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DMers Must Lead Fight Against Junk E-Mail

I hate junk e-mail. Call it spam or any other type of annoyance. My computer screen greets me every day with hundreds of e-mail messages that are destined for an immediate DELETE.

The arrogance and lack of sophistication of most of the spammers would be amusing if I wasn't absorbed in searching the stack for the real messages that I need to do my work or the offers from true interactive marketers that I may actually look forward to receiving. A special note of disgust should go to the truly creative rascals who use their cunning to get me, and I assume many others, to open their trash.

Now that I got that off my chest, I have begun to realize how many of the people who receive regular postal mail feel when untargeted and unsolicited bulk mail arrives at their door or mailbox. I must credit the list brokerage community and professional direct marketers for not having more “junk” in people's mailboxes.

My definition of junk is, “if it doesn't interest you or your demographic/psychographic self, then it is junk,” and the marketer who sent it did a poor job and wasted money.

Money may be the operative word.

Junk e-mailers don't spend much money for the spam lists that they buy, create or harvest. That probably accounts for the lack of attention they give to their target audiences. While the list may account for 40 percent of the formula in direct mail success, and therefore a hefty percentage of the cost, somewhere near $150 per thousand when you include processing (on average), the spammer may spend $15 to $20 per thousand.

The spammer also has the advantage of no printing, postage or labor.

So far nothing I said is news.

So I will talk about the folks who report “All the News That's Fit to Print.” A few weeks ago, Friday the 13th to be exact, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Taking on Junk E-Mail.” I was excited. Finally, a formidable ally. A respectable member of the establishment who would state the case for responsible e-mail marketing and explain in clear terms who and what it is. I was sadly mistaken.

The Times pointed the finger at all commercial e-mail marketers. It labeled everyone a spammer and called for broad, vague rulings by the Federal Trade Commission to stifle commercial e-mail. Of course, it pointed to the “powerful backers” of spam, unnamed trade associations (could it by innuendo be referring to the Direct Marketing Association?) who are lobbying Congress and the FTC to protect spam.

There are several points to take away from this column.

First, no responsible association or lobbying effort is trying to protect spammers, and the Times knows that.

Second, it is terrible to smear an entire marketing channel with such a label, especially when your own organization uses “commercial e-mail” (i.e., spammers). May I add that it does a respectable, professional job of using e-mail, but would fail the test according to the editorial board of its flagship paper? In addition, it would fail the tests the editorial speaks about in Washington state as well as California.

Sadly, as marketers we are not learning how to separate ourselves in the e-mail channel from the true spammers.

Many of our direct marketing efforts in the new channel fail to meet standards that we as a group must build. The education process is going to be usurped from us if we do not take the time to learn and respect “rules of the road.” The FTC or Congress will legislate rules, out of lack of marketing knowledge, that potentially will kill the “killer app” of the Internet.

There are enough articles, gurus, association conferences and marketing Web sites for all responsible e-mail marketers to learn how to respect the rights of recipients. It takes time to do something correctly, and we are not taking the time to legitimize this channel. If we don't take the time, we will lose control of the channel.

Not all postal direct mail principles are acceptable in e-mail marketing. Certain tried and true tag lines or lifts cannot be transferred to the new medium. We are playing into the hands of fringe but organized consumer groups by using these tactics. We are not going to win any fight by yelling “commercial free speech,” because that could apply to spammers as well.

The place we win and win over the editorial boards of newspapers is in the marketplace itself. If we produce a professional communication to audiences that want to receive the message (remember permission from a few years ago?), then we can become the marketing community that e-mail deserves.

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