I am having an e-mail identity crisis. It is especially severe because it coincides with an out-of-body experience. I am trying to sort out my e-mail accounts as an individual. But as a marketer I am astounded at what my morphing personality means for those seeking to identify, reach or persuade me. And at the risk of becoming a focus group of one, I suspect that I am not the only Sybil in cyberspace.
I have four e-mail accounts from three separate providers organized on three computers. I am trying to figure out who I am, where things should go and who I should trust to receive, store and archive stuff that matters to me. Until now I have had everything go to my office mailbox. The result is 100-plus messages a day — ranging from marketing e-zines, travel alerts, stock quotes, horoscopes, opt-in retail offers, notes from cousin Agnes and lots of spam — on top of the business notes, reports and decks flooding in. It is time to separate the information streams and direct them to specific accounts for my own productivity and sanity.
Evidently, I am not alone. International Data Corp. pegs the current number of e-mail addresses at 505 million, which is expected to grow to 1.2 billion e-mail boxes receiving 36 billion e-mails by 2005. E-mail is already the No. 1 activity on the Web, according to the Gallup Organization. And widespread home and office use suggests that many of us have multiple accounts and identities online. Moreover, the ease of creating new Web-based e-mail accounts, from providers like Hotmail, Lycos, Mail.com and Yahoo, will continue to bedevil both the FBI and direct marketers for quite some time.
It is a lot more complicated than my snail mail box, where personal stuff, office and business correspondence, bills, magazines, catalogs, spam and my $600 check from Dubya all reliably show up under the watchful and skeptical eyes of our mailman, a U.S. Postal Service lifer with thinning hair, half glasses, a shuffle step and an arthritic stoop.
Ironically, my identities can be deciphered by a skilled direct marketer with access to widely available software that can match D, Daniel, Dan or Danny Flamberg and all the mutations and variations using street address, ZIP codes and other data points. In cyberspace, my identities are much more varied, owing in part to innumerable security scares and the anonymous ability to project my warped psyche as distinctive user names and passwords, which often satisfy me but are hard to remember.
I steered professional, marketing and business-related stuff to one account. Travel, retail and association alerts, offers and routine stuff went to a second. Friends or relatives are now vectored to a third account. My total daily time checking e-mail has increased by 90 minutes daily. My spam count has tripled.
I still do not have it all right, so I am frantically forwarding items from one account to another and frequently subscribing or unsubscribing with different addresses, which is a colossal pain. Assuming I am open to communication from players I do not already know or deal with in these sectors, how do they find me?
As a marketer, I am troubled that we have not really devised ways to efficiently and effectively merge and purge e-mail addresses or link offline profiles to e-mail addresses. I am profoundly aware that premature claims by consultants, technology and software suppliers during the dot-com boom brought about the anger and action of privacy advocates who have all but closed off our chances for cracking these codes in service to commercial ends.
Ironically, the only people who seem able to either track me down efficiently or cover me off via carpet-bombing are the porn purveyors, who in many ways have pioneered the most viable technology and marketing techniques on the Web. I am routinely flattered and surprised by the growing number of people who think that I need to see lots of naked people in countless positions and combinations.
So I am faced with existential questions … how do I sort my messages, how do I present myself to the world (and simultaneously remember all those passwords and user IDs) and whom do I trust to house and potentially share my personal information?
Enter Microsoft, with its “Passport,” AOL Time Warner with its nascent Passport competitor and the Sun-led Liberty Alliance from stage left. These firms are vying to concentrate my online identities into an easy-to-use, easy-to-transmit access authentication scheme that could be used online or via wireless devices. By concentrating all my identities in one place, I could bypass my faltering memory and securely access sites, programs, stores, applications and organizations of my choosing with one click.
The cost, of course, would be giving Gates, Levin and McNealy and their pals access to all my secrets. No doubt the government sooner or later will want to get into the act to assure itself who I am and what (if any) is my relationship with Osama bin Laden.
I am not a privacy nut, but this stuff scares me. I am willing to endure more than a few error messages as I transpose user names and passwords, rather than lay bare who I am and what I am doing to any kind of commercial or governmental scrutiny.
I am usually schizophrenic when I consider the costs and benefits of identity authentication and profiling. As a data-driven marketer, I am generally amazed at both the math and the machinations of profiling, collaborative filtering and forward-looking modeling. As a bald, aging, white, liberal, male New Yorker, it is depressing to be reminded that I track with my demographic, that birds of a feather truly flock together, that age, education and income are much more predictive of behavior than we like to admit, or that my viewpoint and needs are not as unique or distinctive as I tell myself they are.
I guess I suffer from E-mail Split Personality Syndrome. But at this point the cure is much worse than the symptoms. And so like millions of others, who are predictably like me, I am willing to endure a bit of confusion and discomfort to retain a measure of anonymity and the ability to elude marketers like myself.