As Show Opens, E-Mail Leadership Still Unresolved

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One of the biggest stories to come out of this year's first Association for Interactive Media's Council for Responsible Email held in Seattle last February, was their ability to push through six resolutions establishing a basic set of e-mail marketing guidelines.


As marketers make their way to Boston next week for the fall Net.Marketing Conference, on Sept. 24-26, the CRE faces a new question: whether it can, or even wants to, maintain its role as the e-mail marketing industry's unifying body. The conference comes at an ideal time to address the matter.


While the CRE spent most of the year educating marketers through a series of e-mail seminars, in which the Seattle resolutions were a featured component, two e-mail groups emerged over the summer seeking to establish themselves as influential industry committees. As recently as last week, those two groups -- the Responsible Electronic Communications Alliance and the E-mail Standards Working Group -- met to discuss the possibility of merging.


The CRE is the oldest of the three groups, the only one with a meaningful track record, and has more than 50 members, according to AIM. But at least a few of those members are participating in one or both of the new committees.


The new groups advocate the development of more voluntary standards that address core e-mail concerns such as database marketing and prospecting. They also are looking at forming special councils to focus on customer retention, government affairs and the like.


"The issue on everyone's mind is opt-in," said a member of one of the new groups, who asked that her name be withheld. In a controversial move at the February meeting in Seattle, the CRE tabled proposals to include an endorsement of opt-in policies. "That's where we have to move toward," the member said. She and some other members of the same committee thought AIM/CRE would not take the step of actually endorsing an opt-in platform.


John Lawlor, president of EmailChannel, Boca Raton, FL, serves as co-chairman at the CRE. He also has sat in on some conference calls that the other e-mail groups have held. According to Lawlor, the new groups owe CRE credit for establishing a starting point.


"I think a lot of this did start with AIM earlier this year putting the guidelines together," he said. "It took us nine months at AIM to agree on the guidelines. They are a really solid floor and a solid beginning that got people thinking. And they still are the only guidelines out there."


The CRE's six resolutions said marketers should not falsify the sender's domain name, use a false or misleading subject line, or harvest e-mail names for bulk mailings. Marketers should inform e-mail registrants of what their addresses would be used for and should include unsubscribe options in the e-mails. In the final resolution, the CRE simply went on record against unsolicited commercial e-mail.


While no one denies the role AIM/CRE played in bringing the e-mail community together, there is still the question of whether it will continue to function as its chief standard-setting council.


Ben Isaacson, AIM's executive director, said the CRE's main focus has not been maintaining its stature as the industry's premier agenda-setting group.


"As far as the e-mail space goes, we view the work our council is doing as our principal effort," he noted. "If there's going to be a standard set up that we can endorse, then we'll be happy to listen to it and evaluate it and work with it. But right now we're looking at a number of different things."


Isaacson said one of the CRE's top goals since Seattle has been education and getting the resolutions out in front of the industry. AIM has presented the CRE guidelines to the Direct Marketing Association ethics committee, the DMA board of directors, Capitol Hill legislators and marketers across the country.


"We have educated thousands of Internet marketers who had not [yet] gotten their feet wet in the e-mail space," Isaacson said. "We are the ones defining not just the terminology that they are learning but the practices that they are going to go back to their companies and implement."


Regarding AIM/CRE's connection to the DMA, which some AIM members have decried in the past, Isaacson said the relationship allows for more opportunities to educate traditional direct marketers.


"We are working with the DMA, and [its members] are the ones we are principally educating on this issue," he said. This is no easy task, Isaacson quipped. "They have an incredible number of people who are set in their ways and [are] just figuring out ways to maximize Internet marketing," he said.


In addition, the CRE will roll out the first of a series of in-depth e-mail marketing case studies at the DMA's annual conference this fall. These case studies are meant to serve as examples of best practices that "real" e-mail marketers have performed, Isaacson said. Topics will include customer acquisition, managing house files and list rental revenue.
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