Can search engines reform the DM industry?

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Let's face it, we direct marketers have a heck of a reputation issue to deal with. Sorry to be blunt about this, but millions of Americans think the DM industry is populated by underhanded data-mongers who don't care a whit about privacy and practice deception on a daily basis.

And, who can blame them? People are outraged only because there's so much outrageous conduct in this industry. Case in point: Last night I opened an official looking letter containing a “check” for $8,000 made out to me. After inspecting this document for about 20 seconds, I finally found the tiny, almost illegible “This is Not a Check” statement printed on the very bottom.

I wasn't fooled, but what if you're a senior citizen with poor eyesight or high blood pressure? This phony mailing might not just fool you — it might kill you! Unfortunately, this kind of conduct happens everyday, and nobody — not the DMA, the post office, nor the FTC — seems to have the power to stop it. Should it surprise any of us that the public is furiously clamoring for do-not-track, do not e-mail, and do-not-mail laws?

Attention-getting deceptive tactics, whether illegal, unethical, or just plain annoying, are as much a problem online as they are with traditional direct mail. Online spammers, scammers, phishers, spyware-installers and other bottom-feeders infest cyberspace. Self-regulation doesn't work in this Wild West environment because the bad guys don't care about their reputations: Their only interest is to rake in the bucks via any means necessary and, if and when they're busted, they simply set up shop under another name.

Search marketing, on the other hand, provides a good working example of a direct marketing medium that actually self-regulates fairly well. Google and the other engines have a real stake in their marketplaces being perceived as safe places to do business. Sure, they can't guarantee that the destinations for their paid search ads are 100% safe, but they try to police both paid and organic areas so that the bad guys (either SEO spammers or deceptive advertisers) get caught sooner or later.

The kind of policing practiced by search engines isn't perfect, but it's a lot more effective than what the offline direct marketing industry has to offer. Not because organizations such as the DMA don't try to promulgate rules for ethical behavior, but because it's just a voluntary organization without the power to punish those who aren't members (and most of the bottom-feeders aren't). To market on search engines, however, compliance with ethical practices isn't optional, it's mandatory; you either play by the rules or get thrown out of the marketplace, and that's exactly the way real marketplaces have to work.

Many have criticized the proposed merger of Google and Doubleclick because of anti-competitive and anti-privacy concerns. Consequently, the deal already has run into heavy opposition in the EU, and few expect that it will be automatically green-lighted in the US

Having too much power in one place is certainly a scary thought, and I'd be the last one to defend anti-competitive behavior. But, one can also argue that a combined Google-DoubleClick entity might provide a real advance for direct marketers because it would extend Google's well-policed marketplace throughout the Web.

Well-policed marketplaces are essential institutions and the search engines have shown us how they can work. They aren't perfect, but they provide a working model that all of us in the DM industry should look to as we evolve our industry beyond its bottom-feeding roots. Deception and unethical practices will never go away completely, but the more they are minimized, the faster this industry will earn back trust from consumers and proceed to its rightful place at the marketing table.

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