A Spam Is a Spam Is a Spam, or Is It?

Not too long ago, it wasn't hard to tell the difference between spam (bulk e-mail messages blasted out to millions of random e-mail boxes) and legitimate e-mail marketing (targeted offers delivered to Internet users who had visited a Web site and voluntarily signed up to receive information about products and services of interest).

These days, the distinction isn't so clear. While lawsuits and regulation have driven much of the out-and-out spam from the marketplace, many e-mail lists that purport to be “opt in” are really “opt out” and others fail to give consumers any choice at all.

That's a problem — because marketers who mail to lists like these get “flamed” by angry recipients and often walk away resolving never to do e-mail marketing again. And that's a shame because, done right, e-mail marketing offers a fast, cost-effective alternative to banner advertising and postal mail.

What's the solution? The best way to make sure you or your client is renting a true opt-in list is to check out the Web site that generated the list and to ask tough questions of the list's owner, manager or broker. All opt-in lists should meet the three guidelines set forth by the Federal Trade Commission at the agency's consumer online privacy hearings last summer:

* Notice — that is, full disclosure of what data is being collected and how it will be used. Sites that build opt-in lists typically feature a sign-up page that tells visitors the information they provide will be used to send them offers about products and services of interest.

* Choice — the ability to sign up to receive commercial messages about topics of interest and to get off the list at any time. An opt-in list also must contain a header at the top of the message identifying the source of the list and providing the list members with instructions on how to remove themselves from the list and stop receiving mail.

* Access — the ability to return to the list owner's or manager's Web site to check, modify or delete the data collected.

If the e-mail list that you rent doesn't meet these three criteria, watch out. Your company could be branded as a spammer, lose its Internet connection and suffer the wrath of the Internet community.

Here are four types of e-mail lists to avoid:

House file lists. There's nothing wrong with sending e-mail to your own customer list (as long as you give your customers a chance to opt out after every mailing), but you can get into trouble renting another company's house file and sending your offer to people who didn't ask for it.

This is especially risky when your offer has little to do with the list owner's product or service. Just because an MIS director who purchased a software program makes $100,000 a year, for example, doesn't mean that he's interested in receiving a high-end credit card offer. In fact, he's more likely to view the offer as an invasion of his privacy.

Opt-out lists. Unlike opt-in lists that let consumers check a box on a Web page to request information about products and services of interest, opt-out lists take short cuts to recruit members. After all, the more names a list owner has on his file, the more money he stands to make renting his list. As direct marketers discovered early on in the postal world, it's easier to gain consumers' consent through a negative option than it is to ask their permission.

On the Internet, some Web site owners have adopted the same strategy by pre-checking the boxes on their sign-up forms to pump up the size of their lists. Other sites hide their opt-out disclosures in the fine print of their terms of service agreements.

Harvested lists. Some list owners compile targeted lists of people who post notes to specialized newsgroups (Internet discussion groups) and send them offers for products and services that appear to match their interests. For example, people who frequent a newsgroup about alternative health care may receive an offer about a new type of vitamin. While lists like these may be a cut above mass e-mail blitzes, they are spam lists just the same.

Mystery lists. Some list owners, fearful that their customers or Web site visitors might not like the idea of their names being rented, ask their list managers to omit a header identifying the source of the list and allowing recipients to opt out.

While this may be an acceptable practice in the postal world, it's taboo on the Internet where full disclosure is the name of the game. If the list owner won't put his company's name on the list, your company shouldn't either.

Rosalind Resnick is president of opt-in e-mail marketing company NetCreations Inc., New York. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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