Column: Targeted BTB E-Mail? At Gunpoint, Maybe

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Those who think business-to-business marketers should be largely exempt from the spam debates should consider the following:

A BTB direct mail piece from Microsoft arrived at my home recently addressed to Ken Magill, Promotions Manager, Cornerstone Direct.

It wasn't a misprint. In another life, I was a creative services peon for a small BTB cataloger called Cornerstone Direct in Tonawanda, NY, a suburb of Buffalo.

As part of my job, I would feed my name, home address and a bogus title to competitors' catalog-request programs so I could get samples of their mailings, a common direct marketing practice.

The good news is NCOA clearly works. I have moved three times since I worked for Cornerstone, and BTB mailers have been able to track down Promotions Manager Ken at every address.

The bad news is that I left Cornerstone in November 1995. Moreover, Cornerstone changed its name to Landmark Direct in 1996, and then to Medco Occupational Health & Medical Supplies Co. in 2001.

Also, I never once made a purchase from the BTB catalogers to whom I was feeding my name and address. So Ken Magill, Promotions Manager, Cornerstone Direct is a garbage address from beginning to end.

So what does some unknown BTB cataloger clearly padding its file with garbage names have to do with e-mail? Here's what: Business-to-business marketers often claim that much of the spam/e-mail marketing debate doesn't apply to them. People simply don't get that upset over well-targeted BTB e-mailings, they maintain. Fair enough. A chief marketing officer who gets unsolicited e-mail touting a prospecting service that actually works certainly won't get as upset over the unsolicited nature of the pitch as consumers do over today's never-ending herbal Viagra pitches and Nigerian e-mail scams.

But BTB prospecting has the same potential to flood e-mail marketing out of existence as plain old consumer spam. And my Microsoft mailing is just one extreme piece of evidence why.

After eight years, Ken Magill, non-existent Promotions Manager for non-existent Cornerstone Direct, who has never made a purchase, has yet to be purged from one or more postal files to which it costs serious money to mail.

Those who think the Microsoft mailing was an aberration can simply check the envelopes of advertising mail reaching their offices today for names of people who no longer work there.

But though the monetary incentive to refine postal lists clearly has its shortcomings, at least offline mailers pay their way.

The feature that makes e-mail attractive to marketers is exactly what threatens its existence as a channel. E-mail is so cheap to send that it lacks the economic governors of other media.

BTB marketing is no exception.

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