AIM Declines to Define Spam In E-Mail Practices Document

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The Association for Interactive Marketing released its best practices guidelines for e-mail delivery this week without defining unsolicited commercial e-mail.

This was not the time, nor was the delivery document the place, to define spam, senior industry executives associated with the guidelines said.

"In the context of delivery best practices, we ultimately thought that it was irrelevant, and irrelevant because spam is ultimately in the eye of the beholder," said Michael Della Penna, chief marketing officer of New York e-mail services provider Bigfoot Interactive.

"For many Internet service providers, the consumer ultimately makes that decision by clicking or reporting communications that they deem irrelevant as spam, and perhaps regardless of the level of permission they may have given initially," said Della Penna, who is also co-chair of AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail.

A June draft of AIM's e-mail delivery guidelines obtained then by this publication did define spam as "the act of sending unsolicited bulk commercial e-mails to an individual's e-mail address without having an existing or prior business/personal relationship or obtaining consent/permission."

AIM's parent group, the Direct Marketing Association, claims the early draft was not fully vetted, nor did it have buy-in from the 60-plus members of AIM or the larger DMA community.

The new guidelines, on the other hand, evolved from a consensus among e-mail marketers and bureaus, including Bigfoot, Silverpop, ePost Direct, Return Path, DoubleClick and CNET Networks.

"One of the things we need to keep in mind is that the document's about delivery," said Louis Mastria, director of public and international affairs at the DMA. "This document doesn't have as much to do with spam as it has to do with legitimate messages that get delivered."

Michael Mayor, president and chief operating officer of list broker and manager NetCreations Inc., thinks the document lives up to its name.

"The document that they put out is a very solid document," he said. "We should not look at what's not in there, but we should look at what's in there."

Still, he said, the industry needs a consensus as to the definition of unsolicited e-mail.

"I don't want to slam the DMA for not doing it," he said, "but by not voicing our opinion on what unsolicited e-mail is, we leave other people to define it." As an example, he cited California's new anti-spam law due to take effect Jan. 1, which requires advertisers, not just senders of commercial e-mail, to have permission from recipients.

Mayor, in his capacity as a member of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, is working with the National Advertising Initiative and TRUSTe to soon release an e-mail marketing pledge with a definition of spam.

AIM's guidelines cover issues like permission, content, delivery, hygiene and suppression, education, and inquiries and dispute resolution. Perhaps the closest AIM gets to a definition of spam is in the opening statement of its content guidelines.

"Recipients are increasingly labeling any e-mail communication that is not relevant or interesting as 'spam,'" the statement reads. It is one of 12 references to spam in the 2,337-word document. But it is clearly spelled out that the guidelines are meant to help separate permission-based e-mail from spam.

For example, the permission guideline states that "marketers/list owners should only send bulk commercial e-mail to individuals with whom they have a pre-existing or current business/personal relationship, or when consent/permission has been obtained.

"Marketers who implement affirmative consent permission practices generally have higher response rates and lower complaint rates and blocking issues," it goes on to say.

Affirmative consent comprises double, confirmed and simple opt-in. Consent relates to opt-out, according to AIM, where "a user must request not to be included on an e-mail list at the point of collection or with subsequent communications."

The trade association recommends that the e-mail's content be relevant to the recipient and avoid objectionable material. The subject line should avoid deceptive prefixes like "Re" or "FW." The marketer's brand must have prominence in the "From" and "Subject" lines.

AIM suggests pre-testing creative elements and content with anti-spam software to avoid words, phrases, coding, punctuation and design common to spam. The "Bcc" field is not suggested to address solicitations, either.

Marketers should maintain relations with ISPs and other e-mail gatekeepers. They are urged to obey protocol and "whitelisting" criteria created by the ISPs, DMA and other legitimate e-mail service providers.

Monitor campaign delivery and open and click-through rates, marketers are told. A low open or high bounce rate may indicate a delivery problem.

The guidelines recommend using separate IP addresses for different types of messages. Separating marketing messages from customer service messages, bills and newsletters makes for better management and intelligence.

A list-hygiene policy is a must to engender consumer trust and facilitate message delivery. The policy should tackle handling of replies and bounce-backs as well as unsubscribe requests. Setting appropriate customer expectations to limit complaints is imperative.

"The goals of the policy should be to reduce incorrect, incomplete or outdated addresses to an absolute minimum; to process online requests immediately and to process remove requests received offline within 10 days; and to tell those opting out how long it will take to be effective," the document said.

The final page of the best practices document lists guidelines specific to members of AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail.

"These guidelines are 'enforceable' in that the membership in the CRE is predicated on these guidelines," said Kevin George, vice president of client services at Atlanta-based Silverpop and co-chair of the council's delivery committee.

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