Opt-In E-Mail Marketing Requires Some Truth in Labeling

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When our company, NetCreations Inc., was an early entrant into opt-in e-mail marketing three years ago, opt in meant only one thing - the opportunity for Internet users to come to our site and our partners' sites, check a box on a Web page and voluntarily sign up to receive commercial e-mail messages about products and services of interest. Since then, our database has grown to close to 2 million members and our mailers are generating click-through rates of 5 percent to 15 percent and even higher.


The good news is that opt-in e-mail marketing has gained widespread acceptance while unsolicited e-mail marketing, has been run off the road by lawsuits and legislation.


The bad news is that the term opt in is now being used to describe everything from opt-out lists where the box on the page is pre-checked to e-mail lists harvested from newsgroups, chat rooms and Web sites. And that's a problem, especially for unsuspecting mailers who not only risk wasting money on lists that don't respond, but losing their ISP connections and their companies' reputations to boot.


Call me old-fashioned, but I think it's time for a little truth in labeling. After all, we're not peddling laundry detergent, toothpaste or breakfast cereal where the words, "new and improved," are routinely slapped on every box. We're direct marketing professionals introducing a new - and potentially risky - marketing tool to our clients, and that means that we as list managers and brokers have an obligation to fully disclose what's inside the wrapper.


The way I see it, a list that purports to call itself opt in must meet these three criteria:


• The list owner or manager should offer a sign-up form on the Web site allowing Internet users to click on checkboxes next to topical categories (such as business, health, sports, etc.) to request information about products and services from third-party marketers. The page on which the signup form is located should clearly disclose the list owner's or manager's purpose in requesting this information and alert the Internet user to how this information will be used. Above all, the box should be unchecked, allowing list members real choice, not membership by default.


• E-mail list owners and managers should require list members to confirm their list subscriptions in order to ensure that they have not been subscribed to the list as a prank. Once an Internet user joins an opt in e-mail list, the list owner or manager should send him an automated message notifying him that he has signed up for the list and requiring him to return to the owner's or manager's Web site and confirm his subscription in order to begin receiving commercial messages. If the user does not confirm his subscription, his e-mail address should not be put on the list.


• E-mail list owners and managers should allow list members to unsubscribe from their lists at any time, quickly and easily. Just because an Internet user joined a list a month ago doesn't mean that he wants to stay on it forever. Every opt in e-mail message must be


coded with a special header and/or footer that allows the list member to remove his name from the list automatically by forwarding the message to a deletion e-mail address. Ideally, the company transmitting the e-mail messages (the electronic lettershop) should also have staffers available to manually unsubscribe list members who have trouble with the list removal process.


Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that opt-out lists or even spam lists should be outlawed or abolished. I'm simply saying that the list managers and brokers who market these lists should call a spade a spade and lay their cards on the table. This way, if the mailer decides to run the risk involved in return for a potentially favorably outcome, he can do so with his eyes open.


After all, opt in lists are not the only game in town and I'd be the last one to propose eliminating a mailer's freedom of choice. But, based on our company's three years' experience in building and managing opt in e-mail lists, I feel strongly that they remain the safest and surest way to conduct an e-mail marketing campaign on the Net. And, if I didn't, I would have opted out a long time ago. n
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