What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

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When discussing the growing problem of unsolicited bulk e-mail, we tend to consider the aggravated online users and the spammers as the two sides of the problem.


However, the individual user is not the only victim. Along with the distrust that consumers exhibit toward commercial e-mail communication, companies that try to contact online users with legitimate offers (and even communicate administrative information to their customers) face increasing challenges in delivering their messages to consumers' inboxes.


Online users, frustrated by the sheer quantity and often inappropriate content of spam, are trigger happy with the delete button when reviewing the content of their inboxes, quick to interpret the sender and subject line even of messages that they have asked for in the past, and quick to delete them. Those users are also more suspicious of requests for their e-mail addresses, unsure whether they will be punished shortly after making such a disclosure with an inbox full of junk mail. In short, the challenge spam poses to legitimate marketers is that e-mail is losing its value as a quick, efficient and inexpensive tool.


The battle with spammers is fought on many fronts, from black lists to legislation. You can make a difference. Any firm that wishes to rely on e-mail for communicating with consumers represents a front where the battle over the fair and effective use of e-mail can be fought by reassuring consumers of the legitimacy of the medium and its central role in commercial communication.


Companies that follow leading practices in privacy and e-marketing will be able to assure their online audience of their commitment to higher standards and likely will claim a stake in their customers' inboxes, while other companies' messages likely will be deleted and ignored as spam.


Spam is not just a privacy or a marketing issue, it is a combination of the two. Companies should combine leading practices from both of these areas to establish a framework that is effective and responsive to consumers' needs and concerns.


From the privacy perspective, the standards to be adopted rely on the basic fair information practices of notice, choice, access and security. With e-mail communication, your online privacy policy is an important first step that can be supported by a short statement in the body of your message as well as a link to the full notice on your site.


Managing consumers' choices for communication is a central and stratified issue. It is not enough to deliberate the appropriateness of opt in vs. opt out for your environment; it's the validation of those choices and appropriately implementing them that is the challenge. Managing consumer choice for commercial e-mail depends on providing consumers with access to their records and preferences and, consequently, securing that personal information from potential abuses.


Marketing-specific standards and practices are important for defining a framework within which your communications with consumers will be perceived as acceptable, consistent and, most relevant to your challenge with spam, legitimate.


The realm of e-marketing standards includes external considerations as to the agreements and due diligence you implement with those business partners that are involved with the personal information of your consumers and your communications with them. Internal considerations affect your list management practices. Examples are the circumstances in which you add new consumers' e-mail addresses (append), the process you follow to delete those who are no longer interested in receiving your communication (purge) and, overall, the activities you take for maintaining the integrity of various e-mail lists.


E-marketing practices also include your activities before executing a campaign, as well as the post-campaign steps you take. Applying standards specific to the content of your messages, from the subject line to the body of the e-mail, goes a long way in establishing the maturity of your online marketing efforts: from an explicit subject line that introduces you and the reason for the communication, to the tone and length of your message.


Considering privacy when deciding the content of your message may be wise. For example, avoiding the use of sensitive personal information in an e-mail message is usually a good rule of thumb. Analyzing the campaign's success and its effect on future campaigns by studying the rate of consumers who chose to opt out by responding to the e-mail is essential for an ongoing relationship of online communication.


Without the establishment of internal controls, the adopted standards, practices, policies and procedures may not be followed completely. Companies wishing to effectively communicate electronically with consumers need to adopt the appropriate controls for their environment.


Some internal controls can be as common as testing and auditing the established processes. Other controls can be specific to the e-marketing environment such as "salting" - the practice of including test e-mail accounts in every campaign and a shared list to verify that the implementation is aligned with the planning.


The sensitivity around spam and the need to build consumer trust around e-marketing may lead your organization to support the implementation of privacy and e-marketing controls with an independent verification by a reputable third party - a form of validation consumers have long indicated will ease their privacy concerns (see the survey "Privacy On and Off the Internet: What Consumers Want" at www.ey.com/privacy).


If you take seriously the challenges spam poses to your company's marketing, you should implement leading practices and e-marketing-specific internal controls in order to establish trust with consumers, enhance your brand and manage risks. As consumers' inboxes grow increasingly full with unwanted messages, the time for legitimate marketers to act is now.


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