DM News' Essential Guide to E-Mail Marketing: The New Regulations and Realities of E-Mail

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The e-mail marketing landscape is changing. New regulatory mandates and best-practice rules arising from consumer expectations will change the way legitimate direct marketers use the medium.

The mandates come in two flavors. First are the regulations imposed by the Federal Trade Commission under the CAN-SPAM Act that prescribe ground rules for commercial e-mail. These include no false headers or misleading subject lines, the disclosure of a physical address, opt-out processing requirements and such.

Second are the self-regulations from the industry itself in the form of new e-mail authentication protocols, like Sender ID and DomainKeys Identified Mail, to ascertain the identity of e-mail senders.

Many direct marketers mistakenly assume that adherence to these regulations will be their silver bullet for solving their e-mail deliverability problem. Though non-adherence will result in greater delivery risk or even penalty, CAN-SPAM compliance and authentication are only the baseline tests of legitimacy and offer no guarantee that your messages will get through.

The regulations are only part of an accountability system where your reputation as a sender of e-mail will govern the acceptance and placement of your mail. So what will determine your reputation as a sender? Though it's far from certain how the specifics will play out, the main driver of reputation will be your level of customer satisfaction (complaint rate).

Thus, it's important to recognize that it's the customer who is in control. The customer will determine whether your messages are delivered, either directly through his desktop controls or indirectly through proxies, such as the Internet service providers.

This elevates the discussion of best practices to something approaching mandatory. While violating the regulations involves risk and penalty, violation of best practices could jeopardize your reputation, potentially bar you from use of the e-mail channel and even put your company's survival on the line.

There are many best practices - some technical, some not - but the ones that matter most revolve around the customer. They're grounded in proven DM principles and not new. Three interrelated best practice areas are key:

· Respect: showing respect for the customer's privacy, permission and preferences in all aspects of your e-mail marketing programs, including affiliate activities.

· Relevancy: delivering content consistent with the customer's preferences as expressed directly or implied by behavior and continually tuning that content to ensure relevancy based on customer feedback.

· Relationship: recognizing all interactions as important to brand perception and loyalty based on a holistic view of the customer relationship. In other words, take a customer-centric - not channel - approach, and don't do things in e-mail you wouldn't do elsewhere.

Of course, many details are associated with each of these areas. Nonetheless, they serve as reasonable benchmarks to evaluate all aspects of your e-mail marketing processes - data capture, database management, segmentation, messaging and analysis - and the infrastructure that supports them.

As the new realities of e-mail take hold, it's crucial that direct marketers assess their practices and make adjustments to ensure the satisfaction of their customers and safeguard their reputations.

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