AIM Members Continue to Spar Over Opt-In Vs. Opt-Out

Differences between the Association for Interactive Media and a group of Internet marketing members that want the organization to endorse an opt-in-only policy seem certain to linger as the two groups butt heads over what, exactly, the debate is all about.

One side is dominated by e-mail firms that fear government regulators will intervene if AIM doesn't encourage member companies to ask consumers for permission before marketing to them through e-mail. The other side, which includes AIM members with a background in traditional sales channels such as catalogs, considers an endorsement of opt-in marketing too restrictive. But the terms of the debate are cloudier than that.

“I'm not going to play the opt-in/opt-out debate here,” said AIM executive director Ben Isaacson. “It's about [return on investment]. It's about the highest ROI you could possibly get as an e-mail marketer.”

The process of developing a relationship with a customer has many levels of permission, Isaacson added, and there isn't yet full agreement on what constitutes opt-in vs. opt-out. As the industry evolves, those definitions will become clearer, he noted.

Meanwhile, a number of Net companies — no one knows how many — find themselves in the unusual position of disagreeing with the official guidelines of the trade organization that represents them. And some think they're being stonewalled.

“Opt-in is, 'We'll put you on a list and if you don't like it, you can get off.' Opt-out is a prechecked box. Everybody knows the difference, but nobody wants to come out and admit it,” said Rosalind Resnick, CEO of e-mail list firm NetCreations Inc., New York.

Resnick has long been one of the more vocal proponents of opt-in marketing. The concept is central to the way her company markets itself. She proposed a vote on the issue at a meeting of AIM's Council for Responsible E-mail in Seattle this month, but “some of the people there who are also on the postal side violently opposed it,” she said. Resnick did not name any specific opponents.

“I guess the reason we've taken more of a public stance now is because we and other companies in this industry are just tired of a trade association that doesn't represent our interests,” she said.

Derek Scruggs, permission advocate at e-mail marketing services firm MessageMedia Inc., acknowledged that e-mail companies are a minority among AIM's 500 members and the much larger membership base of the Direct Marketing Association, AIM's parent. He also sees great benefits in AIM membership.

But e-mail marketers are the ones that best understand the realities of their industry, Scruggs said. Angry consumers and mail server administrators can more easily retaliate against e-mail companies by blocking them, whereas they might have no recourse against a cataloger, for example.

“In that context, a lot of what the DMA is holding out for is kind of meaningless,” he said. “You know, if a mail administrator blocks my e-mail, what am I going to do? Am I going to go sue them and say, 'Hey, the DMA says I'm allowed to do opt-out marketing'?”

In Seattle, AIM adopted six resolutions designed to stop the most egregious sorts of spamming techniques — marketers falsifying their domain names, writing misleading e-mail subject lines or harvesting e-mail addresses from Web chat rooms, for example.

The guidelines are most likely just a beginning, and e-mailers might have to wait for the industry to mature somewhat before further resolutions come along, said corporate vice president Jay Schwedelson of Worldata/WebConnect Interactive Marketing Co.

“I was actually shocked we were able to come up with resolutions on anything,” he said.

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