Essential.com Touts TPS in Online Campaign

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The Direct Marketing Association might have a new culprit to blame for the recent rapid growth of its Telephone Preference Service. Essential.com, a marketer of telephone, utility and Internet services, recently said it has been getting 8,000 to 15,000 requests a day from consumers who respond to the company's online advertising banners promoting the ability to be removed from telemarketers' phone lists. Since the campaign began in December, an estimated 250,000 people have asked Essential.com to send them the DMA's form to request that their names be added to the TPS, the DMA's national "do-not-call" list.


The campaign serves multiple functions for Essential.com. It is a database-building tool, a means to slow down its competition and a way to build its own pro-consumer image.


"We are consumer advocates, and we want to appear in that light," said Julianne Augustine, manager of business development at Essential.com. "You don't even have to sign up for anything. Hopefully we will win credibility by saving [consumers] from those calls."


The strategy also could help the company reduce competition from other long-distance providers, such as AT&T or MCI, that use telemarketing to sell their own long-distance products. Essential.com's Web site also states that the spread of utility deregulation will increase the volume of telemarketing.


The "Get off of telemarketing lists" banners are being displayed through major Web portals, on America Online and certain value-oriented Web sites and through ad networks like DoubleClick and Flycast. The campaign is scheduled to continue for another two months.


Consumers who click on the banners are asked to fill out a brief survey on telemarketing. When they submit the survey, they are shown the results and then asked if they would like to be removed from the phone lists of "more than 1,000 telemarketers." They are asked to submit their name, address, phone number and e-mail address and told to expect the TPS kit in about three weeks.


Marsha Goldberger, director of ethics and consumer affairs at the DMA, said that she had not yet seen the promotion, but that she will investigate to make sure it does not misrepresent the TPS. She said other organizations have used the TPS as a marketing tool, although the DMA has a policy not to accept bulk requests from third parties.


"We've had some problems before," she said.


In some instances, organizations have charged consumers a fee, even though the DMA provides the service for free.


Goldberger said she questioned Essential.com's promise that consumers can be removed from the lists of 1,000 major telemarketers, saying that many of the companies that use the TPS are service bureaus that do telemarketing on behalf of multiple marketers.


Augustine said she was not certain how Essential.com arrived at the "1,000" figure.


Meanwhile, Essential.com in late February began a direct mail campaign to the people who asked to receive the TPS kits.


"We may market them with a direct check, but we'll never market via phone," Augustine said.

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