Yahoo!’s New Options

Yahoo reminded registered users this week that it had automatically opted them in for marketing a year and a half ago — even if they had previously opted out. Those who have not yet done so have until December 31 to reset their preferences, the company said in an email to registered users, before they begin getting commercial messages from the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

The move has been in the works since March 2002, when Yahoo changed its account options from a single yes/no on marketing to a list of 13 categories, each with its own yes or no preference. At the same time it changed its privacy policies, Yahoo also said it “reset” users’ marketing preferences to yes on all thirteen, which included not only email but also the postal and telemarketing channels.

The move got New York’s bulldog attorney general Elliott Spitzer on its case. The AG launched an investigation of Yahoo’s marketing practices that ended in October, with a settlement in which the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based portal paid $75,000 to cover the cost of the investigation and agreed not to telemarket to customers who had opted out of marketing before the policy change. Yahoo also agreed to give 30 days notice before changing its marketing policies, giving users links to either opt out or cancel their accounts.

According to a company spokesperson, on that fateful day in March of 2002, the company did indeed automatically opt in all users. It also notified them of this move, so that they could reset their preferences. However, Yahoo did not actually start marketing to those users it had re-opted in, pending the results of the AG’s investigation.

Now, Yahoo is about to pull the marketing trigger. In an email sent yesterday to registered users who had opted out of receiving marketing communications, the company reminded them that it had warned them in March 2002 that it would begin sending messages about all its own categories of products and services. The change only affects those users who had said no to the binary question and never went back to opt out of the 13-item checklist. Customers who did respond to the 2002 email by opting out to each item won’t have their preferences re-set.

But this time, Yahoo has let stand opt-outs for snail mail and telemarketing, as part of its agreement with the State of New York.

The ability to market new products to its users is key to Yahoo’s being able to leverage its reach across channels. The company has, for example, built a vast array of small business-oriented services and would benefit by cross-promoting new services to existing customers. The preferences page, subdivided by 13 different subject areas, will allow Yahoo to better determine who might be interested in its new offerings. Users can select whether they’re interested in receiving information from Yahoo about things like “travel specials and exclusive deals,” “managing personal finances,” “entertainment, games and sports,” or “finding a job or an employee,” among other things.

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