Column: You Do What?!

My old girlfriend has come out as a lesbian. We met over dinner recently, and she delivered shocking news.

No, not that she's a lesbian.

The shocking news was how she handles e-mail. She has specifically identified no more than a dozen sources — including businesses, family and friends — from whom she will accept e-mail into her main folder. All other e-mail goes into a second folder, which gets cleaned out once per week.

“I'm not checking or unchecking any damn boxes. I shouldn't have to tell these people anything. All I want to do is make a purchase and be left alone,” she said. Or at least she said something like that. It was 2 a.m., we were drinking and I wasn't taking notes.

But the point was made. This woman is not a privacy wacko. She is not a radical anti-spammer. She is a serious online shopper. By her own reckoning, she makes one to two purchases online per week.

Of course, most people will say, “all I want to do is make a purchase and be left alone.” Direct marketers have heard that line over and over and know that most consumers' buying patterns belie that statement.

What's more, with the spam and the privacy debates having been fueled to hysterical proportions by finger-wagging so-called consumer activists, direct marketers tend to dismiss criticism more and more as idiot drivel. And understandably so.

But there are signs that my old girlfriend is not alone. Study after study predicts an onslaught of commercial e-mail.

Already, 52 percent of 1,256 regular e-mail users surveyed by e-mail solutions provider Quris Inc. said they delete messages from unrecognized senders unopened. Another 21 percent said they may open them but are annoyed when they do.

Notice the word is “unrecognized,” not “unsolicited.”

What's more, these users said on average that commercial e-mail makes up 66 percent of the volume they receive and that spam takes up 35 percent of their inboxes.

Drexel University recently reported that response rates to its undergraduate printed direct mail have dropped into single digits, a trend Drexel's undergraduate admissions director says is happening to colleagues nationwide. However, e-mail picked up the slack for Drexel's latest undergraduate prospecting drive.

The Quris study indicates that people are already numbing out commercially on e-mail, even though the next generation of consumers considers the medium its primary mode of communication.

One more thing to chew on: a number of nontraditional direct marketing firms are reportedly eyeing e-mail as a brand-building mechanism. Hence, Dynamic Logic Inc.'s recent debut of AdIndex Email, a service the company claims measures the branding effect of e-mail.

Just what the medium needs, a bunch of marketers who have been schooled that their message must be repeated 27 times before it has an effect.

Meanwhile, the Direct Marketing Association's Association for Interactive Marketing felt comfortable enough to put out a document early last month outlining so-called best practices for e-mail appending — a description even some in marketing would call an oxymoron.

E-mail appending is where a direct mailer's house file of postal addresses is matched to a file of supposedly opted-in e-mail addresses to add e-mail addresses to the postal records.

By any anti-spammer's definition, appending is spam.

Concerns over appending, and reasons for its appeal, aside, the fact that AIM released an append document at all means three things: anti-spammers have lost their teeth, marketers no longer fear anti-spammers the way they once did and, as a result, marketers are beginning to treat e-mail more like a traditional marketing vehicle.

Questions put to members of both camps as to why marketers no longer fear anti-spammers were answered with PR gobbledygook not worth repeating. Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC's well-documented troubles probably hold the key.

In any case, keep an eye on the open rates of your e-mail campaigns. All indications are that they are about ready to thud like bowling balls on kids' day at the alley.

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