Editorial: Way to Go, EarthLink

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Atlanta-based Internet service provider EarthLink is in the midst of a disingenuous campaign that takes the fear-selling tactic to new heights.

Maybe you've seen the spot. Using special effects, it shows a constantly changing person going through a series of everyday activities and, as a result, remaining anonymous. The voiceover goes like this:

"They are watching you. Compiling your information. Invading your privacy. At EarthLink, we would never do that. We just provide the totally anonymous Internet."

Imagine the brainstorming session that hatched that one:

"OK, Bob, we've got to come up with a pitch for EarthLink. What are our unique value propositions?"

"Oh, Susan, I don't know. Reliability?"

"Nope. They've all got that."

"Inexpensive subscription rates? Unique member services?"

"Nope. EarthLink's competitors all have those, too. Think, Bob. What is the one angle we can take to differentiate ourselves from every other ISP on the planet?"

"Hmmm. Hey! I know! We can capitalize on unwarranted mass hysteria over a nonissue and imply a promise we can't possibly deliver! Let's scare the hell out of them with an ominous campaign that plays on their privacy fears!"

"Brilliant thinking, Bob! Privacy is such a sexy political topic, after all. And groupthink in Washington has people coming completely unraveled over it. I can picture it now ... delivering the anonymous Web ..."

A Feb. 26 press release announcing the campaign included the subhead: "Underscoring the concept of a totally anonymous Internet, EarthLink's new TV spot aims to raise public awareness about the level of privacy protection ISPs offer."

"Our message -- and a key point of differentiation -- is that EarthLink is not in the business of exploiting its subscribers' personal data," Claudia Caplan, vice president of brand marketing at EarthLink, said in the release. "Such practices fly directly in the face of the real Internet experience that is the cornerstone of our branding campaign."

Fair enough.

But whatever one's stand is on privacy, EarthLink -- which now claims 4.8 million subscribers -- can't possibly deliver the Internet anonymously. The second an EarthLink subscriber completes an online retail transaction with, say, Amazon.com or CDNow, the issue -- i.e., subscriber's name, address and transaction type -- is out of EarthLink's hands and into the hands of the retailer, which presumably will act according to its privacy policy.

It's one thing to make the questionable business decision to pledge never to share personally identifiable information with other businesses. It's quite another for a business to imply it can deliver an anonymous experience online when it can't.

Has it occurred to the lunkheads who approved this campaign that maybe vowing never to trade in names and addresses is one of the reasons Web retailers have been failing?

It's certainly a move that, while politically correct, proved shortsighted in the case of Toysmart.com, the defunct retailer that attempted to sell a customer database it had vowed to keep to itself. Has it occurred to the folks at EarthLink that if enough online marketing initiatives fail, EarthLink's subscribers will have fewer reasons to use the service?

Just a thought.

The Internet is a direct marketing medium. Direct Marketing 101 says the best way to predict buying behavior is to know past buying behavior. And that means trading in names, addresses and transactional information. So far, not one whiz-bang piece of offer-targeting technology online has replaced this tenet with anything better than pitching in context, something we can do with magazines.

Marketers trying to do business on the Internet have endured countless finger-wagging lectures in the media and at conferences over the common business practice of trading in consumers' "personal" information. Meanwhile, other than isolated tales of telemarketing harassment and identity theft (which is a security, not a privacy, issue), and some unwanted mail, there is still little or no evidence that trading names and numbers is harmful - certainly none that outweighs the economic benefits of the free flow of information.

Now, as if marketers haven't enough hurdles online, EarthLink is implying it can protect consumers from the privacy bogeyman. This campaign should be spiked immediately.

• We welcome your views, opinions, news tips and questions - by phone to 212/925-7300, Ext. 220; by mail to iMarketing News, 100 Avenue of the Americas, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10013; by fax to 212/925-8754; or by e-mail to ken@imarketingnews.com. Letters to the editor must be accompanied by a daytime telephone number and may be edited for space.


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