ABC Interactive Eyes E-Mail

ABC Interactive, the online arm of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, wants to get into the e-mail auditing business. But it apparently won't be easy.

“The e-mail firms aren't nuts about getting audited,” said Dick Bennett, senior vice president, audit services, ABC Interactive, Rolling Meadows, IL. But agencies and advertisers have been calling for the service, he said.

And besides the obvious opportunity for new business, Bennett said, the lack of third-party verification is a barrier to e-mail's maturation as a marketing tool.

“The lack of [an] audit trail is a significant item in the market right now,” he said.

But the challenges are many.

Setting standards is one. For example, is the definition of “delivered e-mail” the number of messages sent by the server, or those sent minus bounces?

Another issue is which business model to adopt.

“One question is 'who is going to pay for this?'” Bennett said, predicting that it eventually would be the list owners who adopted the service as a point of differentiation.

Bennett said that members of the DMA's Association for Interactive Media's Council for Responsible E-mail seemed gung-ho on the idea at first. Then they seemed to grow cold on it around the time AIM was having its Interact Conference in May in Tampa, FL.

Indeed, folks in e-mail circles are wary, but not because of a philosophical opposition to third-party audits, said Jay Schwedelson, corporate vice president at Internet marketing services firm Worldata/WebConnect, Boca Raton, FL.

“A service like this would require integration into the company's infrastructure,” he said. “It would require technical access to their database, to their software, to everything there is to know about the company. And I just don't think there will be a critical mass of firms that will allow companies, whether it's ABC or any other auditing company, to come in and have that type of access.

“It would certainly be beneficial to have these lists audited,” he said. “It's just currently not feasible.”

As a result, Schwedelson said, most e-mail vendors over-deliver to make up for shortfalls.

“You over-deliver, trying to take into account the generally understood undeliverable rate,” he said, estimating that most firms send to about 5 percent more addresses than agreed upon.

Schwedelson, who is also a member of AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail, said that members remain open to suggestions.

“We're open to learning more about what ABC or any other auditing bureau has to say about anything that helps the industry proliferate,” he said. “If it's viable, then let's hear it.”

Meanwhile, if ABC Interactive can pull it off, it plans to offer three e-mail-related services: verification that counts, demographics and other attributes claimed by the list owner are accurate; verification that merge/purge was done according to the rental agreement; and delivery verification according to some agreed-upon reporting standards.

“All those statistics can be measured to some degree and can be verified,” Bennett said.

The company has been working on test audits with Yahoo and others but has yet to complete one, he said. ABC Interactive hopes to complete two or three tests and roll the service out by Halloween.

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