Best Practices for the End of Spam

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Even reasonable estimates indicate that the average American consumer sees about 1 million ads per year - and that number is increasing. In addition to all the traditional channels -- television, direct mail, magazines, billboards -- marketers have added the Web, e-mail and other interactive media to their arsenal.


Consumers are overwhelmed by all these messages, resulting in two phenomena.


The first is what Seth Goldin in his book, "Permission Marketing," calls the "attention crisis." Consumers learn to tune out messages, requiring marketers to work harder and spend more to get consumers' attention. This naturally leads to a cycle in which consumers get even better at tuning out the messages and so marketers work even harder and spend even more.


The second result is a strong backlash again spam and other unwanted messages. Consumers are so overwhelmed, an uninvited marketing message can be construed as an invasion of their privacy. A company that is accused of spam can become subject to having its messages blocked by being placed on Mail Abuse Prevention System's Realtime Blackhole List (www.mailabuse.org) or a similar list that many systems use to filter spam automatically. Worse, a company accused of spam can find its e-mail servers bombarded by anti-spam activists, and can possibly suffer legal liability in 14 different states.


Leading marketers have responded by adopting permission-based marketing. What is permission-based marketing? In our view, it means: "You tell me how you want to be contacted and I remember to always treat you that way."


With this working definition, permission-based marketing becomes a subset of one-to-one marketing, developed by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, in which organizations develop learning relationships with customers. The company discovers and remembers how each customer wants to interact with it and then personalizes communications and products to reflect each individual's preferences.


In permission-based marketing, companies seek and obtain permission to enter into a long-term marketing relationship with customers. Each subsequent message is a friendly and relevant communication and is therefore an anticipated message from a valued acquaintance. And we all know that we are more likely to respond to a message from a friend than one from an anonymous marketer.


So how can your company take advantage of the benefits of permission-based marketing? Some of the key requirements implied by the definition and adopted by leading marketers are outlined below. It's useful to think of these requirements as best practices of permission-based marketing.


* Capture individual customer preferences. A permission-based relationship cannot begin if your company is unable to identify individuals and capture their preferences. Whenever you send them an e-mail based on preferences, be sure to include a personalized link that will take them directly to a Web page, so they can make changes easily.


* Capture detailed preferences. Many companies have started to collect opt-in and opt-out information about types of offers and messages customers would like to see. That's a good start, but you should also ask over which channels they would like to receive the information (e-mail, direct mail, pager, telephone, etc.), in what format (HTML vs. text, for example), how often, and at what times and dates. You may not want to overwhelm a new customer by collecting all this information initially. Instead, consider collecting it over time as part of improving the permission-based relationship.


* Verify customer preferences. A recent study by Shop.org found that 60 percent of surfers have given false information to companies when filling out online forms. A smaller percentage have given out someone else's contact information without their permission, either as a joke or vindictively. Finally, many customers with common e-mail addresses are inadvertently registered by others with similar addresses. Make sure you verify all requests and changes by sending a message to consumers and having them confirm explicitly that the change is correct.


* Update customer preferences with minimal delay. Once a customer tells you not to contact him or her anymore (and verifies the change), you shouldn't contact him or her anymore. Not only is it bad customer relationship management, it can also have legal ramifications and result in financial fines.


Unfortunately, there is often a delay between when a customer updates his or her preferences and when the information is loaded into your database. In the case of direct mail or telemarketing, the delay is less important because there are service bureaus that can automatically match your list against a "do not mail/do not call" database to make sure those customers are excluded. In the case of e-mail and interactive channels such as the Web, however, there is often no middleman and the delay must be eliminated or minimized. The only way to guarantee 100 percent accuracy here is to integrate your campaign management and e-mail systems tightly with a customer preference database that is updated with minimal delay, and eventually in real time.


* Ensure that your campaign management software can enforce customer preferences. When a customer has told you how he or she wishes to be contacted, always conform to those preferences, regardless of content matter, touch point or channel. This enforcement should happen reliably, easily and automatically in your campaign management and e-mail system itself, ensuring that all messages, regardless of who creates them, are consistent with your policies around permission-based marketing.


Leaders in permission-based marketing will identify customers' preferences and needs, maintain that information and make use of it in their communications to ensure that every message from the company is not an interruption to be tuned out, but a valued message from a trusted relationship. The results will likely be dramatic increases in response rates and profitability, and most important, significantly improved customer relationships.
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