Whatever Happened to Opt-In?

One of the perks of owning your own domain name is that you get to play games with email. The way my Hespos.com domain is set up, any email sent to the domain will be forwarded to my account, save for the aliases I’ve set up for other family members. As some of the more mischievous ClickZ readers might guess, having a boundless supply of email addresses has led me to experiment with how email lists get compiled, sold, and resold.

Have you ever deliberately misspelled your name when purchasing something through the mail, just so you could see how many organizations buy your information from a mail-order company? I have. I still get snail mail sent to “Tommy Hezpoz,” even though I last used that alias about four years ago.

With your own domain, it’s easy to play these games with email marketing companies and track who is selling what information to whom. With some of the privacy violations I’ve seen in action, it almost makes me want to abandon email marketing altogether. I’m not ready to do that just yet, but I think that some of the players in the email marketing space need to get their acts together before they give this business a worse reputation than it already has.

A few weeks ago, I was considering purchasing some software to manage advertising on one of my web sites. The software developer’s site had a tech-support area that required sign-in, so I gave the site my information (including “linuxgeek@hespos.com” as my email address) and checked the box that indicated I didn’t want to be contacted in the future.

Upon visiting the tech-support area, I found out that the software wasn’t compatible with my web server, so I bailed without purchasing. Next thing you know, I’m getting email newsletters that say, “You are receiving this because you registered for one of our services.” My unsubscribe requests are ignored, but at least the site hasn’t sold the alias — yet.

Not too long ago, a well-known email marketing company sold one of my clients on an email marketing campaign. As any responsible marketer would, I asked to be added to the seed list so I could see the mailing as it went out to the targeted audiences we selected. Somehow, my seed list name made it on to the list itself, so now I get barraged by newsletters on topics in which I am not at all interested. It makes you wonder where all the other names on the list came from, even though the names are claimed to be “double opt-in.”

A few months ago, a fellow dot-com worker confessed to me that his web site has been flagrantly violating its own privacy policy since the market took a dive. At on-site events in shopping malls, this site collects email addresses from young people who are interested in receiving special offers from the site. In this do-or-die market crunch, the email addresses are sold to credit card companies and other direct marketers within days.

Since I purchased the Hespos.com domain, I’ve enjoyed tracking where the various aliases end up. As someone who rarely signs up for newsletters or “more information” because of my swelling email inbox box, I do manage to get a lot of spam. I now hesitate to do business with a lot of online companies that have been violating their own privacy policies. I imagine many tech-savvy online users also feel the same way and are probably aware of the companies that are less than scrupulous in their dealings with customers via email.

What’s a media buyer to do? One doesn’t want to necessarily throw out the email marketing baby with the proverbial bath water. Email marketing does work, but some of the potential negative consequences are downright scary.

Before advertising on an email list, you should sign up for it yourself. See how you are treated as a member of the community before you become an advertiser. If your email address is sold without your permission, avoid doing business with the seller.

It might be necessary in the future to safeguard your clients by getting email sellers to agree to discount the price of the campaign if complaints rise above a certain level. Every netizen who responds to your commercial message with “Hey, I didn’t sign up for this list” is someone who has labeled you as a spammer. Since many Internet users go out of their way to avoid doing business with spammers, this has great potential to be a detriment to your client’s brand.

Whatever your connection to email marketing might be, it’s obvious that we all need to pay attention to where email addresses are coming from these days. Be extra vigilant, particularly while so many young Internet companies are struggling to stay above water.

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