Warning to retailers: Don't clutter my e-mail inbox

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Click above to hear Scott Donaton, CEO of Ensemble, discuss this column in a podcast with with Carol Krol.

Just minutes after the ball dropped to usher in the new year, my Blackberry buzzed. I had already hugged or called my closest family and friends but was happy to accept the good wishes of another. Until, that is, I opened the “Happy New Year!” message that arrived in my personal e-mail account just after midnight during a holiday celebration.

It was from Citibank.

Ugh. The false and impersonal sentiment, not to mention the sheer inappropriateness of the timing, made me want to withdraw my savings immediately.

I didn't; instead, I hit “delete” and returned to the party. But the next day, I logged on and canceled the bank's right to contact me by e-mail. Retailer Barneys New York and online site Groupon had also sent ill-timed group holiday greetings, and they too were banned from contacting me again.

The offense all three were guilty of: blatant abuse of the trust placed in them when I first gave them permission to e-mail me. These were also repeat offenders. In the months that I was on Barneys' list, they e-mailed me EVERY SINGLE DAY. My mother doesn't even do that, and if she did, I might revoke her contact privileges, too.

Seriously, are actual marketing folks (or humans, for that matter) involved in figuring out how, whether and when to make contact with consumers who've granted such permissions? Or do you just get plugged into a system designed to torment with endless streams of useless information?

What could Barneys possibly have to say to me that is new and worth my time 365 days a year, including holidays? As a loyal shopper, I might buy from the store six times a year. If their goal is to get me in the door, or to their site, twice more (which I imagine would be a big victory for a retailer), annoying me and wasting my time probably are not the smartest tactics.

There are those who get it right. During a recent snowstorm in New York, I was delighted to get an e-mail from SeamlessWeb titled, “Snow Kidding: Time to Order In.” Topical. Targeted. Relevant. Besides, I don't hear from them every day, so I'm more likely to take a closer look when I do.

Unfortunately, Barneys' e-mails are more the norm. The most recent one offered to sell me a women's hemp tote for $450. The one before that cooed of “magical” snake and bird pendants. Interesting, given that I've only ever bought men's clothes from the store.

Crate and Barrel is another frequent offender. I might drop in once or twice a year, but they always want to tell me something, you know, just in case today is the day I'm going to buy that new set of wine glasses.

For about as long as I've been in the business, there's been talk of a dream world in which households without cats won't have to sit through litter commercials and those without kids will be spared the latest Pamper's spot. We're still not there. But at least television's roots are in broadcasting. E-mail is another thing entirely. It is one of the most personal forms of communication. The inbox of my Blackberry is the place I go to see if there is a phone message from my sister, an e-mail from my girlfriend or a text from one of my kids.

Brands say they want relationships, engagement and dialogue. But give them your e-mail address and all rational thought and respect — never mind basic marketing principles — go out the window, replaced by frantic attempts to grab attention.

If I give you permission and access to such a personal place, you'd better be sure you have something to say to me that's worth my time. Otherwise, stay the hell out of my inbox.

Scott Donaton is CEO of Ensemble, the branded-entertainment arm of Interpublic's Mediabrands.

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