Firm Aims to Be E-Mail's NCOA

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New York-based Internet company ActiveNames is quietly trying to become the first national change of address service of the e-mail world.


Launched earlier this year, ActiveNames employs a two-pronged business model that seeks to provide businesses with NCOA-like services for e-mail and consumers with software that gives them an automatic way to notify their family, friends and other important contacts every time they change their home or business e-mail addresses.


"Our vision is to become the e-mail change of address service for businesses and consumers," said Brad Shapiro, vice president of marketing and business development at ActiveNames.


In May, the company signed its first customer, and a high-profile one at that: Fingerhut.com, the e-commerce division of Fingerhut, Minnetonka, MN. And on the consumer side, ActiveNames this week plans to launch an updated version of its free, downloadable program -- Email Tracking Server -- that would give its users even greater control of how and to whom their new e-mail addresses are disclosed.


The consumer component is an incentive designed to attract names into its system. ActiveNames will live or die based on its ability to sell its e-mail address verification services to marketers. For a sliding-scale fee, ActiveNames will track and upgrade a business's e-mail lists.


"Businesses use it to check their names against our database of e-mail addresses and clean up and update their lists," Shapiro said. The service is almost identical to the function of NCOA, which is administered by the U.S. Postal Service and then licensed out to some two dozen vendors, including direct marketers like Acxiom, Experian and ClientLogic.


Fingerhut.com was sold on ActiveNames for the ability to keep in e-mail contact with customers.


"The number of bouncebacks we receive is concerning," said John Hunsicker, vice president of database marketing at Fingerhut.com, without providing specific numbers. "It is a real and growing problem as e-mail becomes more central to our operation. We encourage our users to notify us whenever their e-mail address changes but that does not always happen." ActiveNames could at the very least begin to ensure that Fingerhut.com maintains its current contacts. As for being able to comb though the ActiveNames files a la the NCOA, however, it might take a bit more time before the database is large enough to accommodate that kind of function.


As of mid-June, the ActiveNames consumer database consisted of "hundreds of thousands" of e-mail names, Shapiro said. The company, which has done no consumer marketing to date, is counting heavily on its clients to help build up name bank. ActiveNames is also speaking with e-mail outsourcers to try to get them to promote the service as a complementary product.


In touting a service that not only keeps track of changes to consumers' e-mail names, but also passes the new addresses along, ActiveNames is sitting square in the center of the spam issue. Accordingly, it has a different approach for each side of its business.


ActiveNames gives consumers a choice about how to update their contacts when they have changed e-mail addresses. The users can select automatic update, which gives the new address to every person who sends an e-mail to the old address, or a manual update, in which ActiveNames informs the users of the people or businesses trying to reach them. With the manual setting, the user can pick and choose who receives the new address. The software is also equipped to detect and prevent bulk e-mails from coming through its network, Shapiro said.


For its change of address services, ActiveNames would automatically turnover the new e-mail address for the client's customers. In these cases the onus is on the marketer to have a legitimate unsubscribe policy and the consumer -- if he or she so wishes -- to use that option.


ActiveNames belongs to the DMA, AIM and the Council for Responsible E-mail and is only looking to work with reputable marketers, Shapiro said. There is a safeguard in place, however.


"If a company is a legitimate marketer today but tomorrow decides not to put any opt-out in their e-mails, we control that company's access to our centralized database and what we'll do is cut them off," he said.
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