*MAPS, Marketers, ISPs Seek Consensus on Opt-In E-Mail Marketing
These are questions underlying the debate among marketers, anti-spam advocates and Internet service providers in courtrooms, boardrooms, conference calls, seminars and the op-ed pages of industry publications. At the core of the debate, the marketing side is arguing its right to determine its own policies for establishing e-mail relationships with online consumers, while the anti-spam and ISP camps are asserting their rights, as owners of the systems that distribute e-mail, to set their own rules for e-mail traffic on those networks.
So far, there are few moderates in this quarrel. Name-calling, blacklisting, spamming, mail-bombing and lawsuits are commonplace. Beyond the passion, though, is a serious debate over how to reach a consensus on permission and implement it.
The terms double opt-in and verified opt-in have been used interchangeably. But there are critical differences.
Verified opt-in, said Tony Priore, vice president of marketing at yesmail.com, is a broad policy where "there is some kind of verification that authenticates the name you are getting and eliminates the potential for fraudulent registration."
Contrary to popular belief, verified opt-in does not necessarily require the user to respond to a subscription confirmation e-mail.
Those arguing in favor of verified opt-in -- and that includes anti-spam group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC -- point out that this procedure can take many forms, with the controversial double opt-in being only one of them. Other ways to authenticate a registration include credit card and digital certificate verifications, as well as e-mail encryption solutions suggested by MAPS.
"We believe the industry, on the acquisition side, will move to some kind of verified opt-in protocol," Priore said.
Meanwhile, double opt-in, according to Rosalind Resnick, chairman/CEO of NetCreations, is "the process by which an Internet user comes to a Web site and checks a box next to a topic of interest, enters his e-mail address, then receives and replies to an e-mail message confirming his subscription to the list."
It is also a surefire way for companies to protect themselves from being accused of spamming. For instance, Responsys.com, an e-mail marketing services provider, does not force its clients to implement a double opt-in protocol on existing customer databases. When those clients want to use Responsys' products to acquire new e-mail names, however, the company requires double opt-in permission.
This is done, according to Anand Jagannathan, president/CEO of Responsys, to help prevent "problems down the road."
David Sorkin, a law professor and associate director at the Center for Information Technology & Privacy Law at The John Marshall Law School, said a double opt-in policy is a wise safeguard, even though there are no laws regarding the verification of opt-in requests.
"The risk of being held liable for sending e-mail to people who haven't opted in could be a sufficient inducement to use a double opt-in system even if it wasn't specifically required," Sorkin said.
Still, many marketers have deep objections to the duplication of correspondence that double opt-in policies require.
"Why ask someone to sign up again after they have already decided to sign up?" asked Ian Oxman, president of e-mail marketing firm ChooseYourMail.com and co-founder of the anti-spam organization Spam Recycling Center. "If the marketer gains true permission with full disclosure, the double opt-in process becomes a total disservice to the registrant."
Oxman said he views double opt-in as a "back-end tactic" that would not be needed if marketers' front-end collection of names involved an honest and open dialogue about what the information is used for and who might have access to it.
What's more, opponents of the policy resent the threats and actions against those who have not or will not bow to double opt-in demands.
"You try to be professional about things and then someone comes along and carelessly dismisses your entire business," said the vice president of a small e-mail marketing firm, who asked that his name be withheld. "It would be funny if it wasn't so serious."
Paul Vixie, founder and managing member at MAPS, has said lists that were not built with a minimum of unconfirmed opt-in permission should be thrown away. The tone of MAPS' messages and its actions -- threatening to and actually blacklisting firms such as yesmail.com and Harris Interactive -- speak to the genuine frustrations of ISPs in dealing with spam.
The bigger question is whether the industry has reached a point where double opt-in is becoming the de facto standard. Not surprisingly, there is little consensus here.
"We believe that double opt-in is the only solution that guarantees that no one will be signed up for a list without his knowledge or consent," Resnick said. It benefits consumers, marketers, publishers and Web site owners, she said.
Dan Dale, e-lists marketing manager at Cahners Business Lists, said double opt-in should never be a forced standard, but rather a best practices choice based on the relationship situation.
"The net effect of a double opt-in standard on e-mail marketers is a vicious cycle ... leading to fewer names and choices, drastically higher campaign costs, higher churn rates, diminishing e-mail marketing effectiveness, and the eventual collapse of the e-mail marketing industry," Dale said.