Selective Opt-Out: A Service That's Right for the Time

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Efficient direct marketers know it is more cost-effective to focus their direct marketing dollars on a receptive audience - people who have an interest in their product or service. There is another element to making the audience more receptive, however: Give them more of what they want and less of what they don't want.


Consumers don't consider advertising mail "junk" if it is something they are interested in receiving. A 1992 research study conducted by Equifax, Atlanta, and the Direct Marketing Association of Mail Preference Service registrants showed that 33 percent of those who responded to the survey said they would like to receive mail in certain categories.


By giving consumers the chance to express their mail preferences, they gain more control of their mailboxes. In turn, this enhances consumer receptivity to advertising mail and thus to the relevant offers they get. A receptive consumer is more likely to respond, which increases the return for mailers. The net result: Everyone benefits.


In America's relatively regulation-free society, direct marketers' access to information has enabled our ability to send advertising mail to time-deprived consumers seeking the ease and convenience of shopping direct. The advent of the Internet, however, has put access to information and consumer privacy at the forefront of issues that consumers are concerned about.


In a survey of experienced Internet users conducted by AT&T, 87 percent said they were somewhat or very concerned about threats to their privacy online. Direct marketers need to heed consumers' fears and act responsibly regarding the handling of personal information - both online and offline.


Regulation is a virtual certainty regarding Internet and e-mail marketing. But to keep the impact on those and paper-direct marketing mediums to a minimum, direct marketers must clearly and consistently demonstrate that consumer privacy is a top priority. This can only be accomplished if all direct marketers adopt the privacy policy mandated by the Direct Marketing Association and create their own privacy policies and promises. Having a categorical opt-out service as part of the process would also give consumers a greater feeling of control over their mail and information.


There are some who believe that "permission marketing" is the only way to protect consumers from unwanted access to personal information. The weakness of permission marketing is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get permission from every consumer for every offer that may be of interest to them. Perhaps it can work in cyberspace, since consumers can provide and constantly update their buying preferences, and instantaneously communicate them to marketers. But it is unlikely that this high level of permission can work in the slower-moving paper world.


The bottom line? We direct marketers must be careful that explicit permission, or opt-in, does not get carried over from e-mail to the paper world. Opt-out, if done categorically, makes much more sense in the paper world. With it, consumers still have a voice in the types of offers they receive; but for marketers it preserves the large universes they need for effective mail programs.


In a recent study of consumers who responded to the Buyer's Choice Survey of America, getting "less of the mail they don't want" was cited as the No. 1 one reason for completing the survey, ahead of a sweepstakes incentive and samples/coupons.


Every segment of the direct marketing industry can benefit from the use of a categorical opt-out file. Direct marketers benefit by making their mail more productive and by putting more mailable names back in circulation. Service bureaus benefit by charging mailers a small fee for applying categorical suppression. And the industry as a whole benefits by showing voluntary action as a proponent of consumer privacy rights.


In this age of doubt about an industry's ability to self-regulate, this supports the position that the industry can indeed do a good job of regulating itself. Last, and most important, consumers benefit by gaining a greater voice in the type of traditional and electronic mail they receive.


One of our greatest opportunities as an industry lies in our ability to embrace giving more choice to consumers. As a result, it is more important than ever that the direct marketing industry be aware of the many options and programs that can be employed to provide consumers with the ability to affect the way their names and information are used in the direct marketing process.


Specifically, industry players need to develop and utilize a continuum of options which provide consumers with choices about how their names are used on mailing lists. At the same time, in order for these programs and initiatives to succeed, consistency of practices and increased usage must be achieved through cooperative effort among mailers, service bureaus, list companies and business practice leaders.


Is it not true, then, that if consumers tell us what they don't want, direct marketers are bound to honor their wishes? If we want to be self-regulated, we need to take steps to show consumers that we are listening to them. Categorical opt-out gives consumers the voice they want, and simultaneously helps direct marketers make their mailings more productive.


Steffie Hemmingson is product manager for ChoiceMail at The Polk Co., Southfield, MI.
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