’ve been burned in the past, that would be the worst thing for the category,” said Guzzardo.

A lack of consensus within each group could be holding them back from devising clear and more specific standards for lead gen advertising. For instance, when the IAB Lead Generation Committee unveiled its data transfer guidelines, only 22 of the 45 committee members endorsed them. And when the IAB called for lead gen advertisers to adopt them by next spring, just 13 committee members endorsed the document.

“I can’t say why some committee members didn’t endorse the document,” Guzzardo told ClickZ News. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t agree with the document.”

Common ground could be found, though. Now, some members of each group cite data reselling and lead arbitrage as the biggest concerns they’d like addressed. Whether they’ll be able to agree on best practices even within their own organizations, however, remains to be seen.

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