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Column: Where Was Marketing at Spam Forum?

If e-mail marketing gets either regulated or spammed out of existence, marketers will have only themselves to blame.

Other than the Direct Marketing Association and some service providers, marketing’s representation at the Federal Trade Commission’s spam shindig April 29-May 2 was practically nonexistent.

Sure, bulk e-mailer OptinRealBig.com president Scott Richter took the prize for best one-liner when Julian Haight of SpamCop compared anti-spam blacklist services to restaurant reviewers recommending that readers don’t eat at certain restaurants.

“Restaurant reviewers don’t block the whole street,” said an otherwise morose Richter.

But other than that applause-drawing line and some articulate testimony from service providers, marketing was not represented well.

DMA president H. Robert Wientzen once again proved that five years of debate in his industry’s trade press over how to market via e-mail without destroying the medium has yet to sink in.

“There would be no way to have solicited e-mail if there wasn’t some way to approach these people,” Wientzen said, implying that prospecting via unsolicited e-mail is a crucial part of e-mail marketing.

The decidedly anti-marketing crowd predictably booed and hissed. Wientzen should be thankful he didn’t get bonked on the head by a can of Spam lobbed from the crowd.

Also, if Wientzen is simply doing the DMA board of directors’ bidding in relation to e-mail, then they’re hopelessly lost as well.

As long as sending e-mail costs so little, opt-out prospecting logically leads to disastrous consequences. There is no monetary incentive to send to clean lists, even if we somehow get rid of the 150 to 200 or so “bad actors” to whom Wientzen repeatedly refers.

This is not to say that the anti-spam group isn’t still lousy with holier-than-thou, trigger-happy, lynch-mob jerks.

But to pretend there is no e-mail prospecting without spam, as Wientzen’s statement clearly implied, is intellectually dishonest. DM News regularly publishes examples of marketers running successful opt-in marketing programs. Hell, even most spammers these days are at least smart enough to lie and tell recipients of their blasts that they opted in somewhere.

Fortunately, there were folks at the FTC forum like Al DiGuido, CEO of e-mail service provider Bigfoot Interactive, and Michael Mayor, president of e-mail list management and development company NetCreations — and a few others to whom I apologize for not including here — who kept the profession from seeming like it is made up of a bunch of out-of-touch bizocrats.

DiGuido rightly noted that commercial e-mail is crying for Internet service providers and bulk e-mail senders to figure out a way to charge and pay postage for it.

And Mayor said he is personally against e-mail appending, illustrating that debate exists within direct marketing on these issues, something that isn’t made clear to industry outsiders often enough.

But where were the chief marketing officers? During one panel’s Q&A session, an audience member pointed out their conspicuous absence, and no one had satisfactory answers as to why they weren’t there.

And with Eileen Harrington, associate director in the marketing practices division at the FTC, telling Wientzen, “You always say the problems are caused by the fraudulent few,” and “it could be said that best practices are just fiddling while Rome is burning,” it is clear the DMA’s message is not resonating on Capitol Hill.

The FTC clearly is preparing to expand its anti-spam enforcement powers.

It is certainly not the DMA’s fault that marketers were underrepresented at the FTC’s spam hearings. But if marketers continue to leave it to the DMA and a few service providers to represent their e-mail interests, they should prepare to lose the channel as a cost-effective alternative to other media.

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