Trust or Regulation?

Lately the hot topics in digital marketing seem to be spam and privacy. Still, with all the talk, no one has really made the connection between the two, when there’s an important relationship between trust and email marketing.

True, ethical online advertising; the need for full disclosures about paid content; and paid search engine rankings and their role in consumer trust have been a frequent subject of debate. In fact, a recent survey for Consumer WebWatch found that only 29 percent of users trust Web sites selling products and services and only 33 percent trust sites giving advice about those items. Yet, that study also found that 80 percent of users say it’s very important to be able to trust information found on a Web site. And, in the case of online advertising, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has its own guide to ethical behaviors for Internet marketers to follow.

But how does email marketing fit into the picture?

We’ve all heard stories that illustrate how easily trust can be broken. And there have been attempts on the industry’s part to come up with ways to demonstrate that emails sent by companies are trustworthy, such as the Trusted Sender initiative by TRUSTe and ePrivacy Group. But how do we establish trust in the first place? How do we maintain it? How do we re-establish it once it has been broken? And why, as email marketers, should we even care?

The answer to that last question is the easy one. Whether we care enough to establish trusting relationships with our customers, someone else does.

Repeatedly, history has shown that you can create laws, but you can’t legislate morality. When Congress finally proposes new privacy laws (and it will), email marketers will lobby saying it will ruin their businesses, while antispam zealots will argue how necessary it is. The result will be a scenario that ultimately doesn’t satisfy anyone.

To avoid this coming conundrum, business leaders in the email marketing space can and should effectively change their behaviors before regulation is forced on them. It starts with building the trust of the consumer, whether or not that individual is a customer.

Let me say that I suspect most companies really don’t understand privacy issues. At best, most companies do only what they think the government may one day require. I attribute this to two factors:

  • Most marketers — including email marketers — truly don’t understand privacy issues, much less the role trust plays in them.

  • Most companies and email marketing organizations are still in the knee-jerk stage, which means they are reacting to problems (especially those that are privacy related), but only when they’re not focusing on building their databases, tracking responses, or figuring out how to acquire more email addresses.

By the way, marketers aren’t the only ones who deserve an admonition, because most antispam organizations (and even the consumers themselves) are also confused about their rights and responsibilities. And though I’m not a proponent of government regulation, there does ultimately need to be a clear definition to which all sides — not just the marketing companies that are currently being targeted — must adhere.

In the interim, companies conducting email marketing have to begin building trust with the people to whom they are sending their email. They have to put themselves in the recipient’s shoes. They have to develop and implement best practices by which they govern their email marketing programs — practices they would want for themselves if they were on the receiving end. And they have to provide disclosures that aren’t hidden or cloaked.

Etiquette, fairness, full disclosure, recourse, and honesty are the foundation for a relationship built on trust. They are the things we all want and the things that are lacking in many email communications.

In today’s scandal-filled society, in which “Enron” is becoming an adjective for corporate misconduct, email marketers need to be creative and innovative, yet they must do so without deceit. The company that adopts open practices won’t suffer when regulation is forced upon the industry and, until then, will enjoy a competitive advantage.

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