E-Mail Marketing: A House Divided

To quote Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided cannot stand.” But a house divided is an apt description of our industry when it comes to e-mail marketing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the announcement made by the Association for Interactive Media in Seattle last month.

While in Seattle, the Council for Responsible E-Mail, a committee of AIM, overwhelmingly passed a resolution providing guidelines for ethical and responsible e-mail marketing practices. These guidelines reflect a strong first step toward a common-sense approach to e-mail marketing that respects the rights of consumers while protecting the integrity and viability of the e-mail marketing industry.

These guidelines are based on the simple concepts of trust, honesty, accountability and consumer control. To paraphrase the list:

• E-mail marketers must not lie to the consumer by using false headers or misleading subject lines.

• All e-mail marketing should provide the consumer an option of “unsubscribing” from future mailings.

• When collecting e-mail addresses from consumers, marketers must be honest about how those addresses will be used.

• Marketers shouldn’t “harvest” e-mail addresses with the intent of sending unsolicited commercial e-mail.

• Finally, and most important, marketers shouldn’t send advertising to people without a prior business or personal relationship.

These simple guidelines are intended to protect both consumers and marketers. They reflect the growing concern of e-marketers that irresponsible practices are damaging the marketplace, turning off consumers and threatening the future of e-mail marketing. What these guidelines also reflect are the growing philosophical differences between the marketers on the leading edge of our industry and the old guard at the Direct Marketing Association.

It is true that the DMA would not argue with most of these guidelines. They are so basic as to have the support of anyone in the marketing industry. But AIM’s final guideline opposing the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail directly contradicts the stated position of the DMA. But it is just this problem, the proliferation of unsolicited commercial e-mail, that concerns those of us in the e-mail marketing industry most of all.

The DMA has consistently and publicly supported the protection of unsolicited commercial e-mail as a marketing practice. It is actively fighting federal anti-spam legislation while promoting misleading, untenable pseudo-solutions like the E-Mail Preference Service. And it is refusing to abandon this position, in spite of the efforts of e-mail marketing industry leaders to educate the trade group about this growing but fragile market space.

The potential consequences of this philosophical divide are daunting. Growing consumer anger and distrust are pushing lawmakers to find a legislative solution to the spam problem without the benefit of a united voice from the marketing industry.

A quick glance at the various state laws already on the books shows a patchwork of flawed and differing approaches that could soon make e-mail marketing more of a legal exercise than a business practice.

For example, under Colorado’s new spam law, simply placing “ADV” in the subject line and providing an opt-out option are enough to make an unsolicited commercial e-mail legal. However, in California, that same message is grounds for an expensive lawsuit.

When it comes to spam, we are facing a war of the states, as legislatures struggle with the demands of consumers. As an industry we have an obligation to provide guidance and education to lawmakers so that they can craft informed, responsible legislation that helps grow our industry while protecting consumers from predatory marketing practices. But as these new e-mail guidelines illustrate, the current opposing positions of the DMA and the leaders in the e-mail marketing industry are leaving lawmakers and consumers with no clear indication of our vision for the future of Internet marketing.

According to the eMail Marketing Report by eMarketer, last year 20 percent of all e-mail in the United States was commercial, equally divided between spam and opt-in e-mail. According to Forrester Research, the e-mail marketing industry will become a $4.8 billion industry by 2004.

As our industry grows, the importance of protecting the e-mail channel from the damaging effects of spam and bad legislation grows as well. But we cannot hope to protect our customers or ourselves if we allow the DMA’s pro-spam position to stand in opposition to the pro-consumer stance of leading e-mail marketing companies.

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