There's More to E-Mail Lists Than Opt-In

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It's time to look permission e-mail marketing right in the face. Sometimes it takes a seasoned veteran to do that. At a Direct Marketing Club of New York Luncheon last summer, Ed Burnett, an esteemed senior direct marketer who fathered the list management business, was not too optimistic about the future of opt-in e-mail marketing.


"How would we have the 30,000 direct mail marketing lists we have today if we had to build them all based on permission?" he asked the audience. "The trouble with permission-based e-mail is that over time more and more people will want to get off these lists and when they do, there will be even more pressure on the ones that remain to receive advertisements." Burnett could only see the opt-in universe gradually shrinking.


A recent study by IMT Strategies on e-mail marketing found that 50 percent of people online for more than a year thought they received too much e-mail.


Strong Investments just contracted with YesMail to rent all the newest names opting in for financial information at the premium price of $400 per thousand. Because, as a Strong official said, "in six months they'll be less likely to give permission because they'll be getting more e-mails."


While the longevity and the quality of the names in an opt-in database are certainly an issue, what's irked me all along is that most of the people opting in have no idea what kind of information or promotions they will receive. There is in fact no real "relationship" in this entire process and only some faint form of permission. The Web site at which people sign up is not going to be the entity sending out advertising mail to them. That Web site is merely a conduit, pumping names over to the opt-in e-mail company where list rentals are arranged with advertisers. The e-mail company has no status as an information provider and no relationship with most of the people whose names they rent, other than the fragile identity they carve into cyberspace by the boxes checked.


There are other lists coming into the marketplace that far surpass the quality of the current Web-based opt-in lists, ones with full-blown databases containing title selects, job function, and even SIC codes. These come from companies with a track record in direct marketing: trade publishers of controlled circulation magazines and conference promoters. These companies have begun to collect e-mail addresses on their requalification or registration forms. The trade publishers use a simple opt-out approach: They send an e-mail to their lists announcing that they will send relevant promotions via e-mail in the future. If readers do not wish to receive these they can opt-out now or at any time in the future.


Some may argue these are not true opt-in lists. But let's look at the whole picture instead of just a permission box clicked on a Web site. The trade publisher has a relationship with its readers. The readers know what kind of advertising standards the publisher has and the value of the information it provides. The trade publisher has an established brand and reputation, and is a known entity. Should the publisher have to go out and actively seek permission once again? Perhaps the opt-out approach is quite sufficient since there is a standing relationship with all those in the database. So far, one trade publisher reports, 15 percent opt-out after the initial announcement and only a percent or two in subsequent mailings.


In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, a writer, so tired of commercial e-mails, started calling opt-in e-mail, "permission spam." It's something to be leery of: As more advertising is sent by e-mail and people are online longer, recipients will begin to see any commercial message in a negative light, permission-based or not. That's why the relationship is king, not Web-gathered opt-in permission. And if you are the rare genius that can put the two together, you will have lists worth a gold mine.
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