Column: Comedy? Tragedy? You Decide

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Once upon a time, there was an e-mail marketing best practices document.

The document was crafted by pioneers in e-mail marketing, the Council for Responsible E-mail.

Though not the most compelling reading in the world, the CRE's best practices document caused quite a stir. The CRE is part of a dwindling group called the Association for Interactive Marketing, which is part of a very large group called the Direct Marketing Association, which, legend has it, tends to buy small but threatening groups like AIM and kill them.

Or at least muzzle them.

You see, the CRE's document said very scary things. For one, it said that spam is bulk unsolicited commercial e-mail sent without permission or a prior business relationship.

Now, most in the land of e-mail marketing would agree with this definition. But the word spam has such bad connotations that no one dares admit to doing it.

Rather, spamming is always something other people do.

Add an association out of touch with the e-mail marketing practices of most of its member and we get a situation where the definition of spam must be changed to make spamming not spamming, even though it is a practice most direct marketers don't want to engage in for fear of severely damaging their brands.

As a result, the DMA has found itself in a ridiculous situation: Either release a watered-down version of the document with its fairly straightforward definitions and reasonable suggestions edited out by bureaucrats so anyone who has the slightest understanding of the issue can laugh at it, or release the original version crafted by people who actually do e-mail marketing but that contradicts the DMA's public statements that spamming is not spamming.

Or delay, delay, delay, while another group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, plays the hero by planning to adopt the orphaned best practices document as its own.

One member of the CRE, Ian Oxman, had the audacity to stop looking for a pony in the DMA's dung heap and simply call it a dung heap, and resign.

For this, Louis Mastria, director of public and international affairs at the DMA, labeled Oxman a "lone wolf."

But Oxman is far from a lone wolf on this one.

DMA president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen reportedly thinks that by defending spam, though that is not what the DMA would call it, he is protecting other marketing channels, including postal mail, from going down a legislative slippery slope.

Also, the DMA's argument for muzzling the CRE's best practices document is reportedly that it may hamper the organization's efforts on Capitol Hill to push for opt-out-based legislation that takes aim only at senders of fraudulent e-mail.

Legislators may question why an e-mail marketing council under the DMA would recommend higher standards than what would be set by the type of legislation the DMA is lobbying to have enacted, the thinking reportedly goes.

But just because a certain type of behavior is warranted doesn't mean it must be legislated.

Call me naive, but rather than hampering the DMA's efforts in Washington, wouldn't a best practices document advocating opt-in marketing for e-mail illustrate to legislators that the industry can self-regulate?

Couldn't one contend that opt-in-based legislation would be a potentially market-chilling overreach, but concede that opt-out prospecting, even by legitimate marketers making non-fraudulent offers, is choking the system and should be stopped?

Also, the DMA doesn't have to advocate opt-in e-mail marketing until the end of time. The group could easily recommend abstaining from opt-out prospecting under current market conditions.

There is no reason these concepts can't live together, except in the bizarro world of the DMA, an organization that is spectacularly failing to gauge its members' needs and represent their interests in relation to e-mail.


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